INDIANAPOLIS — Nataki Ruggs wants to see her middle son break the NFL scouting combine’s 40-yard-dash record Thursday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Nataki wants Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III to prove he is the fastest draft prospect ever, faster than Bengals wide receiver John Ross, who set the combine record of 4.22 seconds as a Washington Huskie in 2017.
But she also wants Henry to prove he is faster than his mother.
Nataki Ruggs, 44, was a high school track athlete in Junction City, Kan., and she maintains she ran a 4.23 during a workout one chilly spring day.
“Track was my focus. That was what I wanted,” she recalled recently. She said her sprinting career was curtailed by a serious knee injury suffered when she was recruited to run hurdles in a meet, without having done it before. “To know that my son has taken that torch and he’s going on with it the way I wished I could have — I want to see him break it for those purposes,” she said.
Henry, who ran a 4.25 during spring football practice last year, has been known for his speed since he was a toddler in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala.. That has always spurred comparisons. Inevitably at family gatherings, a relative will tell him, “Well, your mama was something else, out there,” Nataki Ruggs said.
Henry Ruggs’ pursuit of the 40 record is one of the combine’s top stories; if you want to place a bet on his chances, sporstbettingdime.com will give you 4-to-1 odds.
But when Ruggs spoke to reporters this week, he didn’t seem to be feeling a lot of pressure from the other participants, from Ross’s record, or from his mom.
“If you ask me, she never ran that time,” Ruggs said, with a smile. “I knew she was pretty fast. She used to run in the neighborhood, run against guys all the time and beat them. And we used to race when I was young — but I was young. I was small, didn’t have long legs, didn’t really know too much about running.
“Her track background helped her out when we were racing to the car at the grocery store, stuff like that. But ultimately, she’ll tell you that she’s not faster than me. Maybe in her prime, she felt like it. But … no.”
Ruggs, 6-feet, 190, is one of the highest-rated wide receivers in what analysts are calling one of the best wideout drafts ever. The top three seem to be Ruggs’ Alabama teammate, Jerry Jeudy; Ruggs; and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. In the first iteration of mock drafts, Jeudy and Lamb were often rated ahead of Ruggs, who frequently was linked to the Eagles, at 21st overall. Lately, Ruggs seems projected to go a bit earlier. On a conference call with reporters last week, NFL Network draft analyst (and former Eagles scout) Daniel Jeremiah suggested that the order of the top three was fluid.
“I firmly believe Henry Ruggs is in that discussion," Jeremiah said. “I think it’s a three-man race to be the first receiver. I think he’s going to absolutely fly” in the 40,
This was after Jeremiah said that though he sees Ruggs going earlier than 21st overall, “to me, if you were to say home-run pick for the Eagles, who is it, it’s Henry Ruggs, just because of how much speed and juice he would give to that offense.”
The Eagles are all about speed this offseason, all about weapons for Carson Wentz, and many of their fans are all about Ruggs. But does Ruggs’ rising stock make that connection unlikely?
Two things to bear in mind: general manager Howie Roseman acknowledged this week that with 10 overall picks this April, he will be receptive to the idea of trading up, and, what analysts are saying in February often isn’t how the draft plays out. Left tackle Andre Dillard wasn’t supposed to drop to anywhere near the Eagles’ draft position a year ago, but on a rainy spring evening in Nashville, Dillard found himself trying on a midnight green cap.
Jeremiah said he thinks Ruggs will set the 40 mark. He called Ruggs “the closest thing to Tyreek Hill that I’ve seen since Tyreek Hill entered the league … He’s so sudden off the line of scrimmage. It’s instant death for corners. He’s just by them, and it’s over. You can use him on the jet sweep stuff. You can use him on kickoff returns. I love watching him as a gunner on punt [coverage]. Shows just how tough he is.”
Ruggs’ toughness was tested his senior year in high school, when his best friend, Rod Scott, was killed in an auto accident. Scott had gotten a ride with some Lee High classmates to go to a girls’ high school game in Birmingham. Ruggs had planned to drive his friend to the game, but Ruggs was sick that day and decided to stay home.
“Henry and Rod were really, really close," Nataki Ruggs said. "You would think they were brothers; they even looked so much alike. He blamed himself for a long time, and it took a toll on him.”
Scott and Ruggs grew up playing basketball together, but it was Scott who helped convince Ruggs that football was where he had the most potential. Since Scott’s death, Ruggs has held up three fingers after every touchdown he scores, a tribute to Scott, who wore No. 3 at Lee High.
“He’s more focused now than ever, and I think Rod had a lot to do with that,” Nataki Ruggs said.
Henry Ruggs frequently credits Scott for his football career, and his mother said Scott’s family appreciates how he carries Rod’s memory, nearly four years after the accident. “They often tell him how much it means to them.”
Jeremiah said that though Ruggs is not as polished a route-runner as Jeudy, Ruggs dropped just one pass last season.
“A lot of times, when you get these speed guys, you get inconsistent hands. This kid’s got great hands, and he can fly,” Jeremiah said.
“If you went and polled the 32 defensive coordinators in the NFL, gave them the video of the top three receivers, said, ‘Which of these guys do you not want in your division?’ I would be willing to bet a lot of money that Henry Ruggs would get the most votes. That's the guy you do not want to face,” Jeremiah said.
Some observers think TCU wideout Jalen Reagor might challenge Ruggs in the 40. Ruggs was asked whether he or Reagor is faster.
“I’m always gonna bet on myself. I’m always being confident about what I do,” Ruggs said. “I know that he’s a very fast guy. We’re always in talks about that. We’ve talked about it every day since we’ve been here. But even he’s expecting me to run one of the best times.”
Ruggs was asked his favorite route.
“Whichever one will get the ball in my hands the fastest,” he said.
Nataki Ruggs acknowledged by text Wednesday that she was “soooo anxious about his performance" Thursday. She said she plans to attend the draft in Las Vegas, but she didn’t want to come to Indianapolis.
“Not because mama doesn’t miss her baby, because I do, but I know what his plan is, and I know where his head is and what his agenda is, and I don’t want any distractions one way or the other,” she said. “The purpose is to go out there and work and become the better you, and that’s what I want for him.”