His coach called A.J. Ruffin “X” most of last season.
Maybe it was because of Don Clegg’s advancing age more than anything. That’s how the Wilson High School football coach of 28 years also used to refer to Xavier Cooper, a third-round draft pick in May by the Cleveland Browns out of Washington State University.
But just like Cooper was before graduating in 2010, Ruffin is a dynamic 230-pound, 6-foot-4 tight end and defensive end who also plays on Wilson’s basketball team. The two are easily confused.
“It’s a compliment, I mean, he’s in the NFL. I appreciate it,” Ruffin said. “Even if I have to remind (Clegg) every time he says, ‘X.’ ‘Hey, uh, it’s A.J … I’ve been with you since freshman year.’
“I feel like it was by accident because then he’d be like ‘Ohhh-guh.’ You know, in his old-man voice.”
It’s no secret a healthy Ruffin is the key to Wilson’s success this season.
As a tight end, he’s usually open. He’s 230 pounds and runs a 4.70-second 40-yard dash, according to his Hudl profile. And Clegg said he’s Wilson’s best blocker.
Those same traits make him just as disruptive along the defensive line.
Just like Cooper.
“Their size is about the same, the quickness is about the same, their intensity is about the same,” Clegg said. “He’s a really good, athletic football player.”
When he’s on the field.
In the past three years, Ruffin has undergone two surgeries on his right shoulder, broke his left knee and his left ankle. He missed the final four games of Wilson’s season last year, including its state playoff loss to Mt. Spokane.
He said he discovered at the end of his sophomore year that he had played the final three games with three tears in his right labrum. That required offseason surgery and he was cleared just before the start of his junior year.
Then the knee and ankle. He broke both in the second game of the season against Stadium but played in five more games before seeing a doctor — not knowing they were broken.
“They told me that if I had played one more snap, my career would have been done,” Ruffin said. “My knee would have shattered.”
To top it off, he discovered he played all those games with an injured shoulder, which required a second surgery. Ruffin’s doctor told him that his shoulder was barely hanging on to its socket. He was cleared for contact two days into this year’s practices and just recently completed his final physical therapy session.
“It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do, just having the doctor say, ‘You’re going to miss the season,’” Ruffin said.
Now combine Ruffin’s absence with end-of-season injuries to Billy Greer — who was named to The News Tribune’s All-Area team last year and is now at Central Washington — David Shin, Jordan Pugh and Tanner Colburn. It’s not hard to see why the Rams lost to Mt. Spokane, 52-6.
“He poses such a big presence on the field, so when he’s not out there, it opens up our defense just a little bit,” said Colburn, now a senior linebacker and fullback.
“We’re able to throw someone in there, but just having his presence on the field — knowing that No. 80, A.J. Ruffin, is a factor — it shifts the momentum a little bit.”
Asked if Ruffin is healthy enough this season, Clegg turned his head in Ruffin’s direction and answered loud enough for the senior, standing about 20 feet away, to hear.
“He better be,” Clegg said. “I’ll put it that way.
“But the doctors cleared him, said he’s ready to go. We just want him to have a great year because he’s a great kid.”
Ruffin is not naïve enough to think he’s completely free of complications. But he said he feels fine. He’ll monitor his health for precaution and take some occasional reps off on the defensive end to protect his shoulder from bull-rushing and banging into big linemen. But he also knows his college future rides on his health.
Ruffin has scholarship offers from Wyoming (for defense), Idaho and Portland State (for whichever side). But said he’s been talking to other schools who want to see how he holds up.
“I feel like this is the year,” Ruffin said.
And maybe the year he’s known as A.J. instead of X.
CLASS 3A NARROWS PRIMER
On the Throne
So many new faces around Lincoln after coach and ex-NFL quarterback Jon Kitna took off for Texas and packed son and Class 3A Narrows player of the year Jordan Kitna with him. Can new coach Masaki Matsumoto lead Abes to back-to-back league titles?
Change is Good
Capital lost the league’s offensive player of the year in running back Conner Kennedy, but that leaves more passes for senior quarterback Cody Jenkins this year and catches for receiver Carson Bertelli. Expect a different, more balanced Cougars squad.
By the Numbers
Kaleb Bates collected passing yards (571) and rushing yards (103) last season as Central Kitsap’s quarterback. This year the senior will start at receiver to take advantage of his athleticism and make room for a sophomore QB.
Lincoln (11-1 last year), Capital (7-3), North Thurston (4-6), Wilson (8-3), Central Kitsap (4-6), Shelton (3-7), Foss (3-7), Mount Tahoma (1-9).
Mark the Date
Sept. 18: Capital vs. Lincoln, at Lincoln Bowl, 7 p.m.
Coach: J.D. Johnson, 9th year
2014 record: 7-3, 2nd league, lost in district playoffs
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Kyle Camus/Darren Tinnerstet (multiple). Returning starters – 6. Top players – OL David Ainuu, 5-11, 250, jr.; RB Gavin Armitage, 6-0, 210, sr.; WR Carson Bertelli, 5-9, 160, jr.; RB Willie Broxton Jr., 5-7, 170, sr.; QB Cody Jenkins, 6-1, 190, sr.; RB Dexter Morton, 5-8, 190, sr.; OL Dallen Pritchett 6-4, 260, sr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – J.D. Johnson (3-5-3). Returning starters – 7. Top players – DL Ainuu; LB Armitage; DB Bertelli; DL Daniel Garland, 6-0, 250, jr. ; LB Jared Gearhart, 6-1, 215, sr.; LB Morton; DL Pritchett.
Outlook: The Cougars don’t have that 50-carries-a-game tailback like past years (Conner Kennedy and Kai Van Sickle, for example). So expect some Air Raid (or at least a more balanced look) with Jenkins back and a sold receiving corps. Defense will be tough, led by linebackers Armitage and Gearhart. And Capital returns first-team kicker and punter Van Soderberg, a UW commit.
CENTRAL KITSAP COUGARS
Coach: Mark Keel, 16th year
2014 record: 4-6, 4th in league, lost in district playoffs
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Mark Keel (pistol). Returning starters – 4. Top players – WR Kaleb Bates, 6-1, 210, sr.; OL Thomas Ingles, 6-2, 225, jr.; OL Elijah Sousou, 6-1, 285, jr.; RB Kendal Yeagle, 6-0, 195, sr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – Eric Schuette (3-4). Returning starters – 4. Top players – LB Roque Blas, 6-0, 200, jr.; DL Dawson Krog, 5-11, 205, jr.; LB Isaiah McGee, 5-6, 200, sr.; DB Alika Sarono, 6-0, 175, jr.; DB Yeagle.
Outlook: Bates played quarterback last season, but to take advantage of some of his athleticism, Keel converted him to receiver. That leaves the quarterback spot for Tyler Tubbs, a 6-foot-2 sophomore. Keel worries about his team’s size but not speed, with the fastest maybe being junior DeAndre Sincere, who was also a sprinter on the Cougars’ track team. Expect CK to attack the edges.
Coach: Matt Johnson, 1st year
2014 record: 3-7, 6th in league.
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Matt Johnson (pistol). Returning starters – 4. Top players – RB Sidaris Fletcher, 5-10, 200, sr.; WR Demetrius Crosby, 6-1, 170, soph; QB LJ Lovelace, 6-0, 210, jr.; RB Ki’l Hutchison, 5-8, 190, sr.; OL Riley Potts, 6-1, 270, sr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – Jordan Potts (4-4). Returning starters – 6. Top players – LB Marquis Jenkins, 5-10, 200, jr.; DT Maleik Lucious, 6-1, 260, sr.; DL Jackson Potts, 6-2, 255, jr.; LB Gody Tupulua, 6-0, 205, jr.
Outlook: Just like Chris “Scooby” Reynolds last year, Foss has another athlete at quarterback in Lovelace. His throwing mechanics are a gradual work in progress, but this team should be able to run the football with he and Fletcher, a power back who had a pair of 200-yard rushing efforts last year. But Crosby, maybe Foss’ best defensive player, broke his right hand, which will sideline him the first couple weeks.
Coach: Masaki Matsumoto, 1st year
2014 record: 11-1, 1st in league, lost in Class 3A state quarterfinals
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Shalls Jacome (spread). Returning starters – 5. Top players – WR Tony Archie, 6-2, 180, sr.; WR Alvin Johnson, 6-2, 195, sr.; QB Joey Sinclair, 5-9, 175, jr.; RB Dionte Simon, 5-9, 190, sr.; OL Kameron Smith, 6-8, 300, sr.; OL Quazzel White, 6-4, 285, jr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – Masaki Matsumoto (3-4). Returning starters – 3. Top players – DL Xavier Baines, 6-0, 280, sr.; DB Mushawn Knowles, 6-2, 200, sr.; DB Darien Williams, 6-3, 205, sr.
Outlook: New coach, new offensive coordinator, new quarterback, but should be a similar look with a touch more of the run game behind Simon, who is also a threat in the passing game. Sinclair looks more than capable of commanding the offense, especially with a dynamic target in Archie. But the real strength of this team lies with bookend offensive tackles — Smith and White.
MOUNT TAHOMA THUNDERBIRDS
Coach: Ricky Daley, 2nd year
2014 record: 1-9, 8th in league.
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Ricky Daley (spread). Returning starters – 5. Top players – WR Ira Branch, 5-11, 175, jr.; OL Alex Ratke, 6-2, 220, sr.; RB Keenan Wade-Herrera, 5-11, 220, sr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – Ryan Williams (4-3). Returning starters – 5. Top players – DB Shayne Carpenter, 5-10, 175, sr; LB Sua Liufau, 5-9, 180, jr.; DL Ke’von Thomas, 6-0, 265, sr.
Outlook: As if it wasn’t already tough enough for the Thunderbirds, which are looking for their second win in three years, they’ll have at least 15 players out for the first five weeks because of grades. Liufau, Mount Tahoma’s leading tackler last season, and Thomas hope to solidify the defense, along with Carpenter, a second-team 3A Narrows defensive back last season. Wade-Herrera led the team in touchdowns last year.
NORTH THURSTON RAMS
Coach: Rocky Patchin, 24th year
2014 record: 4-6, 5th in league
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Rocky Patchin (pro-style). Returning starters – 7. Top players – QB Jake Harn, 6-3, 190, sr.; RB Anthony Salazar, 6-2, 200, sr.; WR Zack Sibley, 6-2, 185, sr.; RB Ross Sherrer, 5-9, 155, jr.; TE Darren Sroor Jr., 6-5, 200, sr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – William Garrow (3-4). Returning starters – 5. Top players – LB Ryan Burgman, 6-0, 205, jr.; DL Tyler Roach, 6-0, 215, sr.; DB Sibley; DB/LB Sherrer; LB Gavin Utley, 6-1, 195, sr.
Outlook: Salazar will provide the power, Sherrer the quickness in the Rams’ running back-by-committee system. Combine that with a tight end who grew three inches to 6-foot-5 in Sroor and an athletic receiver in Sibley and you’ve got an offense with playmakers. Solid linebackers with Burgman, a team captain, and Utley and Sherrer splitting time between linebacker and safety.
Coach: Matt Hinkle, 21st year
2014 record: 3-7, 7th in league
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Todd McPhee (multiple). Returning starters – 8. Top players – WR Kyle Kimball, 6-1, 175, jr.; OL Michael Huskey, 6-2, 235, sr.; OL Gable Lacy, 6-0, 205, jr.; OL Matt Malloy, 6-1, 265, sr.; WR Gabe Reyna, 5-10, 185, sr.; OL Taylor Toney, 6-2, 230, jr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – James Sobotka (odd front). Returning starters – 8. Top players – LB Michael Hackler, 6-1, 190, sr.; DB Kimball; LB Colton Paller, 6-1, 190, sr.; LB Dylan Paul, 6-0, 195, jr.; DB Reyna LB; LB Tanner Rhodes, 5-11, 195, sr.; DB Skyler Ross, 6-1, 170, jr.
Outlook: A lot of experience and returning starters back from last season’s squad that ended with a momentum-building win over Class 4A Narrows opponent South Kitsap. But that was one of the few highlights in a season that started with a win over North Mason before six consecutive losses. Most of the Highclimbers experience will be on the offensive line.
Coach: Don Clegg, 28th year
2014 record: 8-3, 3rd in league, lost in first round of state
Offense: Coordinator (set) – Amad Robinson/Don Clegg/Adam Lovelady (multiple). Returning starters – 7. Top players – OT/TE Isaiah Clark, 6-2, 220, sr.; OL TJ Hazen, 5-11, 230, sr.; WR Montre Lofton-Brown, 6-2, 180, sr.; WR Xavier Martin-Jones, 6-0, 165, sr.; TE AJ Ruffin, 6-4, 240, sr.; OL Cameron Sheppard, 6-0, 190, sr.
Defense: Coordinator (set) – Jon Harkness (multiple). Returning starters – 6. Top players – DL Tatanie Lee-Borland, 5-11, 240, jr.; LB Tanner Colburn, 6-0, 205, sr.; LB Noah Hill, 5-11, 185, sr.; DB Lofton-Brown; DL Ruffin.
Outlook: What the Rams lack in size and depth they’ll hope to make up for in speed and quickness. And they’ll look to use newcomer Lofton-Brown however they can. He has been a key members of Wilson’s basketball team and last played a football game in the seventh grade. But he already holds a scholarship offer from Eastern Washington University after impressing this summer.