I can already see it now.
“Just fast, not a polished receiver.”
“Combine hero who didn’t produce.”
“John Ross 2.0.”
Once Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III posts a 40-yard dash time this week that either breaks or comes close to John Ross’ NFL Scouting Combine record (4.22), those narratives are inevitably going to be pushed about him.
While Ruggs is obviously a known commodity for NFL Draft or college football fans, for some national pundits or strictly NFL fans, the Combine could be their first introduction to him as a prospect. One quick Google search will tell them that Ruggs is around 6-foot and 190 pounds, and was third on his team in receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. Surely if a team selects him in the top 15, it will be one of those old Oakland Raider speed reaches that turns into a draft bust.
I am here to tell you before it even happens, don’t be fooled by any of that.
Ruggs had to miss time on two separate occasions this season, but was his typical explosive self otherwise. One of my favorite statistics of all-time is that Ruggs scored a touchdown on 23 of his first 77 career offensive touches. Seriously, he was scoring on three out of every 10 times he touched the football.
Obviously, his explosiveness and speed had a lot to do with that, but they weren’t the only factors. The best way I can put it is: Ruggs would get a first-round grade even if he ran a mid-4.4 40-yard dash.
This is a prospect who has grown and developed as a route running technician during his three years at Alabama. He’s developed so much in that area that he’s quietly become one of the better route runners in the entire draft class, which would not necessarily have been the case at this time last year.
Ruggs’ quickness aid his releases against press coverage at the line of scrimmage, but his footwork is also crisp. Rarely do you see him waste movements out of his stance or in his stem, and he’s constantly gaining ground and re-setting the line of scrimmage in his favor. Against LSU, he showed how dangerous his combination of footwork at the line of scrimmage and explosiveness at the top of the route can be.
Henry Ruggs III using a “Quick 3” step release to win inside -— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) February 20, 2020
• Re-stems vertically
• Hard sell to the post for three steps with his eyes back to the QB, hips and shoulders remain level
• Sharp cut on the double move to the corner pic.twitter.com/HTVX0o47Ix
Ruggs did most of his work from the outside of the formation, and that meant more reps facing press coverage than the typical receiver his size would see. Playing along the boundary increases the importance of beating those jams, but Ruggs’ use of his hands has progressed over time. Now when he’s contacted, he works to discard and get on top of the cornerback.
Henry Ruggs III has elite quickness, but he’ll still get contacted while playing out on the boundary— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) February 20, 2020
At 6’0 190, how immediately he beats that contact will be paramount
Once CB #41 jams, Ruggs uses a “forearm pull” and steps outside to break his route from a stacked position pic.twitter.com/gHuZI06q0l
While he is a technical receiver beyond his speed, obviously his ability to stretch the field has to be respected by opposing defenses. Ruggs has adjusted to the way that coverage plays against him. For most cornerbacks who can’t match Ruggs’ straight-line speed, this means opening up their hips early to prevent getting beaten over the top. For Ruggs, he takes advantage of this by decelerating and cutting back across the middle of the field, forcing the cornerback into a complete 180-degree turn.
CB’s on an island will have to respect Henry Ruggs III’s vertical speed, and often times that means opening their hips a step early— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) February 20, 2020
Ruggs’ crisp footwork in tight space and his instant acceleration leads to winning reps on in-breakers pic.twitter.com/T5fKPBnovV
On top of that, his straight-line speed causes problems for defensive backs who find themselves trailing him during a route. There’s just little chance that they’re able to react and break at the same speed as Ruggs, which results in them being caught off-balance and wasting motion as they attempt to cover him.
That exact scenario happened to LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton — a potential first-round pick himself — on multiple occasions during their match-up last season.
Henry Ruggs III using a “Motor” outside release -— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) February 20, 2020
Few things to note about this rep...
• Route break is past the sticks on 3rd down
• Ruggs works to stack and flashes outside at top of the route
• Ruggs operating with purpose while Fulton (CB #1) is off-balance in coverage pic.twitter.com/jGL1Pjnvea
The final piece to the puzzle for Ruggs and his development into an advanced, nuanced route runner is how he attacks redzone reps. For wide receivers his size, the best way to produce in the redzone is by winning inside or being able to cross the face against leveraged coverage. On the following rep against Tennessee, Ruggs stemmed the defensive back towards the outside, threatening a break towards the front pylon. Staying light on his inside foot, Ruggs is able to accelerate to the middle of the field once he catches the defensive back leaning to the outside.
The remaining aspect of the receiving process is Ruggs’ ability to finish reps by making adjustments to the catch point. His in-air body control has always leaped off the screen, making some highlight reel receptions with full extension while being contested back in 2018.
Henry Ruggs III might have the highest ceiling of any wide receiver in CFB: pic.twitter.com/RtERnxOJuG— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) November 25, 2018
Henry Ruggs III is my early favorite for WR1 in 2020. Fastest WR in college football. https://t.co/Q7W7gvaRFJ— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) December 30, 2018
While Ruggs didn’t produce the most receiving yards for Alabama, he demanded coverage over the top and was constantly covered by opposing SEC boundary cornerbacks. Despite that coverage, his knack for explosive plays consistently showed up during his collegiate career.
With his development in the area of route running, on top of his ability to adjust and finish in the air, Ruggs is more of a polished and technical wide receiver than he’s given credit for. He’s way more than just speed.
Henry Ruggs III has legitimate 4.2/4.3s speed, and he does this: pic.twitter.com/SS3czBLQXo— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) November 4, 2018