Ruth has had dominant season

November 28, 2003|JEFF ZURCHER

Heading into the last game of the season, the University of Kentucky football team stands atop the Southeastern Conference in one statistical category, and one category only: kickoff coverage.

Unlike years past, when Kentucky has lead the SEC in areas such as scoring offense, passing and punt returns, this year's claim to fame seems rather unglamorous. And almost unnoticed.

On the SEC website, kickoff coverage is the last category listed in the team stats section, 30th of 30 classifications; 25 slots below kickoff returns.

And as for the player most responsible for Kentucky's stingy 16.8 yards per return, junior kicker Clint Ruth, you'll find his name nowhere on any official stat sheet, SEC or not.


But that doesn't mean Ruth toils in obscurity. Quite the contrary, actually. The people who know football know how important, and talented, No. 95 is.

"He's as dominant of a player at his position as we have," Kentucky special teams and assistant head coach Steve Ortmayer said.

Think about that one. Ortmayer's saying that in 2003, Ruth's been a more dominant kicker than Jared Lorenzen has been a dominant quarterback or than Vincent Burns has been a dominant defensive end.

He's right.

By my count, Ruth has kicked 30 touchbacks this year out of 53 attempts (plus two onside kicks), for an astounding 57 percent. Another eight of his boots have been returned from out of the end zone, therefore not qualifying as touchbacks.

And what the crowd likes best is when Ruth nails the ball through the uprights, the equivalent of kicking a 75-yard field goal off a tee.

Ruth's ability not merely to limit but often to prevent returns has been one of the underlying factors in Kentucky's defense giving up fewer points per game than last year. After all, no one's ever returned a touchback for a score.

Of the 23 kickoffs (onside kicks excluded) Kentucky opponents have brought back, their average starting field position has been the 19-yard line. Defenses become very happy (and statistically better) when they have 80-plus yards of field to defend after a kickoff.

And the kicker - a position that historically receives much mockery from teammates - becomes a popular fellow.

"I've bonded well with guys on both sides of the ball," Ruth said. "I definitely feel accepted."

Still, footballers will be footballers, and kickers will be teased. Ribbing kickers is as much a part of pigskin as pylons in the end zone.

"That comes with the position," Ruth said with a laugh. "But I do feel (teammates) have more respect for me now. Plus, we kickers can definitely throw up some weight in the weight room. We work out a lot.

"We can lift more than some of the receivers."


"He's got an unflappable temperament," Ortmayer says of the 6-1, 210-pound Ruth. "In games, he's a very tough character, and mental toughness is the number one thing you need to be a good kicker."

And it sure doesn't hurt at all to have a rocket launcher for a leg.

Ruth developed his ball-belting ability from playing soccer - 14 years of it to be exact. He didn't begin kicking footballs regularly until his sophomore year in high school.

By his senior year, Ruth became all-state in Tennessee, kicking 47 of 59 kickoffs for touchbacks, making eight of 13 field goal attempts and 33 of 39 extra-point attempts, plus punting for a 36-yard average.

At UK, Taylor Begley currently handles the placekicking duties. And Ruth is OK - "not irritated" - with that, saying though he's "qualified to kick field goals," his role is to "try to help Taylor get better by challenging him."

Still, Ortmayer says that Ruth is "such a competitor. He wants to be known as a field goal kicker, not only just a guy who kicks off."

But if Clint Ruth can't yet be called Kentucky's field goal kicker, he nonetheless can be called, according to Ortmayer, "a powerful weapon."

And no kicker I've ever met would ever complain about that.

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