LINCOLN — Barrett Ruud was not forgettable. The leading tackler in Nebraska football history is remembered, sure.
But off the field, the standout linebacker from the early 2000s didn’t necessarily stand out during his time in Lincoln. Former teammates have a hard time remembering their favorite story about Ruud.
Or a story about Ruud.
There were the tackles. All 432 of them. Everyone remembers those.
There’s the time he played in a cast. Former teammate Adam Carriker remembers Ruud swinging it around to call plays at middle linebacker. There are the handful of times former teammate Trevor Johnson caught Ruud watching film alone. A handful of rousing speeches, but none necessarily noteworthy.
Instead, Ruud worked in the shadows. Only spoke when needed. He was quietly consistent. Subtly great, which added to the mystique of one of the best linebackers in NU history.
“When you look at the type of player and person he was, I literally have nothing negative to say about him, nor does he have any crazy story,” Johnson said.
The mild-mannered, 34-year-old Ruud will return to Nebraska after 13 years away. After an eight-year NFL career and two seasons in the quality control department with UCF under Scott Frost, Ruud will be the inside linebackers coach at Nebraska. Ruud’s not been announced at the position yet, but will be in January when the NCAA allows football programs to add a 10th assistant. Ruud’s already on the recruiting trail for Nebraska.
His return means a lot of things. Like Frost, he’ll be back in his home state. Back at his alma mater. But more than anything, his return to Lincoln is exactly the type of thing Nebraska needs right now, friends of Ruud and former teammates say.
“I think culture is a big thing, and I think it’s a mentality, and I think Scott and Barrett are the right kind of guys to bring that culture back,” Johnson said.
Everyone knows Frost’s journey from Wood River, Nebraska, back to Lincoln to become the Huskers new coach. But Ruud’s life isn’t far off from Nebraska folklore, either.
A Lincoln native, Ruud played running back and linebacker at Lincoln Southeast. He was a four-year letterman who led the school to three Class A state titles.
Fox Sports analyst and host of Game Time on 1620 The Zone, Nick Bahe, grew up with the Ruud family. Sleepovers at the Ruud house usually meant a football education, courtesy of NFL films. The Best of Lawrence Taylor. Biggest NFL Hits Ever.
“It was just, football, football, football,” Bahe said.
Bahe was a sophomore quarterback during Ruud’s senior season in 2001. Back then, Ruud wasn’t a talker, really. But the way he worked, the way he approached the game, it set a tone within the locker room.
“He created, at least for me, knowing how hard he worked and how much he cared, he created this feeling of: you just don’t want to let him down,” Bahe said. “My whole mindset as the quarterback handing off to Barrett, who was the running back, was, ‘Don’t screw this up for Barrett.’ ”
Ruud’s father, Tom, played at Nebraska. As did two of his uncles. And his great-great grandfather back in 1918. Ruud followed the family tradition and as a true freshman at Nebraska, played in every game on the 2002 Fiesta Bowl team. He accounted for 49 tackles, the most among non-starters.
Ruud won a starting spot in 2002 and totaled 91 tackles. His junior season, 149.
His on-the-field performance at Nebraska was something Carriker and his teammates were always somewhat in awe of.
“If I had to point out the strongest guy, it might not have been him, or the fastest,” Carriker said. “But he was just always around the ball. Very smart.”
Ruud ran the defense from the middle linebacker spot. He was the quarterback of that defense, Johnson said. Which was perfect for a guy like Ruud, who seemed to know the defense better than even some coaches. A film junkie, Johnson called him.
Ruud also was durable. That’s probably the thing teammates remember about him most. Broken wrist, bum ankle, bruised calf, it didn’t matter.
“It didn’t seem to affect his play even when he was banged up,” Carriker said. “You knew he was always going to be out there.”
Johnson added it was “reassuring” to have Ruud back there every game. Like a safety net for the defense should things go awry.
“The way he approached the game, he sort of reminded me of the Peyton Manning of our defense,” Johnson said.
Senior year, as a team captain, Ruud topped it off with 143 total tackles, boosting his career high to 432, a school record that stands 13 years later.
He was first-team All-Big 12 in 2004, the Huskers’ 2004 defensive MVP and the 36th overall pick in the 2004 NFL draft.
Ruud played for eight years in the NFL, mostly for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His best season came in 2009, when he started all 16 games and made 142 tackles, the third most in the league.
Johnson played against Ruud in high school at Lincoln Northeast. And a decade later, he played against Ruud again in the NFL. After games, win or loss, Ruud was the same as he was in high school. Unassuming. More interested in talking about how you played than himself, Johnson said.
The NFL fame, the stardom at Nebraska, the money — it never got to Ruud’s head.
“I never heard him boast about himself in any way,” Johnson said. “Just went out there and did his thing.”
Ruud’s NFL career sputtered after a string of injuries. He was released in 2012 by the Houston Texans. And after that, Bahe said, he seemed a little lost.
“I think there were times when he had a hard time letting go of playing,” Bahe said. “His career was cut short because of injuries and I sense that ate at him a bit.”
Ruud talked to Bahe about getting into the media. Maybe broadcasting.
Then, in the summer of 2013, Lincoln Southeast coach Ryan Gottula called and asked if he had any interest in coaching. He had a volunteer inside linebackers coach spot open and heard Ruud was looking for something to do.
Ruud said why not.
The first day of practice, Gottula’s players were star-struck.
“They see his retired jersey in the school every day, and then there he was out there coaching them,” Gottula. “So they listened to him.”
On the field where Ruud first shined, he found himself again. Ruud was a smart coach, Gottula said. A detailed coach. Someone who tried to teach the game like a science.
“He was someone who was fantastic as far as technique and teaching technique and being able to read offense,” Gottula said. “He was really good as far as building relationships with kids and just fantastic working with kids.”
Like usual, nothing necessarily stood out about Ruud his first year of coaching. He was dedicated. He was smart. He was not showy. He was consistent. When asked about Ruud’s best coaching moment, Gottulla said he couldn’t think of one. Not because Ruud wasn’t a good coach but because he was exactly consistent.
In that high school season, Ruud decided coaching was the path he wanted to follow. After one year at Southeast, he was hired by former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini as a graduate manager in 2014. When Mike Riley was hired, Ruud wasn’t retained and moved to UCF for two seasons.
Now he’s back. And at the right time, when the defensive side of the ball is as low as it’s been since Ruud left.
The Huskers ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in nearly every statistical category a year ago. Tackling — be it rugby or not — has been an issue for years.
Enter Ruud, the school’s leading tackler. It couldn’t be a more perfect fit, Bahe said.
“He’s gonna be coaching the inside linebackers at Nebraska, and no one in the history of the program has played that position better than Barrett Ruud,” Bahe said. “The name Ruud and Nebraska linebacker are synonymous.”
Not only that, Bahe said, but Nebraska fans shouldn’t be concerned that Ruud’s only coached one season and it was at the high school level.
No one was ever more prepared for a game than Ruud, his teammates said. Not to mention he was a sponge to great NFL coaches, like former Husker Monte Kiffin at Tampa Bay.
Mix that with Ruud’s ability to relate to kids, his ability to make you willing to go the extra mile to not disappoint him — like Bahe all those years ago — and his Husker playing legacy, this has the potential to be a terrific fit.
Maybe even a memorable one.
“One thing Frost has been talking about is unity of purpose,” Bahe said. “And I think it really does help to have guys like Frost and Barrett coming back. That’s something that former players can get behind. The fan base can get behind. Not in a cultish way, but you always root for your own guys. They’re both very accomplished players and coaching minds, and I think it’ll be great.”