These days all anyone remembers about Adley Rutschman’s brief college football career is the time he tackled Christian McCaffrey. He will be dining out on that for years.
At the time, nobody knew Stanford’s McCaffrey would be an All-Pro NFL running back, or that Rutschman would be an All-Star catcher for the Orioles. Their stars crossing during a 2016 football game, the lone season when Rutschman did kickoffs for Oregon State, is an impressive anecdote in retrospect.
But, for Rutschman’s money, it’s not his highlight in his short time kicking for the Beavers.
In his first college game against Boise State, Rutschman lined up for a third-quarter kickoff. But, instead of one of the long, booming boots that he had been recruited for, he sent a dribbler up the middle of the field — and fell on the ball himself.
“That was, at the time,” he told me recently, “the most nerve-wracking moment ever when I was kicking off.”
Rutschman is no stranger to high-pressure situations, be it coming up to bat with runners in scoring position or framing late-inning pitches as the Orioles are clinging to a lead. But kicking is a different animal, he told me recently. He was only a kickoff specialist at Oregon State, but when he kicked for Sherwood High (a career that included a state-record 63-yard field goal), it was different than what he feels at the plate.
“It just feels really amplified, because it feels like it’s solely on you,” he said. “And there’s a lot of failure in baseball. But I feel like in kicking, if you miss one field goal, people are on you.”
So maybe his onside kick, considering the pressure involved, should be considered Rutschman’s top highlight. Luckily, I was able to consult a Baltimore-based kicking expert to settle the matter.
After a recent practice, Ravens placekicker Justin Tucker leaned in to my phone screen to look at Rutschman’s 2016 onside kick. Tucker might be the best kicker ever, but even he was impressed at the gall of the then-18-year-old Rutschman executing a notoriously difficult and risky play.
Getting the ball to bounce up into his hands 10 yards past the kickoff spot, is very, very tough. One of the last times Tucker attempted it in 2013, it went extremely poorly. He was plowed through by Pittsburgh linebacker Stevenson Sylvester.
“The whole left side of my head and my ear was bleeding, so had to get part of my ear glued back on in the locker room after the game,” he said. “So that wasn’t really that fun.”
Then, picking up his voice, Tucker added: “But would I do it over and over and over again? Of course, I love this s---, man.”
Tucker found his calling in kicking — injured ears be damned — while Rutschman followed his passion to the diamond. “I was all in on baseball,” he told me when I asked if he ever thought about kicking professionally.
Although he’s partial to football himself, Tucker speculates to what Rutschman’s next baseball contract might look like (as much as nine digits in value). “I think he made the right call,” he joked.
“Lining up for a field goal, game on the line, I don’t know if you can get much more pressure than that.”
Adley Rutschman, Orioles catcher and former Oregon State kickoff specialist
But the two men, who met this summer when Tucker came down to the Orioles batting cages, share a healthy mutual respect. Rutschman knows more than most about the pressure a kicker faces — making it almost unfathomable to him that Tucker, 33, has nailed his attempts at a 90.5% clip for more than a decade in the NFL.
“It’s really hard to do,” Rutschman said. “Especially at a high level, I think the amount of pressure you feel as a kicker in a high-leverage situation is more so than, like, anything else. It’s amazing. Like lining up for a field goal, game on the line, I don’t know if you can get much more pressure than that.”
It’s likely that Rutschman will see the pressure he faces ratchet up soon when the Orioles make the playoffs, which Tucker will watch with rapt interest. He called Rutschman’s switch-hitting exhibition at the Home Run Derby in July “one of the more impressive things I’ve seen in sports in a long time.”
He can’t necessarily draw the clear-cut association between a kicker’s poise and Rutschman’s cool-headedness on the field, but Tucker definitely recognizes it.
“He seems like one of those guys who is unfazed when the moment is big and he’s got an important at-bat or he’s catching as Félix [Bautista] is closing out the game,” Tucker said. “He seems like nothing rattles him. If I’m guessing, it’s a testament to his preparation and his ability to deliver in the big moments.”
But, as much as Tucker has enjoyed watching the Orioles rise, he’s not even the biggest baseball fan in his own house. His 7-year-old son, Easton, is rabid. The first Orioles jersey the Tuckers bought their son was a generic one, without any name on the back, in the stadium. Within the last year, Easton needed an upgrade.
“As he’s gotten more and more into baseball and followed the O’s more closely, he’s like, ‘Dad, Dad! Mom, Mom! I gotta get an Adley Rutschman jersey,’” Tucker said. “That was his first Orioles jersey with a name on it, that No. 35 Adley Rutschman jersey, and he couldn’t be more fired up about it.”
Come Halloween, Easton has a dilemma. He wants to dress up as an Oriole, but he’s also come to admire Gunnar Henderson and Bautista. “I’m just proud that he’s got a good understanding of what elite athletes look like,” Tucker quipped.
If Dad can put a finger on the scale, the choice seems clear. Rutschman’s the only Oriole we know who can nail a kick between the uprights.
Now that Rutschman’s profile is rising in baseball, I asked him tongue in cheek: Does he think he’s raising the athletic profile of kickers? But Rutschman wouldn’t dream of claiming to do more for the reputation of specialists than Tucker has already done.
“He’s at the top of his game. He’s the best of the best,” he said. “So I think he’s doing pretty good.”
Added Tucker: “I think the sports-watching world appreciates [kickers] now more than ever.”
Especially in Baltimore. We’re enjoying two great ones.