Trick Shot Hero: WR Ezell Ruffin

Vincent Brown's evaluation for me was a culmination of lessons learned before watching him. Photo by mclanea.
Is Ezell Ruffin capable of developing into an NFL receiver like alum Vincent Brown, who had a promising start prior to a foot injury?  Photo by mclanea.

This week’s Boiler Room isn’t on a top prospect, but the Aztecs’ Ruffin often makes his position look E-Z. 

I don’t know if he will be fast enough for the NFL. And as soon as he has a serious block of time to devote to routes, he better hit the practice field with an expert. What I do know is San Diego State wide receiver Ezell Ruffin is a trick-shot hero at his position.

If I were shopping for wide outs I could sign to a UDFA contract or take a shot with a late round pick, Ruffin might be on my short list pending the results of a full workout. If my team needed convincing that Ruffin was worth a workout, I’d share the three plays in this post.

The Ezell Smorgasbord in One Play

This leaping catch on a hitch-and-go features both the ungainly and the sublime in one play. It’s a 1st and 10 route on the first offensive play of the game. Ruffin is single left at the numbers of a 1×1 receiver, 21 personnel, I-formation set. The cornerback plays a slight inside shade seven yards off the line of scrimmage and Ruffin’s job is to bait the corner into breaking on the hitch so he can earn separation on the defender when he breaks the go route.

Just as Ruffin’s close to exiting the screen on this video you’ll see the receiver demonstrably slow his stride as if he’s about to stutter his feet at the top of a stem to break back to the quarterback on the hitch. This is part of the setup for a wide receiver on a double move and I like how he practically “sits in the chair” with his hips.

However, his movements are too deliberate and it won’t fly in the NFL. Defenders are too fast and savvy for moves with this much exaggeration unless the move is executed at a much faster pace, and that’s enormously difficult to pull off.

Of course, so is a diving catch with the fingertips while running away from line of scrimmage. Ruffin pulls this off as well as anyone.

Watch Ruffin track the ball over his inside shoulder and stay focused despite knowing there’s a safety working across the middle to cut off the target. He’s displays impeccable timing with his leap for the ball

Note the catch is made with fingertips, which is the best way for the hand to stop and control the spin of a football. Having 5-10 smaller pressure points applied at different areas of a spinning ball are more effective at quelling its movement than 2-3 larger pressure points that lack the finesse to avoid major disruption upon contact and rebound.

While not possible with every diving play, Ruffin manages to get one foot on the ground as he returns to earth, which breaks some of the acceleration of his fall so he’s not hitting the ground chest-first at full acceleration. This also makes the catch easier.

I may doubt that Ruffin has the speed to become a consistent vertical threat in the NFL, but I have no doubt he has the hands and body control to work the middle of the field and the red zone.

Hand-Eye Coordination + Bodily Contortion = A Training Camp Invite?

I love watching receivers on third down. There’s a psychological element to that down that is different from the early downs. I might not be able to explain it in some provable sense for you, but it’s there in some form.

Once again, Ruffin’s routes need work. This is a corner route without much of a setup to bait the linebacker to the post or up the seam. When Ruffin makes his break, the defender is still over top and nearly stride-for-stride with the receiver.

To make matters worse, the quarterback’s throw is way off–targeting Ruffin low and behind his break point. I haven’t watched baseball in nearly two decades, but like former Phillies outfield Gary Maddox, a bad-ball hitter, Ruffin without a doubt is a bad-ball receiver.

Even with the linebacker holding Ruffin’s left arm, the receiver tips the ball to his body, and fights a winning war for the ball after the defender temporarily knocks it from Ruffin’s grip. This is all something Ruffin does against the momentum of his break on the route.

Will Ruffin make this play 7 out of 10 times in a game situation? Probably not. But I can argue he’d do it 3-5 times out of 10 and that’s enough on a poor throw like this one.

Savvy? Yes, But He Didn’t Need to Lean on It

Here’s a red zone fade where Ruffin tries to draw a penalty, but the officiating crew doesn’t bite. It’s a 2nd and goal with 8:25 in the third quarter from an I-formation set at the Air Force 4.

Ruffin is the single right receiver aligned two yards off the line of scrimmage. It’s notable that Ruffin is consistently 2-3 yards off the line of scrimmage, even on plays where corners aren’t playing tight coverage.

One reason is his position and the scheme, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Aztecs give him this space by design because they know he’s not great with his releases off the line of scrimmage. Kelvin Benjamin was protected this way at Florida State. The rookie has improved at Carolina, but as we’ve seen, he still hasn’t mastered these techniques yet.

The corner plays a yard off the line on this play action fade and another telltale sign that Ruffin doesn’t have confidence with his release techniques is that in addition to the consistent starting point behind the line of scrimmage, Ruffin is trying to bait the defender into thinking his assignment is a run block. This is the second time that the Aztecs use Ruffin (or Ruffin employs) this technique of a fake block as a ploy to release down field.

As we see, Ruffin doesn’t succeed with the block and slip. The corner maintains position and blocks the release path. Ruffin’s response is to flop backwards with the hope of drawing a penalty, but the officials don’t buy it. I like the thought and sometimes a receiver has to pull out all the stops. It’s a creative play, but born of desperation in the same way cursing or name-calling can be a desperate man’s way to express his feelings.

The ultimate question with a receiver like Ruffin is how much technique can enhance his NFL potential? Can craft make him quicker and faster?

When it comes to developing an arsenal of techniques with releases, stems, and breaks, the answer is a definitive yes, he can get quicker and faster just from refining these skills. He’ll think less, react better, and eventually anticipate more.

But will that be enough? The answer lies in the workouts. If he meets the minimum baselines with his sprint and agility times, he’ll be worth a look.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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