STILLWATER — Mike Gundy went looking for Trey Rucker on the sideline last Saturday.
The Oklahoma State safety had missed a couple of tackles early in the game against BYU. Throwing no-hitters, as Gundy called it. Bouncing off ball carriers. The Cowboy coach knew that had to change.
“Ruck, man, you gotta tackle,” Gundy remembers saying. “Wrap these guys up. Get ‘em down.”
That wouldn’t have always been his reaction.
“He accepts the coaching where when he first got here, he might not have,” Gundy said. “He might’ve been surly and sulking.”
Instead, he responded with his best game as a Cowboy. Rucker stopped a BYU receiver in the second overtime, yanked the ball out of his grasp before he hit the ground, then recovered the fumble. It won the game and punched the Cowboys’ ticket for the Big 12 Championship Game.
Rucker made the play of the season.
“Him stripping that ball and ending the game was fitting based on the transition he’s made to get to where he is,” Gundy said.
Rucker’s evolution has been critical for the defense. Playing Bryan Nardo’s new 3-3-5 scheme, the defensive backfield is relied on in many situations in lots of ways — it may face its biggest test Saturday against Texas’ talented receivers — and having capable safeties is critical. But when Rucker came to OSU as a transfer from Wake Forest in 2021, Cowboy coaches weren’t so sure he would ever become trustworthy enough to play regularly, much less start.
Not long after he arrived, he was arrested in Stillwater after police responded to a call about a driver running into parked cars. On body cam footage, Rucker can be heard slurring his words and saying “I am OSU football” and “Call Dundy.”
He faced a slew of charges, including DUI, resisting arrest and assault on an officer.
Rucker pleaded guilty to all charges, and the judge made them misdemeanors, deferring judgment and sentence until Aug. 7, 2024 and setting terms of his probation to include not violating any laws.
But earlier this season, the morning after OSU’s loss at Iowa State, Rucker was arrested again and charged with DUI. At a preliminary hearing on Nov. 6, the case was continued until Jan. 8.
“He’s a knucklehead,” Gundy admitted.
Still, Gundy believes Rucker, who hasn’t been made available for interviews since before the season began, is a long way from where he started in Stillwater.
“It took him about a year to learn our culture, how we do things, the way we do things and why we do them the way we do them,” Gundy said. “Once he kind of figured out ‘I like this,’ he’s just done this.”
Gundy moved his hand upward like a rocket ship taking off.
Rucker, who didn’t play at all in the regular season last year due to an eligibility issue, showed great promise against Wisconsin in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl last December. He had a pass breakup on a big third-down play in the first quarter, then intercepted a pass on the next possession.
He played in 47 of the defense’s 74 snaps.
This season has been more of the same as Rucker has started every game and played less than 60 snaps only once, the blowout win against Cincinnati.
And down the stretch, Rucker has made one crucial play after another. Two weeks ago with OSU trailing by two scores at Houston, he intercepted a pass late in the first half, returned it to the Cougars’ 22-yard line and sparked a rally. Two plays later, the Cowboys scored and started a run of 27 unanswered points.
OSU won and kept Big-12-title-game hopes alive.
Then last week against BYU, Rucker not only had the walk-off forced fumble and fumble recovery in the second overtime, but he also recovered a botched pitch in the first quarter that set up OSU’s second score of the day.
Rucker’s play has been critical.
“It’s been really beneficial for our secondary,” Cowboy linebacker Collin Oliver said. “Not only them. Our whole defense. Having leaders is always good, especially experienced ones, so Trey being able to step in like that with our young guys back there has been really important.”
Cowboy linebacker Xavier Benson believes Rucker’s production is a product of his work. Benson said he and Rucker have spent many hours and late nights together watching game film, studying plays and analyzing tendencies.
Rucker, who is third on the team in tackles, is now putting that preparation to use.
“Seeing him be able to do that … it’s like seeing my little brother shine,” Benson said. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, you’re finally getting it, man.’ I love seeing it.”
Gundy feels similarly proud of Rucker. The coach traces the safety’s growth back to something in his character. Yes, Rucker’s personality has sometimes worked against him, but Gundy sees tenacity and determination in Rucker that has been crucial.
“There’s times during the season he got beat for touchdowns and stuff,” Gundy said, “and he comes on the sidelines and he knows what happened, he knows what he should have done for that not to happen, he knows how to correct it. He never changes his demeanor, and he goes back out and plays again.
“You can’t rattle him.”