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Walk-on kicker finds way to top of depth chart

Laura Myers | Thursday, September 9, 2010

It was never surprising for coaches to see a walk-on competing with a recruited player for the starting kicker spot.

So it wasn’t a surprise when senior David Ruffer won that spot and kicked three field goals on three tries, including a 46-yarder, Saturday against Purdue.

“We don’t treat guys as walk-ons,” special teams coach Mike Elston said. “If they’re brought in to be a part of the team they’re expected to help us improve our football team.”

Ruffer joined the Irish in 2008 as a backup to then-sophomore Brandon Walker, and he spent 2009 in a backup role behind then-freshman Nick Tausch.

He spent fall camp competing with Tausch, and came out ahead.

“Coach Kelly and I had been saying all week and all of fall camp that it was going to be a battle down to the end,” Elston said. “David was better with his tempo, better with his timing and more accurate in practice.”

And though coaches weren’t surprised, Ruffer never saw himself as a starting kicker at Notre Dame.

“It’s kind of the back of the mind, something you think about before you go to bed at night, maybe,” he said.

Ruffer began his college career at William & Mary in Virginia. He was a kicker for the Tribe, which plays in the Football Championship Series, formerly Division I-AA. He transferred to Notre Dame after his freshman year and joined the Siegfried Ramblers for Notre Dame’s interhall season.

“I played wide receiver. The rosters are so limited in interhall that they can’t have someone just be a kicker,” Ruffer said. “So I had to try to be an athlete.”

He was only a Rambler for a short time, though, before he joined the Irish.

“I figured if I kept working on it, worked hard over the summer, I thought maybe,” Ruffer said.

Ruffer missed his only kick in 2008, an extra point attempt. But in 2009, he was 5-for-5 in field goal attempts.

Tausch made 14-of-17 field goals in 2009, with a long of 46 yards.

For Ruffer, who didn’t play football in high school, the biggest thing he has had to improve was the speed between the snap and the kick.

“If it gets blocked, it doesn’t matter how well you hit it,” he said. “So we work on that, just timing, timing, timing.”

Elston said Ruffer would be used to attempt field goals up to the low 50s in length.

“Maybe 55 if the wind is right,” he said.

Being trusted in a 55-yard kick situation at Notre Dame is a long way from where Ruffer ever imagined he would be.

“I never thought I’d be starting,” he said. “You know, it would be cool to make the team, be a part of the program.

“I come to practice and sometimes when I walk out of here I have to be like ‘Oh my gosh, I play football for Notre Dame, this is really neat.'”

Of course, Siegfried hasn’t let him go.

“[Rector Fr. John Conley] tries to recruit me back every year,” Ruffer said. “Like, ‘Hey David, we could really use you!'”

But Ruffer is committed to the Irish and has been since he transferred.

“Maybe there’s a magnet in that Dome that pulled me over here,” he said.

Elston said Ruffer’s hard work trumped his status as a walk-on when the coaches put him on top of the depth chart.

“Shoot, if you look over the years at Coach Kelly and the special teams that I’ve been a part of, sometimes we’ll start six, seven walk-ons in front of starters,” Elston said. “They want to be a part of something. So they work a little bit harder, maybe, in some areas. Hard work beats talent when talent hardly works.”