Ball State freshman linebacker David Rueth lines up on first-and-10, his eyes locked on the quarterback.
Tennessee Tech is in a perfect passing situation after a 33-yard run put the ball on the Cardinals’ 39-yard line. Rueth drops back into coverage as quarterback Andre Sale takes the shotgun snap and scans the field.
Sale unloads a pass down the middle of the field, and sophomore cornerback Lamar Anderson hits receiver Dontez Byrd to break up the pass.
Rueth dives towards the ball as Anderson falls forward and the ball heads towards the ground. It’s an effort play — it’s clearly going to hit the ground before he gets there.
Freshman middle linebacker
6 feet tall, 208 pounds
1 forced fumble
1 fumble recovery
2-star recruit (247sports.com)
But the ball hits Anderson’s left leg, then his right foot and bounces back up in the air. Like a soccer goalie reacting to a last-second deflection, Rueth adjusts his body to snag the ball and clutches it against his stomach.
Of course that’s how his first collegiate interception happened.
Of course it is, because last year Rueth won the Division II state soccer championship as the goalkeeper for Archbishop Alter High School in Ketterling, Ohio.
Rueth is, and always has been, a football player first.
“I love being physical,” Rueth said. “That’s one of the big things, in soccer there’s very little physicality — especially from a goalie position.”
Rueth played club soccer every spring throughout high school, but Ohio’s soccer season overlaps with football season so he didn’t suit up for Alter.
Knights boys’ soccer coach Bob Ellis was fine with that until the end of Rueth’s junior year. Alter lost two senior goalkeepers after making the state playoffs in 2015, and their other goalie gave up soccer to focus on volleyball.
Ellis knew he didn’t have to look far for a replacement though, so he talked to Knights football coach Ed Domsitz.
“I went to the football coach and said ‘I need a goalie,’” Ellis said. “And he says ‘Well, I got one.’”
Ellis, Domsitz and the Rueth family worked out a deal — David would focus on football and attend every practice, then show up and start soccer games.
“We never did actually have a formal soccer practice with David in the goal,” Ellis said.
“If he’d’ve been with me for four years, he would’ve definitely been All-State in soccer,” Ellis said. “Probably All-American.”
Domsitz says Rueth is just as good on the football field, if not better. He compares Rueth to Alter alumnus Chris Borland, a former NFL player and All-American linebacker at Wisconsin.
Domsitz also thought enough of Rueth’s athleticism to make the linebacker the Knights’ primary punt returner.
“This is my 42nd year,” Domsitz said, “And [Rueth’s] probably one of the top two or three linebackers that we’ve had in all that time.”
Rueth’s senior year, Alter football went 13-1 with the lone loss coming in the Division IV state semifinals. In fact, the Knights won 10 or more games every year Rueth was in high school and made the state championship game in his sophomore season.
“It’s because the players around me have always been great, and I guess I was used to it,” Rueth said. “It wasn’t something that was different. Winning is just natural to me.”
Then again, Rueth’s passion for soccer might have hurt his football recruitment. Club tournaments kept him from attending some offseason football camps and getting his name out there.
“I think I was overlooked but I’m definitely happy [at Ball State],” Rueth said. “This was my only offer and back in the fall I was thinking I definitely should have more offers. But it doesn’t matter because I’m in a place that’s a good fit for me, and I’m getting playing time here, so I’m really happy.”
Early playing time
“I’m not surprised that he’s playing some for Ball State,” Domsitz said. “I thought whoever ended up with David was going to be pleasantly surprised because he’s just an amazing football player.”
The surprise isn’t that he’s playing, but where he’s playing.
Listed at 6-foot-even and 208 pounds on the Cardinals’ roster, even Rueth admits he could use some time in the weight room.
“Mentally I’m there, [but] physically I’m still a freshman,” Rueth said. “So I need to develop over the next couple years to become a better linebacker, but mentally I know what I’m doing.“
When injury to redshirt sophomore middle linebacker Jacob White opened up some playing time, redshirt junior Jeremiah Jackson was expected to fill in against Tennessee Tech. While Jackson still split snaps with Rueth, the freshman got the start.
“That’s attributed to how smart he is,” Curtis said. “He’s comfortable in communicating with the front. He’s physical enough. He plays with good pad leverage to compensate a bit for his size deficiency.”
Curtis and Domsitz say Rueth checks all the cliches of the prototype middle linebacker. He has a high football IQ, a nose for the football and a short memory when he makes a mistake.
But they’re cliches for a reason. Middle linebackers are often described as the quarterbacks of the defense because they’re involved in just about every play, whether they make the tackle or not.
“In the past couple months I’ve learned a lot about that because in high school there’s not as much of a mental aspect,” Rueth said. “Read and react in high school, and when we get here we have the summer program where it’s just freshman and we come in, watch film and learn plays. Then we get to camp and there’s a playbook the size of a history textbook.”
Ironically, the same thing that held back his recruiting might have actually eased his transition to Division I football.
Futbol to Football
As with middle linebacker, Ellis says Rueth was similar to “the quarterback on a football team” when he played goalie for the Knights.
“He sees everything,” Ellis said. “He’s got to be telling all the other guys where they should go, where they shouldn’t go. And he’s just a natural leader.”
Physically, a goalkeeper tries to position himself to eliminate an attacker’s angle to the goal, just like a linebacker in zone coverage tries to eliminate passing lanes in the middle of the field. Goalkeepers have a split-second decision to rush the feet of an attacker or drop back into the goal, just like linebackers have a split-second to recognize whether the quarterback handed off to the running back or faked it.
“There’s a lot of footwork involved in playing goalie, a lot of lateral movement and lateral quickness that really helped [with football],” Rueth said.
Sometimes Rueth’s soccer background is obvious, like it was on his diving interception against Tennessee Tech.
“There are times his body is almost horizontal, and that’s what you’d expect of a goalie trying to save a goal,” Domsitz said. “I think playing both sports probably served him well.”
The best example of Rueth playing like a goalkeeper on the gridiron might be from Alter’s 48-0 win over Father Stephen T. Badin High School on October 14, 2016, when he made a diving interception that mirrored a save on a shot in the upper 90.
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“I’m used to the quick reaction,” Rueth said. “Especially the one you’re talking about on my film, I was going out into coverage in the flat and then the quarterback threw it behind me. I stopped real quick, which is something that is always happening in goal — stop and rearrange which way you’re going.”
It’s unclear how much playing time Rueth will have going forward. Jacob White is expected to return for Saturday’s game at Western Kentucky and play with a cast. Between the injury and Rueth’s production in White’s absence, he still figures to see the field.
But even if Rueth is relegated to special teams, of course his first interception at Ball State looked like a save.
Of course it did.