Mike Rutenberg: Sprint Football to the NFL
Mike Rutenberg coaches linebackers for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Before diving headfirst into a career in coaching, Rutenberg left Chevy Chase, Maryland for Cornell University. There he played linebacker and offensive tackle on the Sprint Football team for four years. Out of college, he worked in player personnel and was an assistant to former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. As a defensive backs coach for New Mexico State University, he recruited the Los Angeles area. Before returning to the NFL in 2013, he was also a graduate assistant at UCLA. Now in his seventh year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he is an assistant linebackers and defensive backs coach, working with players including Myles Jack and Paul Posluszny. In the midst of yet another long day, he took a break to sit down with Raphael Chierchio to talk about recruiting, player development, and much more.
RC: In your time at New Mexico State, what region(s) were you responsible for recruiting and what unique challenges did that region present?
MR: At New Mexico State, I recruited Los Angeles. I’d go from Santa Monica north to Santa Barbara. When your recruiting a huge area like that with so many great players, it’s really exciting to meet so many different people from so many different backgrounds. You really learn how to get along with different kinds of people. You get a ton of experience working in different types of places. As long as they are good people and fit what you’re looking for, you want to recruit them. You could have a great kid from the middle of nowhere in Los Angeles, a great kid in the city, and then a great kid in Westwood.
RC: When evaluating a high school prospect’s film, what physical traits did you look for first?
MR: First, I always look for the ability to play in space. Could he move in space? Was he flexible? Did he have quick twitch ability? Could he change direction? Could he stop and start? Does he have flexible ankles, hips, and upper body? I like to look at burst and explosiveness. When they put their foot in the ground, how quickly can they accelerate? Speed encompasses all of that. You always want to recruit strong, durable guys. Guys who can win the physical battles. Guys that don’t mind sticking their face in there and getting dirty. And of course, you want durable guys that can stay healthy. That’s a key in the college and the NFL: staying healthy.
RC: What mental traits stand out the most when evaluating prospects?
MR: First and foremost, you want guys who love football. Guys who want to be in the gym. You want guys who are self-motivated and want to be around their teammates. Practice is hard. No matter what level you’re at, you want guys who practice hard. You want guys who have football smarts and can react. They need to react to when gaps are moving. They understand when routes are breaking. If they can see something happening and can anticipate it happening, that’s a huge plus. On top of that, you want guys who can handle adversity on the grass. These are guys who don’t tank it every time they get beat. Everybody gets beat. Everybody wants guys who get excited when they make plays. They need to be able to hang in there for 48 or 60 minutes.
RC: When meeting a recruit in person, what were you looking for in behavior, body language, and attitude?
MR: There’s so many different kinds of young people out there. As a recruiter, you need to learn how to handle all different kinds of personalities. There isn’t anything that turns me off on a first impression. You don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life or what happened that day. They could have failed a test two minutes before. Their girlfriend could have just broken up with them. To be honest, I didn’t put much decision making into the first impression from that perspective. But of course, you want good young men who are trustworthy, responsible, and treat people. They need to be coachable, good teammates, and good students. When meeting someone, as long as they’re respectful, they’re alright by me.
RC: What’s one piece of advice you would give a player that wants to play for you?
MR: Do the right thing, be coachable, be available. Be a good teammate.
RC: Would you say you put in more, less, or the same amount of hours in the NFL that you did in the college ranks?
MR: It’s so different. In college, you have the football aspect, the recruiting aspect, and then the various things about campus life that affect your players. They have academics, social life, study hall, and whatever other groups they’re in. The Nfl is all ball. You have to abide by the 20 hours of football a week rule in college. In the NFL, you have players from whenever you start in the morning to as late as you need to be there. In college, you may have one meeting in the morning and then practice. In the pros, you have a meeting in the morning, a walkthrough, another meeting, a practice, and then another meeting.
RC: When a player holds out or is butting heads with the front office, does it necessarily change the way you and the player interact on the practice and game fields?
MR: No. The coach-player relationship is so unique. As a coach, you want to make your player the best that he can be. You want him to have the most success that he can possibly have. Because of the trust you’ve built, that player wants to be coached by play for you. The coach-player relationship is about being accountable to each other, respecting each other, having each other’s back, and ultimately doing what’s best for the linebackers, the defense, and the entire team. It is a cooperative relationship.
RC: In the NFL, do you have any input or role in college/professional scouting?
MR: Absolutely. We are presented with a list of players. In my case, I get a list of strong-side linebackers for free agency and the draft that the personnel department wants me to evaluate. After the season, we are involved with the NFL Combine. We work guys out for pro days or private workouts.
RC: The AFC South is the tightest divisional race in football. Is winning a divisional game in a season like this a little more satisfying than a win against say, an NFC South team?
MR: To win in the NFL is so hard. It shows you how competitive the league is. Any win is extremely gratifying. It’s a testament to how good the players and coaches are in this league.
RC: Losing Telvin Smith in your linebacker group was clearly a big blow. Replacing a Pro Bowler and captain is not ideal. Who has stepped up the most as a leader and playmaker?
MR: We are super lucky to have a diverse group of young veterans like Myles Jack, older veterans like Najee Goode, and younger players that were drafted in the past few years. They work so well together. It is so awesome to watch.
RC: What’s the most difficult part about preparing for each game as a linebacker’s coach? Is it more physical preparation or mental preparation in the film room?
MR: The challenge each week is making sure you’re evaluating the right things that can affect your position group. We need to be able to recognize what an offense can do to hurt our linebackers and explain it in a clear and concise way.
RC: Is it harder to get a professional to buy in to what you’re teaching them?
MR: I don’t think there’s a difference. Sure, you may be dealing with a younger, less experienced person in college. However, it’s our job to show them that we care about them and that we can help them get better. It’s the same at the college level, the NFL level, and even Pop Warner football. To me, that’s the definition of a coach.
RC: What’s one thing about your job that you feel the media and the fans overlook?
MR: The sacrifice of hours. We roll all day.
RC: How do you advocate for yourself when applying for coaching jobs? Do you defend your skillset? Is it hard not to give yourself too much credit for a player’s success?
MR: Do the best job where you’re at. No matter what. Do the best job that you can for your players and the coaches you work with and for.
RC: Do you hate Thursday Night Football because it’s a short week?
MR: Any chance to compete is a great opportunity.
RC: Would you ever want to be on Hard Knocks?
MR: Haha. I like to stay out of the lime light.
RC: Who’s the most talented player you’ve ever coached?
MR: If you’re in the NFL or even in college, you have an unreal amount of talent, strength, and athleticism. I couldn’t say that there is a “best that I’ve ever coached.” I will say that if there’s one player who I would have liked to see his career pan out, it’s Sean Taylor. I was Coach Gibbs’ assistant at the time. I would have loved to see his career pan out. He’s a great human being and a great player. This league is filled with so many great players. I’m amazed every day during simple drills at how talented these guys are. That’s no lie.
RC: Can you describe your Cornell Sprint Football experience in three words/phrases?
MR: Camaraderie, Competitives, Love for Cornell