Wearing a Citrus Bowl Champions T-shirt and a wide smile, Jake Rudock stepped onto the stage and, for once, there was nowhere to deflect the attention.
With an MVP performance in the Citrus Bowl, Rudock had just secured one of the greatest statistical seasons by a quarterback in Michigan history, finishing with the second-most yards, completions and completion percentage in a single season.
The only Wolverine on the stage at that time, Rudock walked along the front of it, high-fiving teammates who took delight in the moment.
Then, Rudock noticed someone standing on the field near stage left. Redshirt junior wide receiver Jehu Chesson, who had left the Wolverines 41-7 win over Florida with an apparent leg injury, was back on the field.
Rudock, who will likely someday be either a doctor or an NFL quarterback, paused to ask Chesson if he was OK.
Two days before the game, Rudock’s father, Bob, could have explained the moment before it happened. Rudock’s personal mantra, his father said, is “It’s not about me.”
This was a game, mind you, that Rudock had owned. He threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns, wrapping up a season that put him in contention to make an NFL roster in the summer.
Rudock routinely makes sure it’s not about himself, but this moment, on the stage at the Citrus Bowl, was entirely his own.
So how did it feel for him to be there alone on the stage, with no teammates to give the glory?
“Oh, it was fun,” Rudock started. And then he gave his teammates the glory anyway.
“The guys were loving it, they know how I am. I’d rather have the five big linemen up there — they’re the reason we were able to do everything we were able to do. But yeah, it was awesome. I’m just really happy for our guys.”
Before the Citrus Bowl or the records, and before Jake Rudock even thought about the University of Michigan, he had a chance to play professional baseball.
The son of a baseball coach, Rudock had been around the game from a young age — one or two years old, by his father’s estimation. And the more Jake was around the game, the more he learned to love baseball and sports in general.
He played throughout his childhood, and when he arrived at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — where his dad was coaching — he joined a roster filled with talented athletes.
In Jake’s junior year, he hit cleanup in a batting order that featured James White, now a running back for the New England Patriots, and Giovanni Bernard, now of the Cincinnati Bengals, who hit first and second, respectively, in some games.
Bernard and White are now veterans of the NFL, a level Rudock may someday attain if he can impress scouts in the coming months.
But it won’t be the first time the quarterback has faced the scouting process for professional sports.
By the end of his senior year of high school, even though Jake had committed to play football at Iowa, Bob Rudock was getting phone calls about his son’s baseball future.
“When the draft was coming up, I had a number of calls from some (Major League Baseball) teams seeing if he was really going to go to Iowa,” Bob Rudock said. “Because they were going to draft him — not early, but they were going to draft him late (or sign him as a free agent).”
If Rudock thought he would have been a high-round pick, he might have taken a shot at the MLB Draft. But as things stood, he had another love developing with football.
He went to Iowa and had a successful career by most standards. Rudock started for two seasons as a Hawkeye, compiling an impressive touchdown-interception ratio, but he earned a reputation as a game manager.
For a quarterback, the term “game manager” can sometimes have an underwhelming connotation. Broadly speaking, it means he wouldn’t hurt the team, but he wouldn’t be the difference in many games, either. After two years of Rudock under center, the Hawkeyes handed the reigns of their offense to C.J. Beathard. Rudock’s days at Iowa were numbered, and he had to do what was best for him, so he sought a fresh start in Ann Arbor. The “game manager” label followed him.
Rudock, though, never seemed bothered by it. He wanted to help the team win games, and whatever that meant for his role was fine by him.
By the end of summer camp, he was the Wolverines’ starting quarterback. He won the job, and then he started winning games. Late in the season, he found a rhythm on deep passes, and that’s when he started breaking records. Ironically, his season seemed to pivot after he was knocked out of a game against Minnesota. In the aftermath of Michigan’s goal-line stand victory over the Golden Gophers, Rudock’s arm and resilience began to come into focus.
He absorbed hits at the end of runs and still never seemed scared to take off the next time. For being a “safe” option, Rudock was showing a curious amount of toughness. And Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t shy about weighing in.
“In terms of respect and appreciation, he left a deep, indelible warmth in our heart for him,” Harbaugh said of Rudock on Nov. 23, before the Ohio State game. “He is so tough. This past game (against Penn State), I mean, the toughness was on display. I know I’ve said it, and maybe saying tough as a two-dollar steak doesn’t even give it real justice. This guy is tough as nails, hard as hen’s teeth. He’s been a godsend for our team.”
But where did it come from? How did Jake Rudock become hard as hen’s teeth or tough as nails?
That gave Harbaugh pause.
“Hmm. That’s a great question,” he said. “I don’t think it’s — it’s a talent. I’ve always looked at toughness as a talent, that it’s trained. It’s not just granted upon somebody.
“He’s been trained well.”
Asked how Jake Rudock became Jake Rudock, Ken Mastrole has little hesitation.
Mastrole, a former quarterback at Maryland who had stints in the AFL and NFL Europe, started as Rudock’s quarterback coach his sophomore year of high school. And in their time together, Mastrole has noticed that his pupil has benefitted from a strong support system.
“Bob’s always had him around just good people,” Mastrole said on the phone last Thursday, the day before the Citrus Bowl. “Everything that Harbaugh said about him, the two-dollar steak comments and stuff, are totally dead-on accurate of his kind of personality and demeanor.”
Jake Rudock learned his first three-step drop from Dave Shula, the former head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals and the son of legendary coach Don Shula. Shula and the Rudocks are friends, which meant Rudock got to learn the most basic skill of quarterbacking from Shula in one of the two families’ living rooms.
That was the beginning of football for Rudock.
“He made (the local) All-Star team (in middle school) and won the MVP as the safety, and the next year he switched to quarterback and he won the MVP as the quarterback in the local All-Star (event),” Bob Rudock said.
But by the time he got to high school — when then-St. Thomas Aquinas coach George Smith saw him — quarterback was the position that stuck.
That could have led to an inflated ego for a kid who had only been playing football for a short time. But those close to Rudock say it’s just not in his nature to let the cart get ahead of the horse.
Spend a few minutes on the phone with Bob Rudock, and it’s not hard to see why the refrains on Jake Rudock are about his selflessness and leadership. Just like his son, Bob is thoughtful. He thinks through questions before jumping right to an answer, and it seems to have rubbed off on his son.
“(Jake is) a guy that actually listens to his dad,” Mastrole said.
“His dad uses a great line all the time, it’s about two lines in life. … Basically, the one line has your parents, your girlfriend, your friends … because they tell you what you want to hear. Jake’s got a couple guys in the other line that are the guys that are really going to hold him to a higher standard.
“A lot of kids don’t want to — they want to listen to the long line of people who tell you, ‘Hey, you’re great, you’re fantastic,’ and I get that. But I think people that are looking out for your best interest … you making the right decisions, using your time wisely, learning to control your emotions and being a good student and being a good leader, Jake’s really focused on that line.”
That line of people cultivated a leader in Rudock, which turned out to be crucial when playing at talent-rich St. Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas is the definition of a football powerhouse. The school has won six state titles since 2007, and its alumni — including White, Bernard, Indianapolis Colts’ wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and others — litter NFL rosters.
According to Smith, Rudock has started more games than any quarterback in school history. And while he was there, Rudock and a teammate, Austin Barron, who now plays at Florida State, started a saying the school still uses: “You go, we go.”
“They would point around the room and point fingers at everybody and go, ‘You go,’ and then ‘You go,’ ‘You go,’ ‘You go,’ ” Smith said. “And when everybody is going, then, ‘We go.’ ”
As a football player, it’s hard to find a better place to play than St. Thomas Aquinas, where Smith’s program churned out top-flight college talent regularly. But in “You go, we go,” Rudock left something lasting at the program even among so many other star players.
After the school fell short of the state title his junior year, all Rudock did in his senior season was lead it to a 15-0 record as well as regional, state and national titles.
His final game, fittingly, was a state championship victory at the Citrus Bowl.
There’s a side to Jake Rudock that’s rarely seen by the media. In public, he’s loose, but he rarely lets on much about himself, preferring to deflect praise onto his teammates and coaches.
Even when it is about him, it isn’t about him.
And that’s where the curiosity with Rudock comes to a head. Rudock is unanimously referred to as a leader, mature and business-like, but few people seem able to articulate who Rudock is at heart — the reason he is the way he is in the huddle.
Asked this question over the phone Wednesday, two days before the Citrus Bowl, Bob Rudock put it better than just about anyone else could.
“Jake is very … how do I say this? He’s very unassuming,” Rudock said. “He does not like the limelight. … He’s very friendly. He’s funny — he will give you movie lines left and right if you let him get into it — but he does have the mentality where it’s his job to make sure everything gels.
“It’s about him getting everybody else better.”
That’s exactly what Rudock has done at Michigan. Twenty-one different Michigan players caught a pass this season, assuming you don’t count the pass Rudock completed to himself off a deflection against Michigan State.
He started slow, but as his chemistry with Chesson, Jake Butt and Amara Darboh developed, he ultimately turned in one of the best statistical seasons by a quarterback in school history. He threw for 3,017 yards and 20 touchdowns while also solidifying the second-best completion percentage in school history at 64 percent.
Still, no matter how much success he has, Rudock’s public image only recently began to shake the “boring” or “safe” label.
But redshirt junior running back Drake Johnson says that’s a product of the quarterback’s humor and personality being more subtle.
“He’s got a very sarcastic sense of humor,” Johnson said last Wednesday. “If you’re not keen to it, you’ll be (obliviously) like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah.’ … He’s so smart that he can play with simple things.”
A couple nights earlier, Johnson, Rudock, Chesson and junior quarterback John O’Korn were at Buffalo Wild Wings having dinner. They were having a fairly normal conversation when Johnson picked up on one of Rudock’s jokes below the surface.
Johnson didn’t recall the joke, but he did remember his reaction.
“It hits you a minute late,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Wait, Jake…’ and he just gave me the wink. Once I see the wink, I’m just like, ‘Damn, he got me.’ ”
By most accounts, Rudock has a good sense of humor, even if it takes a bit of time to understand it. That suits Rudock, because it takes a bit of time to understand him, too. He is confident, but not boastful. He is a leader, but not outspoken. He’s a college football player, but he’s mature beyond his years.
If left entirely to his own devices, with no schedule, Rudock’s dad said he thinks Jake would prefer to just watch a movie with friends or family. But it’s hard for him to say for sure.
“Gosh, as long as I can remember there’s been a schedule,” Bob Rudock said. “And you’ve gotta keep the schedule. You get your classwork done, you get your football done, you get your baseball done, you get your lifting in. There has not been a whole lot of free time.”
The coming months will put all of Rudock’s gifts — on the field and off it — to the ultimate test. In the next year, he will either be trying out for NFL rosters or applying to medical school, a slightly ironic dichotomy he seems destined to fulfill both sides of eventually.
He’s considering attending scouting camps, plus Michigan’s pro day and, potentially, the NFL combine.
For Rudock, being drafted to the NFL is not out of reach. Otherwise, there’s a damned good chance he becomes a doctor — not a bad fallback plan.
In any case, Rudock will be doing what he’s always done best: making other people better.
“You hear the Bo Schembechler, ‘The team, the team, the team,’ ” Bob Rudock said. “Well, Jake was living that as long as I remember.”
In the waning moments of his Michigan career, after Rudock had answered his last postgame interview question, a Michigan spokesman approached him with a visitor. Jack Harbaugh, Jim’s toddler son, wanted a picture with Jake.
“Mighty Jack the Quarterback,” as Harbaugh called his son at his introductory press conference last December, had stolen Rudock’s hat, and they posed for a picture.
Rudock, after the last game of his college career, told him to keep it.
“It looks better on you anyway,” he said.
Daily staff photographer Allison Farrand contributed reporting to this story.