While it’s unusual for a college football player to skip spring practices, Parker Fleming isn’t worried about Noah Ruggles’ absence from Ohio State this spring affecting his performance this fall.
After all, Ruggles wasn’t at Ohio State for spring football last year either, as he didn’t join the Buckeyes as a graduate transfer until last June. That didn’t stop him from making all but one of his 21 field goal attempts in 2021. And Fleming, Ohio State’s special teams coordinator, trusts that Ruggles has done what he needs to do to keep himself in shape and ready to kick while he’s been away from the team.
“He's an older guy, he's mature, he can take care of himself,” Fleming said Friday. “And that's something he was doing the entire time he wasn't with us.”
While Ruggles was not enrolled at Ohio State for the spring semester, Fleming and Ohio State head coach Ryan Day both said Friday that the sixth-year senior kicker will be back with the Buckeyes this summer.
Neither of them wanted to speak for Ruggles about why he wasn’t on campus this spring, as Day simply said Ruggles “needed a little time away.” Fleming said the reason for Ruggles’ absence was “nothing bad,” though, and that it was a decision Ruggles cleared with Day and Fleming ahead of time.
“It was something I hadn't experienced in the past before, but really, it was kind of a personal thing. It wasn't a big deal,” Fleming said. “It was just kind of a situation Noah and the head coach and I had a conversation and that's the direction that we went.”
Fleming said he was in regular contact with Ruggles throughout the spring, but he wasn’t giving Ruggles specific instructions of what to do while he was away from campus. Rather, Fleming just wanted to make sure Ruggles knew Fleming and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff was there for him if he needed anything.
“It wasn't ever asking him to do certain things. I mean, I talk to him all the time,” Fleming said. “He and I have a great relationship. And so we were constantly communicating, it wasn't necessarily checking in. It was one of those just making sure he's got what he needs to make sure he's doing what he needs to be doing. If he needs help from me or support from anybody here, we're always here for that. But he's mature, he kind of takes care of his business in those ways.”
That’s not to say Fleming won’t have things to work on with Ruggles this summer. While Ruggles was nearly flawless on field goals and perfect on extra points last season, Fleming said he still thinks Ruggles has plenty of room to grow.
“He had a really good season last year,” Fleming said. “Something we've talked about a lot is how he can improve off a great season. There’s a lot of ways you can. And that's something we've been focusing on throughout the last few months.”
As reliable as Ruggles was last year, when he was a Lou Groza Award finalist, he’ll still face competition for the kicking job in preseason camp. Former USC kicker Parker Lewis is transferring to Ohio State after starting for the Trojans for the past two years, and he did so with the expectation that he’ll get the opportunity to compete with Ruggles, as he was told by Day “this wouldn't be Ohio State if we played favorites.”
Fleming was not yet able to talk specifically about Lewis on Friday, as Lewis will not officially enroll at Ohio State until this weekend, but Fleming said there will be a kicking competition this summer, not only between Ruggles and Lewis but also with the other kickers on the roster, who include redshirt sophomore Jake Seibert and freshman walk-on Jayden Fielding.
Fleming was pleased with what he saw from those kickers in spring practice and the spring game, where Seibert and Fielding split kicking duties with sophomore walk-on Garrison Smith, who has since entered the transfer portal.
“It gave the young guys a great opportunity to go show what they did,” Fleming said in reference to Ruggles’ absence. “If you guys paid attention to the spring game, we have some good talent with some younger guys as well.”
While Ruggles’ performance last year probably gives him a leg up in that competition – at least on field goals and extra points, as Lewis is expected to make an immediate push for the kickoff job – Fleming believes the competition will ultimately make all of the kickers on the roster better.
“I think all competition is good competition,” Fleming said. “I think that our job here is to make sure that we get the best out of our players every day. And the motto around here is fight. Fight to be the best version of yourself every day. And in some places, the best possible way to do that is to compete. And sometimes competition against yourself is really good. Sometimes competition against other people brings the best out of everybody. And that's kind of our mindset around here.”
Fleming says he will take the same approach with every position on special teams even though Jesse Mirco returns as Ohio State’s only scholarship punter and Bradley Robinson returns with two years of starting experience at long snapper.
“It's open competition at all times. That's just the nature of who we are,” Fleming said. “And so while yeah, they’ve started, they have game experience, that's huge – especially at specialist positions where it's such a different mentality than other positions – it's good that they can have that experience to kind of pass on to some of the other guys and push each other.”