Ill-advised, unexpected and needed: Trevor Ruhland fills in for Notre Dame

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Trevor Ruhland should not be starting at right guard for Notre Dame on Saturday at Duke. It’s not because he is not talented — any scholarship offensive linemen on the Irish roster has plenty of talent to at least make a spot start. And it’s not just because senior Tommy Kraemer is injured; an MCL sprain is a minor nick and somewhat an inevitability along the line. It is not even because Ruhland always thought his time to shine would come at center, not next to first-year starting center Jarrett Patterson.

It is because, literally, Ruhland should not be on the field. Not at practice, not in games, not at all. After three surgeries on his left knee, two torn pectorals, a broken elbow, a torn labrum, a broken ankle and, just for good measure, a broken nose, doctors told Ruhland to end his career.

“I’m beat up, I won’t lie to you,” Ruhland said after the Irish beat Virginia Tech on Saturday, his first start of the season and sixth of his career. “I’ve been told not to play, that I shouldn’t play because I have the knee of an 80-year-old, [doctors] say.”

That knee sidelined Ruhland in the spring, when he was supposed to finally get his chance to be Notre Dame’s starting center. He had patiently worked as a utility man behind Sam Mustipher for years. That role included starts at each guard position last season, originally in place of injured Alex Bars at left guard and then in a timeshare with Kraemer.

Partly because the Irish coaching staff did not expect Ruhland to be active this season and partly because it was high on Patterson, that starting center’s gig was out of Ruhland’s reach before he could even convince anyone otherwise.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play, the spring was really hard for me,” he said. “I was coming in hopefully getting the starting center spot, waiting my four years for it. Injuries kind of derailed a little bit of that.”

Notre Dame outright expected the fifth-year lineman to be a medical hardship this season, still around the team but officially retired. The negative effects figured to be most felt in practice, dropping the Irish from three full units of offensive linemen in the preseason to only 14. Hardly a terrible position to be in. Beyond that, while Ruhland provided experienced depth, some of those other nine backups could theoretically step up in case of injury.

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Better that than further beat up Ruhland, especially if he was compromised in the summer and thus not properly prepared once the season arrived.

“The medical people were just giving him all of their best advice as to where he was physically and whether he could take the pounding in the weight room, all the running you need to do through the summer,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “They couldn’t modify [his workouts] that much or he wouldn’t be ready to play.”

Ruhland had other ideas. He didn’t flinch at being the line’s utilityman once again. He endured the summer’s pounding on what is left of his knee. He readied for the season, not knowing if he would be needed.

“This is a conscious choice on his part, even after medical intervention, in a sense that this may not be the best decision for you down the road, but he wanted to do it and he’s taking care of himself,” Kelly said. “He’s kept himself ready and consequently, he’s able to step in at a critical time when we need him and come through for us.

“Good for him. All the credit to him for getting himself ready mentally and physically.”

How long this lasts is anyone’s guess. Kelly and Ruhland both know he is not up for 90-plus snaps a week, but if he can reach 70 at Duke and thus ease in sophomore John Dirksen, that may be enough. If that can be put off another week or two, all the better. Ruhland has bought Dirksen and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn some time, albeit borrowed time.

If he has to live in the training room — more close to literal than for other players as a graduate student — then that just means his teammates know where to find him, as junior tight end Cole Kmet joked. If Ruhland has to start planning his Sunday recovery before he even finishes celebrating Saturday, then that is just a compliment to a training staff he calls “the best people in the world.” If Ruhland only has a couple more weeks of play ahead of him, then that is a couple more than expected this summer.

Whatever the long-term consequences of all that may be, Ruhland does not hesitate to think moments like Saturday’s last-minute touchdown are worth it.

“How could you miss something like this?” he said with a smile. “If I was on the sidelines watching that, obviously I’d be excited for everybody, but it would make me sick. I just want to be a part of it.

“… I couldn’t give it up. I came back for moments like this. You might not see it in my face right now, but I can’t be any happier than I am.”

If it couldn’t be seen in his face, that was probably partly because he was focused on keeping it straight to mask the pain inevitably felt by a body that just played nearly 90 snaps on an 80-year-old knee.