Not looking back

Josh Terrell

He’s been away for a few years, but Joe Rudulph has finally come home – and he wants to leave his baggage at the door.

Saturday’s road loss at Montana not only marked the 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound Oregon State transfer’s debut with the Hornets, it also represented a fresh start with his hometown team.

Actively recruited by Sacramento State in 2003 as a Natomas High defensive line standout, Rudulph was deemed too light to play college-level ball at a position that requires some of the game’s heavier players.

“I was like 190 (pounds) when they recruited me,” Rudulph said. “The numbers game just didn’t match up, so I couldn’t get a full ride.”

Then Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson came with an offer, one year before he himself would leave for the San Francisco 49ers.

“He saw something in me, some potential, so he offered me a chance to get big up there,” Rudulph said.

At Oregon State, Rudulph got big, red-shirting his freshman year under new Coach Mike Riley and then flashing some of what he might become on the field during his sophomore year as a backup.

But it was an off-the-field incident at a local hangout in November of 2004 that would leave the Beavers’ hometown of Corvallis wondering what they really had on their hands. Rudulph was convicted of a highly-publicized assault.

“That was a mistake I made when I was younger. Everybody makes mistakes in life; it’s all about how you come back from it,” Rudulph said.

Smaller than most linemen, Rudulph worked hard to compensate for his insufficient girth with extra helpings of fire and emotion, and it’s a big part of his game. Ironically that intensity, viewed after the conviction, worked against him.

“Once I got the size, and then after what happened, people started saying that since I played with emotion, that I was a troubled player and a problem,” Rudulph said.

Recurring scuffles during practices, Rudulph’s heart-on-his-sleeve approach contrasting coach Mike Riley’s more controlled, even-keel style and a misunderstanding with new defensive line coach Joe Seumalo spelled the end for Rudulph as a Beaver. He played in 20 games with Oregon State.

Beaver defensive coordinator Mark Banker refused a telephone interview regarding Rudulph.

“I wanted to be done with my past, but my past wasn’t done with me up there,” Rudulph said. “Really though, I have no hard feelings for coach Riley or anybody else at Oregon.”

Eyeing a chance to revitalize his career in more familiar surroundings, Rudulph contacted Sac State about a possible transfer and, following committee approval last week, joined the Hornets three seasons after the team had pushed to land him. For football eligibility purposes, he’s a junior. Academically, he’s a senior sociology major with just a few classes to go.

“From talking to Mike Riley, he convinced me that Joe isn’t going to be a high-risk guy,” Coach Steve Mooshagian said. “He needed a new environment, a new place to play.”

“He’s done a good job academically, and I think he understands this is his second chance and there won’t be a third.”

Rudulph is content to be back among family and friends and eager to disconnect with the darker aspect of his past. His return to Sacramento represents what he hopes is a clean slate.

“This city’s always had my back. I figured if I played football here, people would be more concerned about how I’m playing football than what happened to me three years ago,” Rudulph said.

Sac State defensive line coach Jim House got his first peek at the Beaver transfer in practice last week and admits that, while it won’t be easy learning a new system on the fly, Rudulph’s athleticism and experience will facilitate a steeper learning curve.

“I’m excited to coach him, he’s a talented guy. But we’re coaching him on the run, it’s like ‘okay, get in there,'” House said.

“We’re meeting daily, trying to give it to him as fast as he can handle it, but he’s been in a major college program, so he understands.”

His familiarity with the system will evolve over time. In the meantime, Rudulph plans on keeping his head up in an effort to prove that the team’s decision to open its arms to him was warranted.

“I was expecting that, you know, me coming from a big school, that they’d probably look at me like I think I’m too good. But they accepted me into the family,” Rudulph said.

“I can repay (Mooshagian) by going out and playing hard, getting my degree, and keeping my nose clean,” Rudulph said.

Josh Terrell can be reached at [email protected]