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Early connection helped heralded recruit Nolan Rucci find a home with Wisconsin Badgers

Early connection helped heralded recruit Nolan Rucci find a home with Wisconsin Badgers

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Nolan Rucci feature photo

Five-star offensive tackle Nolan Rucci headlines what is set to be the Badgers' best recruiting class in the internet rankings era. Rucci said the down-to-Earth nature of the coaching staff stood out among pitches from other top programs in the country. 

Nolan Rucci remembers with great detail the first time he saw Madison.

The sights of the city first caught Rucci’s attention while rolling into town in an RV his parents borrowed from a family member. The lakes on either side of downtown, the Capitol, the University of Wisconsin’s campus, State Street — all of it immediately appealed to him.

The trip five years ago was a recruiting visit for his older brother Hayden, so he and his family met with Joe Rudolph, UW’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, and tight ends coach Mickey Turner. That stay planted seeds in Rucci’s mind about Madison’s atmosphere and the people running the Badgers’ program.

Those seeds grew into roots that helped UW win an intense, nationwide recruiting battle for Rucci, a five-star offensive tackle out of Lititz, Pennsylvania.

“I think just seeing that for the first time and getting introduced to the coaching staff, even before I was getting recruited … I think having that early contact and starting to develop those relationships definitely helped me out,” Rucci said.

Rucci plans to sign his National Letter of Intent on Wednesday — the first day of the early signing period — to make things official. Rucci is ranked in the top seven nationally at his position and was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country.

The Badgers have 21 known accepted offers in the 2021 class, all of whom could sign their NLIs on Wednesday. The Badgers’ class, led by Rucci, is ranked No. 14 nationally by Rivals, No. 16 by 247Sports and No. 17 by ESPN, which would be the program’s best rankings in the internet era.

UW is getting a player in Rucci whose ethos matches the program’s. The Badgers also are getting their next potential star tackle who comes in with an NFL pedigree and a 6-foot-8, 295-pound frame looking to maul people.

“(He’s) the overall package,” said Bob Locker, Rucci’s coach at Warwick High School. “You can coach for a really long time and not see somebody that big, that athletic, that intelligent, that humble, that courteous, that respectful.”

Surrounded by coaches

Todd Rucci wasn’t projecting either of his boys would be Division I football players. He and his wife, Stacy, just wanted them playing sports, and many of them.

Todd and Stacy coached their sons in a number of sports growing up — mainly football, basketball and lacrosse — but the Ruccis also had their sons involved in swimming, ice skating, skiing and other activities. Both of them had come from athletic backgrounds, with Stacy being an All-American field hockey player at Penn State and Todd playing eight years for the New England Patriots after a successful career with the Nittany Lions.

“We’ve had a ball with it,” Todd said. “They’ve been great responding to it. We just enjoy being able to be along for the journey with them at certain levels of their life. I think we’re all better for it. … I think we’re able to kind of be involved with a lot of things maybe other parents aren’t able to just because we were coaching their sport.”

When it came to football, Todd coached his sons from youth league through high school, helping on Locker’s staff not long after retiring from the NFL. Rucci was in a rare position to learn directly from his dad, who played guard for the Patriots after playing tackle for Penn State.

“It’s been awesome. There are sometimes where it’s like, ‘Man, I really wish it wasn’t my dad reaming me out right now,’” Rucci said, laughing. “His experience in the NFL and at the collegiate level, I think it’s been invaluable. (Having) size and athleticism alone is one thing, but I think it really has taken my game to the next level. The amount of technique that he’s been able to teach me as an NFL veteran, it’s been awesome just getting to pick his brain on things when we’re watching games and stuff. It’s been pretty special.”

Todd loved the chance to pass on what he knew to Nolan, as he had with Hayden. But Hayden’s body and skills saw him moved to tight end during his prep career, and Todd says he couldn’t help as much with route running and receiving techniques Hayden was learning.

As Rucci grew through high school, the level of detail Todd could share increased.

“It’s been awesome just to be able to give him some things that took me a long time to figure out,” Todd said. “And then having the opportunity to give it to a kid at the high school level who, No. 1, can understand it and use it and is able to incorporate it during the game.

“Mentally how to play the game as an offensive tackle, how you set, the way you use different techniques against different types of pass rushers. … I think the best thing about Nolan is he wants to get better. He understands what he has, but he really wants to get better.”

Rucci’s high school team went 8-0 this season before its postseason run was cut short due to issues with COVID-19. But Locker said he knew throughout his time coaching the Ruccis they were getting coached at home probably more often than they were on the practice field.

“His father’s a fantastic coach, got a great working knowledge of the game,” Locker said. “The conversations that took place in their house, it’s pretty high-level football stuff.”

Why Wisconsin

The pursuit of Rucci intensified as his recruiting profile grew. He held offers from every big-name program in the country, including Alabama, Clemson, Florida, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State and UW.

He still was undecided this spring when the pandemic shut down in-person recruiting. That eliminated some visits Rucci had planned and parked him in front of a computer conducting Zoom calls with coaches vying for his commitment. Todd said Rucci was spending five to six hours a night, multiple nights per week, on Zoom calls when recruiting was at its height.

Rucci kept an even keel as the attention around him swirled. He narrowed his field to nine programs April 20, all of which featured two non-negotiable traits — strong engineering programs and coaches capable of pushing him to the next level.

Rucci said watching Hayden go through the recruiting process was crucial to not letting it overwhelm him when his turn came.

“I got to kind of see it from the outside perspective and to see how well he went through it and the things he did and how he kept himself level-headed and focused on the high school level and focused on football season,” Rucci said.

His parents having been through recruiting as athletes and parents provided a guide as well. Having those voices in his life helped him filter what was extraneous and what mattered.

“Being able to see the things that I like in schools, what’s kind of gimmicky as far as recruiting goes, and really what’s the real stuff you should be focusing on? The people, the coaches, the guys in the locker room,” Rucci said. “I think being able to see that and then going through it myself, it was awesome because it’s an experience a lot of guys don’t have.”

UW separated itself in this area.

Badgers coaches weren’t pitching a brand or an idea to Rucci. They showed who they were and what their program was. Rucci announced his oral commitment to UW before a high school practice Sept. 8.

“It’s almost like the lack thereof of them selling (anything),” Rucci said about the appeal of the Badgers’ staff. “They’re not trying to sell Wisconsin to you. I think that was one of the important things for me, was how down to Earth the coaching staff was, how genuine the coaches were and the players and the guys there. Not every school’s like that.”

Hayden’s influence

Hayden was there serving as an example of the UW experience as Rucci weighed his options over the past two years.

Hayden — who’s getting his first playing time this season as UW’s No. 2 tight end — first and foremost wanted the best for his brother, but he couldn’t help but thinking the Badgers were the right choice for him.

“Absolutely he was waving the flag the whole way,” Rucci said, “And I appreciate that because not every brother is that way. It was cool because of how supportive he was of me. Obviously he wanted to come to Wisconsin, but he understood that it was my decision at the end of the day.”

Hayden admits it was a difficult position to be in. The two trained together during the summer when COVID-19 shut down traditional gym options, and while he respected Nolan’s process, he wanted to share a uniform with his brother again.

Hayden Rucci MUG

H. Rucci

“I was always trying to get him to come here, but then again trying to help him see that there could be other places,” Hayden said. “But just telling him about my experience and why I love this place, I think that’s why I wanted him to be able to find home here. Just to know that it’s not just me saying it, but for him to understand that.”

Todd believes Hayden’s first-hand accounts of the locker room, coaching staff and environment he was in helped swing things the Badgers’ way.

“Hayden absolutely loves everything about Wisconsin, the team, the football program, the academics, Madison itself, everything surrounding it,” Todd said. “That was real. You didn’t have to sell that on a recruiting trip or be told about it on a Zoom call or be shown a video about it. He got that from the past 18 months (from Hayden), and I think that really helped him confirm a lot of the things he had in his head.”

Brothers playing together isn’t new for the Badgers, who currently have John and Leo Chenal on the roster, and could have another set of siblings in Jack and Bryan Sanborn next season depending on Jack Sanborn’s NFL decision.

But the dream of playing together again becoming a reality almost was surreal for the Rucci brothers. The last game they played together was after a second-round playoff game in Hayden’s senior season of 2018.

“Just walking off the field with my brother like, ‘Damn, is this really it? Am I even going to be able to play next to him again?’” Hayden said. “In the back of my mind, I had that feeling like, ‘Well there’s a chance that he could be coming here with me.’ And then to realize that’s actually coming true, I think it’s so exciting. I can’t tell you how pumped I am to be able to be next to him in a couple of years.”

Rucci plans to enroll at UW next fall and is part of an offensive line class that features two other four-star recruits: Grafton’s JP Benzschawel and Riley Mahlman, the top-ranked player out of Minnesota.

Rucci said he expects one thing when he arrives on campus — hard work.

“Recruiting’s been great and it’s cool to be recognized nationally and everything like that, but at the end of the day, all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you get on the practice field and in the locker room,” he said.

“I think when I get there, I’m ready to earn my stripes and get after it. Start to get to work with the guys in my class and the guys ahead of me.”

Get to know the Badgers’ 2021 recruiting class

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