UNC defensive end Kaimon Rucker a linchpin as Tar Heels’ defense prepares for Clemson

Some anonymous offensive linemen in the recruiting space lost the chance to get a scholarship offer from North Carolina because of Kaimon Rucker.

The Tar Heels’ starting defensive end — which they call the power end — was often told he was too short, or he needed to move to another position when he was being recruited out of high school.

But all Rucker seems to do is make plays.

Rucker, who’s listed as 6-foot-2.25 and 265 pounds, is one of several Carolina players, like linebacker Power Echols and even receiver Josh Downs, who doesn’t have prototype measurements. But there’s no measurement for heart. That’s why he never wavered or doubted what he could achieve.

“I’ve always been a person who’s just like, if I feel like I’m gonna do something, then I’m gonna do it,” Rucker said. “I felt like defensive end/outside linebacker was the best position for me to get in at the collegiate level and I’ll prove just that. No matter if I’m a certain height, certain weight, certain requirements that I don’t reach up to, I’ve checked all the boxes of how it’s heart over height.”

UNC coach Mack Brown didn’t know who Rucker was when he participated in a high school camp. But as Rucker continued to make plays, Brown started asking around.

“Kaimon Rucker wasn’t highly recruited at all, everybody thought he was too short,” Brown said. “I saw him come to our camp and he cost a bunch of big ol’ offensive lineman scholarships because he ran over all them.”

He can’t cost anyone a scholarship anymore, but he could just as easily influence some postseason accolades when the Tar Heels face Clemson on Saturday in the ACC championship game played at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

Rucker could find himself going against one of the best linemen in the league in Clemson offensive tackle Jordan McFadden, who was named first team All-ACC and won the league’s Jacob’s Blocking Trophy that recognizes the best blocker in the conference. McFadden is 6-foot-2, 305 pounds, and has allowed just four sacks and five hurries on 414 pass plays, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He has really, really good suddenness, really good short-area quickness, which makes him be able to take on blocks and really be stout and hold the point in the run game,” UNC assistant coach for defense Gene Chizik said. “And then in the pass game — he’s not a 6-4, real long guy, he’s a 6-2 guy and maybe a little taller, but just really powerful. So he strikes blocks and he gets under people’s pads. He can use his leverage and his low center of gravity right now to really really work those offensive tackles who are 6-6, as well.”

Rucker leads the team with eight quarterback hurries and is second in sacks and tackles for loss. He’s been involved in some of the more pivotal stops the Heels have come up with on defense all season.

When Appalachian State needed a two-point conversion to force overtime, it was Rucker pursuing from the opposite side of the field to provide the finishing hit as App State quarterback Chase Brice nearly wriggled free of Noah Taylor’s grasp.

On a third-and-1 against Pitt, it was Rucker slipping past a block from the tight end to make an initial hit on running back Israel Abanikanda as linebacker Cedric Gray came in an punched the ball free. The fourth-quarter turnover helped Carolina turn a 28-24 lead into a 42-24 victory.

Midway through the fourth quarter at Wake Forest, Rucker’s tackled and forced a fumble as quarterback Sam Hartman scrambled on a fourth-and-3 from the UNC 10. The stop kept Carolina’s deficit at 34-33 allowing it to just need a game-winning field goal that Noah Burnette later provided.

Chizik called Rucker, “a natural football player” who has “outstanding” practice habits that carry over into the games.

“He’s got a knack for it, he just knows how to do it,” Chizik said. “He knows how to manipulate blockers in pass rush so even when he’s not getting a sack you can you’ll see him a lot getting a lot of pressure.”

Carolina was one of the places that didn’t try to recruit Rucker only to ask him to change positions once he got to campus. But he did keep some of those recruiting conversations from schools that didn’t believe he could stay on the line close to heart.

“It’s something that I was told very often when I was being recruited, but it was one of those things I use as motivation to continue to push me to never being satisfied with my performance,” Rucker said. “Always looking forward to proving people wrong and showing that no matter what size I am, no matter my height, doesn’t matter where I’m at, you put me anywhere I’ll dominate.”

It’s good that he has that approach, because the Heels have been forced to toggle him between two positions. When Carolina’s bookend starters — Noah Taylor and Des Evans — both suffered season-ending injuries, Rucker has had to fill in at both power end and their “Jack” position — a hybrid defensive end/linebacker — on the opposite side of the line.

“He’s kind of stepped into a role that he’s not particularly familiar with — playing the jack position — and I think he’s done a great job learning how to play the jack position while still playing the power end position,” Gray said. “It’s definitely hats off to him being effective in both positions as well. He’s definitely stepped up a lot and I’m proud of that.”