When he entered, Ruder got things going. He immediately announced himself to the crowd at Kenan Memorial Stadium with his size, proving himself as unafraid to run in the open field. And then when he threw the ball, a crisp delivery with accuracy was revealed.
Four completions for 80 yards on five pass attempts later – his lone incompletion was a post route dropped by Anthony Ratliff-Williams – Ruder gave UNC fans a glimpse of what could come down the road beyond this year, a second consecutive season that will end with a losing record and without a bowl appearance.
Of course, his teammate Cade Fortin did the same thing in the first half with his play against Virginia Tech before leaving with an injury. And, unfortunately for Ruder, the same thing happened to him against Georgia Tech.
Just as he was getting into a rhythm and convincing outsiders that he could be UNC’s quarterback of the future, Ruder exited to the UNC locker room. His cameo was just as brief as it was promising, spanning only three offensive drives.
While Fedora did not know which play Ruder got injured on, the Norton, Kan., native appeared to hurt his left shoulder on a 13-yard scamper, on which he injured a Georgia Tech defender.
Ruder remained in the game, however, delivering a 44-yard completion to Ratliff-Williams on a trick play before throwing the first touchdown of his career from 9 yards out to tight end Carl Tucker in the third quarter.
Little did anyone know Ruder was playing with an injury at that point in time, something that didn’t become clear until he went to the locker room and returned in street clothes with his left arm in a sling.
Even with everything going right in his first game at the collegiate level, Ruder was not immune to the injury bug that has affected Chazz Surratt and Fortin.
“Not that I remember,” Fedora said when asked if he had ever lost three quarterbacks to injury in a season before.
“It’s frustrating, but it’s part of the game,” Fedora said. “We worked hard with (Fortin and Ruder), and both of them have worked extremely hard to put themselves in a position where they can help the football team. And they got out there and were doing a good job, and unfortunately, they didn’t make it through the game.”
Heading into Saturday, Fedora planned on playing Ruder at some point, he said. Overall, he thought Ruder did a good job of handling the moment and running the offense after becoming better prepared in recent weeks.
“He might have been a little too physical,” Fedora said. “If I could have that back, I would get him to go down or slide in that situation.”
Ruder’s aggressiveness wasn’t lost on running back Michael Carter, who led UNC with 68 yards rushing against Georgia Tech.
“Where he’s from, in Kansas, he’s always the biggest one on the field,” Carter said. “So he plays big, which is no problem. But I don’t know if y’all saw the play where he had gotten hurt. He ran over the linebacker. He broke that linebacker’s arm. Jace’s almost 230.”
Unfortunately for UNC, Ruder banged himself up on that play, too.
Now the Tar Heels are left lamenting the fact that two young quarterbacks have seen promising debuts end with injuries.
“It’s very unlucky, man,” running back Antonio Williams said. “It’s very unfortunate.”
Ruder’s departure only put more eyeballs on Elliott, who has started seven games this season but has also been replaced by a first-year on two occasions now.
“He got in, did a great job, ran the ball well and threw the ball the couple times he did … he did a great job,” Elliott said of Ruder.
Having gone from behind center to the bench and back to the field in a matter of hours, Elliott was expected to lead the UNC offense in the game’s final minutes as the Tar Heels pushed, even after trailing 28-10 early in the third quarter.
Instead, he threw interceptions on back-to-back passes, and the Yellow Jackets escaped with a 10-point win.
Now the Tar Heels can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Ruder had a chance.
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