COLUMBIA — Ask around the Missouri football team, and you'll still end up wondering who this Travis Ruth guy is.
One of the team's biggest jokesters. Student of the game with a 3.5 GPA and a high school class presidency in his past. True redneck. Accomplished choir singer.
Ruth, a junior from Jefferson City replacing all-conference center Tim Barnes, is a man who is hard to pinpoint.
- "I don't even know where to start," said tight end and long snapper Beau Brinkley, Ruth's roommate his freshman year. "He's the funniest guy I've met since I've been here. One night he went down to the (Hitt Street) market, grabbed three of those energy drinks and two of those energy shots, made two pots of coffee and ended up downing it all (Ruth had to write an English paper). I've never seen anyone so wired and hyper."
- "He's a redneck," senior offensive lineman Jayson Palmgren said. "He goes hunting all the time, and all he talks about is fishing."
- "Travis Ruth is a tremendous technician," offensive line coach Bruce Walker said. "Our stuff is really complicated, and that center has to know what's going on ... He's a naturally smart football player, one of those guys that brings a lot to the table for you."
- "He was a very talented member of the ensemble," Jefferson City High School choral director Beth Dampf said. "Wonderful bass voice, great sight reader, a very reliable member of the choir."
The one consensus among Ruth's teammates? He's the right guy at center, the position at which the last four starters ended up first-team all-conference.
Ruth entered the preseason as the only new starter on an experienced offensive line, though that has changed since left tackle Elvis Fisher suffered a season-ending knee injury. He's charged with not making the job of another new starter, quarterback James Franklin, any harder.
But mention that line of great centers and the pressure he must feel, and Ruth will shrug and reply in his soft-spoken, controlled tone.
"Those guys were great, they were all-conference players who started a long time, and you just take as much as you can from them and try to apply it to what you do," he said after Wednesday's practice. "At the same time, I'm not sitting here during practice or games trying to be like Tim Barnes. I'm trying to be me."
Ruth came to Missouri as the No. 10 prospect in the state (he played left guard at Jefferson City). His brother, John Ruth, was a member of the 2007 Tigers team that won the Big 12 North, but the siblings weren't exactly alike. Travis is listed as 6-foot-3 and weighed 300 pounds out of high school. John was a 5-foot-10, 220-pound linebacker and scout team running back who walked on and earned a scholarship by his senior season.
"People always joke that he got the looks and I got the size," said Ruth. "I started balding when I was 19. John has been a big role model in my life. He worked harder than anyone I've ever known, and I respect him so much for what he did here. The things he had to go through to get there were phenomenal."
Defensive tackle Terrell Resonno, who had graduated from Jefferson City a year earlier than Travis Ruth and had also been a member of the choir, let teammates know how good of a singer Ruth was. Barnes and former offensive lineman Kurtis Gregory gave him an especially hard time when he was a freshman.
"They'd tell me, 'Sing me a song, Travis, I'm having a bad day, that was a hard practice,' " Ruth said.
After recovering from a left foot injury that nagged him in high school and during his freshman season, Ruth moved to center at practice but rotated into games at left guard. In the Insight Bowl last season, he even started there. This spring, he beat Justin Britt to become Barnes' replacement at center.
It has taken some time for Ruth to master snapping the ball in the shotgun formation. In the first spring scrimmage, he threw one over then-quarterback Tyler Gabbert's head. But through repetition, Ruth's muscle memory has developed, and he has learned to get his head out of the way. Walker said Ruth is now "pretty spot-on" all the time.
Brinkley called Ruth and Barnes, now playing for the Baltimore Ravens, two of the best friends on the team, and the older player taught Ruth how to read safety rotations and call out gaps in the defensive front.
As highly-regarded as the Tigers have become for their quarterbacks and wide receivers, they might be more accomplished at center. Before Barnes was three-year starter Adam Spieker. Before Spieker was three-year starter A.J. Ricker. Before Ricker was Rob Riti, not only All-Big 12 but also an All-American.
Like Franklin, Ruth is a question mark. But the perennially positive quarterback has gone out of his way to tell Ruth neither one of them has to worry about their predecessors' level of play.
"We don't want to wear anyone else's shoes," Franklin said. "We want to wear our own. When he goes out there, he doesn't need to worry about who was in front of him or who he needs to live up to."
With any luck, Ruth's most embarrassing moment of the season was the chair that broke under his weight at Fan Day. If it's not, he might make the two-hour drive north to his family farm in Schuyler County and climb into a tree stand to "give his mind a rest."
He sat out of practice this week with a strained right Achilles tendon but expects to be back before the season opener on Sept. 3. His teammates say nothing will stop their resident Renaissance man.
"Travis is ready for the load," Brinkley said. "I think he'll make a good transition. He's a hell of a fighter and really, really smart. There are good things to come."