If there’s one unmistakable thing about Murdock Rutledge on the football field, it’s his hair.
The long, wavy blond locks that flowed out the back of his helmet while taking snaps during his prep days at Everett High School still drape across his neck while he’s barking out signals at quarterback for the University of Puget Sound Loggers.
“Yeah, I’m still rocking it,” Rutledge said. “My brother motivated me to do it, he’s four years older and he did it first, then I copied him.”
“I assure you that when you ask him that question, he’ll say his hair is one of the best things he has going,” UPS coach Jeff Thomas said with a big laugh. “There’s not a week that goes by where I don’t try to get him to cut his hair, but it’s a losing battle.”
If there’s another unmistakable thing about Rutledge, when he’s on the field he’s the one in charge.
Rutledge, a 6-foot-5 junior, is in his second season as the Loggers’ starting quarterback, and what he’s demonstrating this year is he has the leadership skills necessary to make the team his own.
“He’s progressed so much over the last year,” Thomas said. “He’s much more assertive. He’s more confident in his voice, so he’s able to make checks at the line of scrimmage and hold players accountable. That’s not something he was capable of last year.”
Rutledge knew what he was getting into when he signed on with NCAA Division III UPS out of high school. At Everett he played in an offense that was balanced evenly between the run and the pass. But the Loggers, under Thomas, have always been a pass-heavy team, throwing the ball approximately 75 percent of the time. And with it being a no-huddle offense, the impetus is on the quarterback to read the defense and change the play if needed.
Those were the concepts Rutledge was attempting to master last season as a sophomore, when he was slated to back-up senior Nik Bernhardt. But in UPS’s season opener against Claremont-Mudd, Bernhardt suffered a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter of a tight game. Rutledge was thrust into action, with his first ever college game action coming with less than five minutes remaining in a game tied 35-35. Rutledge proceeded to lead the Loggers 73 yards on just four plays, hitting Alvin Johnson for a 30-yard touchdown that broke the tie and stood as the game-winning score in a 45-35 victory.
“I was super nervous,” Rutledge recalled. “It was my first ever real college snap. I go in and the first play was a run play, so that calmed my nerves. The next play was a pass play, one of my favorite pass plays, and I passed to Alvin 10 yards down the field. Then we ran another, and finally from the 30 I threw a fade into the end zone for the touchdown, and we won the game about three minutes later. So going in I was extremely nervous, but Nik helped me stay confident and coach Thomas and all the receivers were encouraging me.”
That began a whirlwind season for Rutledge, in which he became a mad bomber, throwing 40-plus times a game, which wasn’t how it worked at Everett. In 10 games — splitting time with Bernhardt once Bernhardt returned — Rutledge was 213-for-397 for 2,613 yards and 25 touchdowns with 11 interceptions. He was twice named the Northwest Conference Student-Athlete of the Week, and he garnered second-team All-Conference honors.
While Rutledge’s sophomore season was a smashing success, he also recognized the ways he could be better, specifically in terms of being a leader.
“Sophomore year was definitely intimidating,” Rutledge said. “Everyone was an upperclassman to me, and it’s intimidating to tell a senior what to do. This year, because I knew my stuff, I can do more to encourage guys — both younger guys and guys above me — and also hold them accountable.”
“In the offseason we really saw him take on an aura of a person who’s willing to have uncomfortable conversations with his teammates,” Thomas said. “For example, we have certain depths we have to hit on different routes, and if one receiver is too deep or the other is too shallow, we can’t make it happen. Murdock is meticulous about making sure guys are at the right depth at the right time.
“So often college kids don’t want to have difficult conversations with other kids,” Thomas added. “But he’s so good at being who he is and living his beliefs. He’s the guy who makes sure he sits with people at meals, and all those textbook leadership things he does naturally and consistently.”
Rutledge’s numbers are down a little so far this season, mostly because of one bad game in a 58-7 loss at Redlands. He’s again splitting time with Bernhardt, and through four games he’s 88-for-149 for 880 yards with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. He was again named the conference Student-Athlete of the Week following a 28-24 victory over La Verne on Sept. 21, when he went 30-for-48 for 354 yards and four TDs with no picks.
The Loggers opened conference play at home Saturday, beating George Fox 24-23 in overtime. UPS is now 3-1 overall, and the Loggers are off to a good start in the quest for their first winning season since 2015.
And no doubt Rutledge will be leading that charge from the front.
If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.