MORGANTOWN — Malachi Ruffin’s WVU career started with a tryout on his first day of class and it might end with him earning a starting role in the Mountaineers’ secondary. In between, he walked on, earned a scholarship, learned two positions, was pressed into service and went viral for the wrong reason.
A redshirt-senior from Nashville, NC, Ruffin’s collegiate career started from humble beginnings. Unrecruited out of Nash Central High School, Ruffin came to WVU as a student and went to an open tryout for the football team in 2018.
“I wasn’t recruited out of high school. I didn’t have any offers so I took a risk,” he said. “It was a risk I took myself and said ‘I’m going to go to West Virginia. They might not know who I am, so I’m going to go make a name for myself.’”
Ruffin said he did not know a single coach at WVU at the time but went into the tryout wanting to do whatever he could to stand out.
“Right after class, me and my roommate went to try out,” he recalled. “First of all, seeing how many people were there, I was nervous about what if I didn’t make it. I really settled myself and I was like, ‘I can’t think like that and I need to think I’m going to make this team, I need to do something to make myself stand out.’”
Ultimately, it was Ruffin’s speed that stood out and earned him a chance to join the team. Only five players from the 40 or 50 who tried out that day joined the team and of them, only Ruffin remains a Mountaineer.
“I look back at it and kind of laugh,” Ruffin said. “I never knew what I was getting myself into. Sometimes you just have to take big risks.”
Making the team was one thing, making an impact was another.
“My first few years were actually kind of difficult,” Ruffin said. “I used those years to develop myself and make myself a better player…Then I started to get more into special teams to get myself noticed.”
Ruffin redshirted in 2018 and did not appear in a game in 2019. In 2020, he finally made it on the field and, played 75 total snaps, 65 on special teams.
That offseason, Ruffin was surprised with the announcement that we would be put on full scholarship entering the 2021 season.
“I was shocked at first, I wasn’t expecting it,” Ruffin said of the moment. “It’s something I’ll always carry with me. Sometimes I even go back and watch it myself just because it’s a special moment for me.”
Ruffin’s snap count jumped up to over 200 in 2021, but only 33 were on defense. That changed in a major way in 2022, when, due to a rash of injuries and transfer portal departures, Ruffin played more than 400 defensive snaps for the Mountaineers at both cornerback and safety.
It was, predictably, an up-and-down year for Ruffin as he was pressed into service at two positions. There were highs, such as a pick-six against Kansas State, but there were also lows, the lowest of which was his now-viral missed tackle against Oklahoma State when he prematurely celebrated a would-be pass breakup while the receiver was running 20 yards downfield.
“I thought I got it out, I really did,” Ruffin said of the infamous play. “I felt it hit my hand so I was thinking it was dropped…I thank (safety) Marcis Floyd for saving me on that play because he chased him down. After that play, I already knew I was going to get the chewing of a lifetime from every coach possible on the sideline.”
The play looked as bad as it sounds, but it didn’t stop Ruffin from making an impact in the game. With WVU up 24-19 at the end of the game and the Cowboys at midfield, Ruffin broke up three of OSU’s final four pass attempts that ultimately sealed the win for the Mountaineers.
“I went into halftime and cleared my mind,” Ruffin explained. “(Cornerback coach) ShaDon Brown told me I have to have a short-term memory through good and bad plays.
“It felt good,” he continued. “I still look back and laugh because I shouldn’t have done it in the first place. Next time I should make sure the ball is out before celebrating and not just assume. Because we won, we can look at it and laugh.”
Now entering his sixth, yes sixth, season at WVU, Ruffin finally has the chance to earn a real starting spot.
“Ruffin is what I call ‘Steady Eddy,’” Brown, his position coach, said this spring. “He’s a coach on the field, he’s played college football now for six years. He knows the scheme, without training him up we could move him to a new position in the secondary and he would fit right in.”
While he could move positions, this is the first year Ruffin will be at only one spot, cornerback, with the chance to earn a starting role without the need for injuries or transfer clearing the way for him.
“I’m so proud of that young man for one simple reason,” Brown said. “When I first got here two years ago, he was very quiet, very introverted and never talked. Now, the game of football has given that kid confidence. He walks around with a different aura about him now and that’s really cool to have seen the game of football really have changed his confidence and his demeanor about going out and being able to attack the world in whatever he chooses to do.”
Ruffin has changed, and learned, a lot since he tried out for the football team in 2018.
“I had no confidence at the time, not as much as I do now,” he recalled. “Now, I have all the confidence in the world, I feel like I can play against anyone at any level.”
Ruffin’s college football journey has been one that not many people attempt and even fewer succeed at. But he has beaten the odds as a walk-on earned a scholarship and proven himself to be a division-I football player.
“What motivates me is my family, especially my mom,” he said. “She always put the trait in me not to give up after the first time.
“The day they brought me in (to the team), I just never looked back and just kept moving forward.”