Garrett Rude wasn't quite sure where his niche would be with the Oregon football team this season.
A junior, the 6-foot, 180-pounder was strong enough and fast enough to plug in several positions. The question – where?
Oregon coach John Bothe initially was thinking possibly one of the cornerback positions for Rude. When senior Sawyer Reynolds was moved from free safety to linebacker, however, a spot opened up at free safety.
Reynolds found a home at linebacker, but in order for that move to be permanent, Rude had to show he could handle the job at free safety. He's done that and more, according to Bothe.
"We figured he would contribute some way as a junior," Bothe said, "but at the beginning of the year, that wasn't a given. He's been tremendous. He's been physical against the run, he's played good pass defense, and the kids have a lot of confidence in him at safety."
Rude, who is also a top-notch wrestler for the Hawks, has 70 tackles and one interception this season.
"I like supporting the run," Rude said, 'but my main function is to stop the pass, and make sure nobody gets behind me."
Rude has helped an Oregon defense that has allowed an average of 22.5 points per game this season. The only team to truly dominate the Hawks was Class 4A playoff team Rockford Lutheran, which put up 48 in a win on Sept. 27.
Defensive breakdowns have been few and far between, but still, there are lessons to be learned once in a while.
"Against Mendota, there was a play where I thought it was going to be a run," Rude said, "but it turned out to be a pass. I turned around and ran as fast as I could. Luckily he dropped it. I've tried not to have too many plays like that this season."
Rude also plays offense, as a backup fullback for Reynolds. He has 58 carries 383 yards and four touchdowns.
The Hawks had a 6-year run of playoff appearances snapped in 2012, when they finished 2-7.
"I think last year was just a little hiccup for us," Rude said. "This year, we're definitely back on the train, so to speak. We're in the playoffs, and that's where we expected to be."
A combination of seasoned seniors, along with juniors like Rude who have made their mark on the team, has gotten the Hawks back to their accustomed postseason perch.
"For years I think our seniors have always stepped up and kind of over-performed," Bothe said, "and sometimes juniors take a while to learn the system and get used to the intensity of varsity ball. Garrett is one of many juniors this year who have stepped up and is a varsity-caliber player right now."
Oregon at Wilmington
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Wilmington H.S.
Radio: 95.7 FM
Twitter: Larry Brennan (@lbrennan)