Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be: Luke Rubenzer’s journey to the opposite side of the field

Phillip Downey/Staff

You know it!”

The sun is shining, and the stands are full. It’s Sept. 5, and it is a perfect day for football. It’s almost the end of the second quarter in the first game of the Cal football season. The defense steps out onto the field. One of the 11 running out, however, is a quarterback.

“What?”

But in this game, he is a safety. In this moment, he stands behind his teammates, as per usual. He is no longer the person who has his hands on the football for the longest amount of time. In fact, touching the ball is unlikely.

Playing in the deep middle position, preparing to cover whoever comes his way, is a 6-foot-tall kid from Scottsdale, Arizona. He is shorter and smaller than almost everyone else on the field, but he is also confident and probably the loudest one out there.

And in one moment, one play, he shows why he may be right in thinking that he might be the best.

But don’t question his ability. He won’t listen. He’s heard it all before. Just watch him play. He’ll show you.

“No one I’ve ever known has hated to lose so much.” — Dave Rubenzer says.

You tell the story!”

When Luke Rubenzer was 10 years old, he decided to try track and field simply because he had time off between the two sports he was playing: football and baseball.

That year, he placed second in regionals in addition to qualifying for the U.S. Track and Field Nationals in the 400-meter.

And all because he was bored.

“From back in the beginning, when he was in junior high, he was just a fiery, fierce competitor,” says Saguaro High School football head coach Jason Mohns. “(He’s) probably the most competitive kid I’ve ever been around.”

Playing many different sports was a major part of Rubenzer’s childhood. At first, baseball was the sport he excelled at most — so much so that both he and his parents initially thought it was the sport he would go into at the next level.

“If I needed a guy in the sixth inning in Little League to take them down, other guys would be wiggling in their boots, but Luke relished in that moment,” says Rubenzer’s father, Dave Rubenzer. “Just get on the mound.”

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Phillip Downey/Staff

For Luke Rubenzer, football was the the sport that best complemented baseball. Even early on, he began to carve out his identity in the sport that would follow him all the way to college. In fact, it all fell into place early on, in a sixth-grade Pop Warner game.

“I was playing quarterback, and my coach just looks at me, and he says, ‘Just take the ball and act like you are going to pass it and just run,’ ” Rubenzer says. “So I guess that was the first time I’ve ever ran a quarterback draw, and we played it about four times. It worked about four times in a row. We ended up winning by about two points.”

The fact that Rubenzer remembers the final score of a game from eight years ago reveals that he is someone willing to do anything to win.

“No one I’ve ever known has hated to lose so much,” Dave Rubenzer says.

Luke Rubenzer’s drive for winning translated better onto the football field than onto the baseball diamond, despite Rubenzer being more successful at the latter. It wasn’t clear until his sophomore year in high school, however, that football would be the path he would take to college.

The Saguaro football team was coming off a state championship when Rubenzer was handed the reins. The pressure was on him to keep his team on top.

Rubenzer proceeded to lead his team to a second consecutive state championship, cementing the idea that he would pursue football in college.

Chip on his shoulder.”

When you talk to someone about Rubenzer, this phrase inevitably comes up. Part of it is his mentality, and part of it is his struggle with never being big enough.

At 6 feet tall, Rubenzer has often found that he is the shortest one on the football field. And people never let him forget it.

“I would always hear (about) it in articles written about me and tweets and whatever else,” Rubenzer says. “I just said I don’t really care what you think.”

By the time schools were beginning to look at him to play quarterback, his abilities as a runner and a passer were often ignored because of his frame.

“We would have some schools come to meet with the top recruits at my school, and I would be one of the first ones in there, and they would immediately send me back,” Rubenzer says. “I vividly remember a couple schools doing that, and I kind of look at their quarterbacks now and just laugh — they’re not all that, but that’s the way it is.”

“He’s vicious, he’s a pit bull.” — Dennis Gile

Despite his size, Rubenzer went on to have two 1,000 rushing seasons in both his junior and senior years at quarterback. In his senior year, he was able to bring the Sabercats another state championship.  Rubenzer finished his high school career with the national record for career completion percentage (496-689, 71.9 percent).

The quarterback couldn’t have come in on a higher note to start his freshman season with Cal, in competition with then-sophomore quarterback Jared Goff.

Once in Berkeley, it became clear that Goff would be the starting quarterback and that Rubenzer would back him up. But he ended up taking on a bigger role. For many people, it was a surprise in the beginning of last season when Rubenzer was inserted into the game against Northwestern as a dual-threat option.

“No one really expected that — even kids on my team didn’t know that I was playing until the second half, so that was kind of cool,” Rubenzer says, “having everyone come up to me after the game on my own team, saying, ‘I didn’t realize,’ ‘Dude, like, I’m so surprised’ — all that stuff.”

In the Northwestern game, he led the offense in carries with 11 and rushing yards with 48. Although the offense initially used him for several plays a game, as the season went on and the team faced tougher opponents, Rubenzer’s use diminished.

At the end of his freshman season, Rubenzer won Cal’s Clint Evans Trophy for the most intense freshman competitor.

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Phillip Downey/Staff

There could not be a trophy more appropriate.

“Luke’s one of those guys (who) if he is on your team, you love him, and if he is on the other team, you probably hate him,” Mohns says. “He doesn’t care what anyone thinks on the sideline.”

When Rubenzer plays football, he steps into a different personality from the one he left on the sidelines.

“He’s vicious, he’s a pit bull,” says Dennis Gile, a quarterbacks coach who has worked with Rubenzer. “He’s going to get the win if he can.”

For Rubenzer, this means staying on the field as much as possible.

“He used to drive us nuts,” Mohns says. “If the defense was struggling a little bit and the other team was having success, he would storm up and down the sidelines telling the coaches to put him on defense. He just wants to play, wants to contribute, wants to help his team win because it absolutely makes him sick to the stomach to lose.”

Rubenzer couldn’t accept a whole season of watching his Cal teammates chase after a bowl game while he stood idly by.

He was faced with this possibility after the 2014 season, when his coaches told him that they intended to redshirt him.

“Coach (Tony) Franklin was pretty up front and straightforward with me: ‘We are going to go into spring hoping to do what we did last year, but if we can’t use you, then we would love to have you for another year, so we are probably going to want to redshirt,’ ” Rubenzer says.

“He just wants to play, wants to contribute, wants to help his team win because it absolutely makes him sick to the stomach to lose.” —  Saguaro High School football head coach Jason Mohns.

Despite his coaches’ wishes to have him possibly be Cal’s quarterback post-Goff, Rubenzer’s insistence on playing this season fit with the team’s need for more defensive backs.

So, he joined them.

“We had a conversation, and he wanted to play — he wanted to come off the bench to be able to play,” says Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. “So I said, ‘We will try safety for a week in the spring, and if it doesn’t work, we will move you back.’ And it worked, so he stayed over, and he’s doing well.”

Rubenzer has been able to prove to his teammates and his coaches that he is smart enough and fast enough to make the switch.

“We had a need there and had to have a guy that was football savvy,” says Cal defensive coordinator Art Kaufman. “Once he learns what he is doing and he is comfortable doing it, his football intelligence will even appear more because he will be able to focus on much more.”

Rubenzer’s future still remains unclear, but for now, he will stay at safety in the hope of earning a starting spot on a defense that is desperately trying to improve.

“I haven’t walked out of the tunnel to play a game not focusing on quarterback since fifth grade, so that was a little weird — but it felt good, because after a couple of plays, you just feel comfortable making plays,” Rubenzer says.

What?”

It’s Sept. 5, and the Bears are up, 45-0, at the end of the second quarter against Grambling State. The Tigers are finally driving down the field. Third and nine at the Cal 27.

Quarterback Johnathan Williams, in the shotgun, drops back and throws 20 yards down the field. He underthrows his intended receiver, allowing Rubenzer to jump in front of the ball. He snatches it and goes to the ground. He gets up, hesitates and then proceeds to chest bump every Cal player in the vicinity.

“It is a lot easier to get really excited (on defense),” Rubenzer says. “With quarterback, you kind of have to be a lot more mellow, which I never really was at QB anyways. I like getting the interception more than scoring a touchdown.”

For the second time in his career, Rubenzer is being talked about after a season opener, but for a different reason. What he will or can bring to this defense is unknown, as is whether he will remain on that side of the ball.

This story has yet to find an ending. And until he finds one, all he can do is keep playing.

You tell the whole damn world ….

Alaina Getzenberg covers football. Contact her at [email protected]