Not just a token player

Billy Rutledge won't be featured on any TV programs, and his mailbox isn't stuffed with recruiting letters, but the LaGrange senior isn't at all jealous. Frankly, he doesn't have the time.

As a three-sport athlete, Rutledge spreads his time between football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. He's not a star in any of them, but that doesn't mean he's any less valuable. "You don't find guys like him anymore," said LaGrange's Donnie Branch, who coaches Rutledge in both football and baseball. "All of us want his time."

For now, Rutledge, a starting outside linebacker, is concentrating on football, trying to help the Grangers, who host Elbert County on Friday in the second round of the Class AAA playoffs, to another state championship.

Last season, Rutledge spent time on offense, backing up superstar runner Skyler Thornton.

But after losing both starting linebackers to graduation, the coaches decided fill one of the vacancies with Rutledge. They wanted him on the field.

"That was an area of concern in the offseason," LaGrange head coach Steve Pardue said. "I told (Billy) we needed him to play there. He's been a solid player; he rarely makes a mistake."

Added Branch: "We felt like he could be good, but he's been better than we thought."

Rutledge, in turn, has embraced the new role. "I like this better," he said of the position change. "I like flying around and hitting people."

In LaGrange's defense, the outside linebacker is a cross between a defensive back and a linebacker. Rutledge, along with junior Wesley Woodyard, must be able to play the run and cover the pass. That flexibility gives LaGrange one of the best defenses in the state.

"He's exactly what we want," Branch said of the 6-foot-1, 173-pound Rutledge. "He's tough enough to give run support and fast enough to cover receivers."

Rutledge isn't flashy. He gets the job done without standing out on the stat sheet. In 11 games, he has no interceptions, no sacks, hasn't caused a fumble and recovered only one. But Rutledge does what is necessary to help the team.

"Whatever the game plan is, he's going to execute," Branch said. "He's always where he needs to be, and he is a good enough athlete to give you some bonus plays. He has a natural feel for the spot."

As a freshman, Rutledge played football but wasn't on the varsity. Regrettably, he didn't play his sophomore season, admitting he was too lazy. But Rutledge reclaimed his desire to play football before last year's championship run and has been thankful for his decision ever since.

"Nothing like high-school football your senior year," he said. "I wish I would have played two years ago, but I can't change that now. I'm just glad I decided to come back."

Pardue and Branch both agree players in the mold of Rutledge are what make good teams great.

"Within our team, there are no stars," Pardue said. "That's a perception from the outside. All the players have respect for one another, and everyone plays a role. That's the key to our success."

Whenever LaGrange's season ends, Rutledge won't have much time to reflect. As soon as he is able, he'll hit the hardcourt and begin dribbling and shooting basketballs. He has no time to worry about anything else.

This story originally appeared in the LaGrange Daily News.

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