Monica Smith remembers a man tapping her on the shoulder during the fourth quarter of Arkansas State’s game against Louisiana-Monroe at Centennial Bank Stadium last December. She had no clue who he was, but the stranger certainly knew who she was.
Your son just broke a record, the man told Smith.
Her son is Red Wolves wide receiver Corey Rucker, who hauled in a 31-yard reception for his fourth touchdown of the day and set a school record for receiving yards in a game at 310.
It would’ve been impossible at the time to foresee what was to come for the then-freshman as Rucker has already caught seven touchdowns this season to go with five in 2020 and is on pace to set ASU’s career record — Omar Bayless caught 26 from 2016-19.
Rucker’s recent run has meant little through the first half of this season, a stretch in which the Red Wolves are surrendering more than 46 points per game. Yet, the sophomore represents maybe the most important building block for ASU’s future, and no matter the results down the stretch, Rucker will be out there smiling.
“He was always a happy kid,” Smith said.
That was the case when Rucker started playing football the first time. Smith worked in Flora, Miss., a 10-minute drive from their hometown of Bentonia, and she learned of youth football league in the town. Khalyja, the eldest of the three children, became a cheerleader as her brothers, Cormon and Corey, took to the field.
Corey has always been a receiver. It’s the position he played that initial season at just 6 years old, and when he arrived at Yazoo County High School several years later, it didn’t change.
Coach Robert Dobbs knew he had something in the lanky freshman.
“He wanted to learn, he wanted to get better,” Dobbs said of Rucker. “He would always hang with the juniors and seniors. … Anytime that you have someone that young that’s willing and eager to learn and be more productive, that’s a special thing.”
As a senior, Rucker nearly topped the 1,000-yard mark, as he caught 14 touchdowns for Yazoo County and averaged almost 18 yards a reception. With offers from multiple Sun Belt Conference programs, he committed to the Red Wolves but Dobbs had no expectation that Rucker would be able to carry things over into his freshman season.
“The learning curve on the college level, it can be extremely difficult,” Dobbs said. “I thought it was going to take a couple years before [his breakout] happened…but that goes to show you how smart and intelligent the kid is.”
It took almost a full season. Rucker had scattered just seven catches for 143 yards over ASU’s first 10 games of 2020, his lone touchdown coming on a 56-yard score in early October against Central Arkansas.
Then came the breakout. Nine catches, 4 touchdowns and 310 yards, all in one rout of Louisiana-Monroe.
Rucker carried the momentum into this fall, grabbing three more scores in the Red Wolves’ season-opening win against UCA.
But he understands that the task thrust upon him this season is more than filling big shoes left by star wide receiver Jonathan Adams Jr. Even as a sophomore, there’s an expectation for Rucker to lead by example.
“Being a leader of the team, people look at me,” Rucker said earlier this month. “If I walk around with my head down, people are like, ‘Ruck’s in a bad mood’ and it can bring the whole team down. So, I’ve just got to keep my energy up.”
It’s just in Rucker’s nature to always be smiling. But sitting with his team sitting at 1-5, Rucker knows what that extra light can bring in brightening his team’s spirit.
While Rucker’s smile may vanish for a few hours tonight when he puts his game face on, he’ll be happy knowing Layne Hatcher is set to reprise his role as starting quarterback following James Blackman’s shoulder injury. The pair connected for three of Rucker’s four scores against the Warhawks last December and then thrice more in ASU’s lone victory this fall.
Who’s at quarterback hasn’t mattered, though — three of Rucker’s seven touchdowns this season have come from Blackman. And it’s why the Red Wolves realize exactly who is the centerpiece of an offense that has more to give over its final six games.
“He’s a big-time player for us, if not the player,” running back Lincoln Pare said of Rucker. “He’s a superstar already.”
AT ARKANSAS STATE
WHEN 6:30 p.m.
WHERE Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro
RECORDS Arkansas State 1-5, 0-2 Sun Belt Conference; Louisiana-Lafayette 5-1, 3-0
RADIO KFIN-FM, 107.9, in Jonesboro; KHLR-FM, 106.7, in Little Rock
COACHES Butch Jones (1-5 in first season at ASU); Billy Napier (33-12 in fourth season at Louisiana-Lafayette)
SERIES Louisiana-Lafayette leads series 20-27-1
NOTEWORTHY Louisiana-Lafayette is an 18-point favorite over ASU. … The Red Wolves haven’t beaten the Ragin’ Cajuns since 2017 when they routed their rivals 47-3 at home. Louisiana-Lafayette won last year’s matchup on a 2-yard touchdown run from Elijah Mitchell with 73 seconds remaining. … In the Ragin’ Cajuns one loss this season, a 38-18 season-opening defeat at Texas, the Longhorns attacked on the ground, running 42 times for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns. … ASU quarterback Layne Hatcher can become the 5th player in program history to reach 6,000 career passing yards with 190 more against the Ragin’ Cajuns. … ASU is 21-10 in all midweek games since 2001, the first year of the Sun Belt Conference, and the Red Wolves have won 17 of their last 24 midweek matchups.