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Eastside's Rico Ruffin ready for 'new start' at Tennessee Valley Prep
Eastside linebacker Rico Ruffin goes to Tennessee Valley Prep still with visions of playing major Division I football. - photo by Gabriel Stovall
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COVINGTON, Ga. — Rico Ruffin had some offers. He had some JUCO and even lower division four-year college opportunities. 


But when he came down to it, the Eastside linebacker decided his fresh start would be best served at Tennessee Valley Prep, a prep school program in Huntsville, Ala. launching a new football program with a trusted coach at an already established school. 


That’s where Ruffin signed on Wednesday afternoon during a signing ceremony with a few of his football teammates and Eastside coach Troy Hoff who expressed pride in Ruffin’s decision, as well as his progress as a player. 


“First of all, it’s just a great opportunity for him to continue his career,” Hoff said. “He gets to go through the process again in hopes of landing that four-year spot he really wants to go to. And he had some good interestes, but at the end of the day, it’s the best move for him. His clock won’t start, and he can get the prep work he needs.” 


For Ruffin that prep work involves both the field and the classroom. Prep schools have become more of a trend over the last 10 years, as they serve as a type of bridge for a student-athlete between the end of their high school eligibility and the start of college.


In a prep school, a player can get a jump on college coursework while playing their sport of choice in places that provide them another chance to improve and be evaluated by college recruits. 


And while prep school programs can be helpful, there are plenty of horror stories involving prep schools that operate as little more than money making schemes that take advantage of a young athlete’s desire for a second chance at a big-school scholarship. 


Tennessee Valley Prep has been established for a while though, Hoff says. And it’s burgeoning football program is being run by a guy who Hoff has known for quite some time. 


“Keith Tincknell is starting it up over there, and Keith and I go way back,” Hoff said. “He was our offensive line coach for a while, and actually was at Southwest Minnesota State for a while when I was at Northern State. He’s got a great high school background. Great college background. He coached at Bob Jones for a number of years. He’s a guy you know and trust.” 


And, unlike some prep school programs that promise college credit class offerings that often only turn out to be unmonitored online courses, Hoff knows the academics component at Tennessee Valley is legit. 


“Rico will have classes, junior college classes, right there at a brick and mortar building, so it’s not just a situation where they give you an online login and say, ‘good luck,’” Hoff said. “It’s an established place with a model in place that gives them some credibility. 


For Ruffin, it’s the perfect fit for where he is right now.


“I’m very excited,” Ruffin said. “It’s a good start for me. And my goal is to be working to get out of it with my academics and ACT prep ready to for bigger opportunities.”


Ruffin, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound inside linebacker, played his senior season at Eastside like someone ready to take on bigger opportunities. 


His 70 tackles were good enough for third on the team, leading a stingy Eastside defense that proved to be a strength for the Eagles’ 8-3 2017 campaign that ended with a Region 4-AAAA runner-up finish and playoff appearance. 


Ruffin’s 13 tackles for losses placed him second on the team, only behind co-player of the year Spurgeon Gaither. Those numbers, Hoff says, are a testament to the way Ruffin has developed during his time in the program. 


“He’s always been a physical kid, but now he’s changed his body and he’s moving better,” Hoff said. “He’s comfortable in his linebacker position. Inside there are a lot of things taking place with your keys and navigating things through the line. I think that’s where he’s gotten better.” 


Ruffin agrees with that. He also attributes his academic improvement to the way Hoff and his staff preach classroom accountability to the football team. All of it has prepared him to dominate the prep scene, starting this summer. 


“I’m working now on getting bigger, faster and stronger,” Ruffin said. “I’ll report up there on July 1 and then it’s time to punch the ticket on that new start.”