Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Mill Creek's A.J. Ruechel is a three-year starter who will lead the Hawks' offensive line this season. He also maintains a 3.8 GPA and recently received an offer to play football for Air Force.
HOSCHTON -- The A.J. Ruechel most of the Region 7-AAAAA football coaches know is No. 55, the offensive guard on game tapes who racks up the pancake blocks.
Ruechel had a school-record 67 of those punishing plays last season, averaging nearly 10 pancakes a game during the playoffs as Mill Creek reached the Class AAAAA quarterfinals for the first time.
The rising senior's play is part of what Hawks offensive coordinator Josh Lovelady likes about his veteran lineman. But he's equally impressed with what others don't see, the off-the-field Reuchel. The quiet kid with the 3.86 GPA and a huge heart.
Lovelady specifically talks of how Ruechel treats his 18-year-old sister Libby Ruechel, a recent Mill Creek grad who has Down syndrome.
"After he drove her to school this year, he had to walk through the commons where all his friends, all the cool people were, and he didn't mind one bit," said Lovelady, who watches the Ruechels with special interest since he has a daughter with Down syndrome. "He could have just said, 'Libby, you go on.' He wanted to make sure she got to class. He didn't mind one bit. He takes that responsibility, where a lot of kids now would say that's not my role. Family means a lot to him.
"Actions speak louder than words. I just see him walking with her, telling her something or zipping up her bookbag. He takes care of her, pats her on the back, makes sure she's OK before they go out in the rain. He takes the time. In today's society, I just think most 16-, 17-year-old kids would think they're too cool to do that."
Lovelady said he was greeted nearly every day at lunch this school year by Libby, who responded with a "tell A.J. hi at football practice." The coach can tell she cares deeply for her older brother, even though she's not a big football fan.
"I wish she was (a fan), but she's not," a laughing A.J. Ruechel said. "We're pretty close. When I'm home, we spend a lot of time together. ... I just treat her like she's a normal person. I don't treat her any differently than I would any other person."
Ruechel's demeanor off the football field contrasts his play on it, though he still isn't the most outspoken of his teammates. His leadership style is less vocal, instead letting his hard work and effort set the tone.
The Mill Creek coaches have been impressed with his increased leadership this offseason, a necessity for a team that lost a major chunk of its offensive line, including Georgia Southern signee Austin Hagan. But Ruechel still hasn't morphed completely from his previous style.
"I'm still just working hard and doing what I've always done," the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder said. "I just try to encourage people through what I do. I try not to get in anybody's face as long as they're giving their best effort."
Effort is one area the Mill Creek staff has never questioned with Ruechel.
Since he gave up karate in seventh grade to play football for the first time, he has brought a high level of intensity to the sport. That is most evident on game tapes as he finishes off blocks. His 67 pancakes last season set a Mill Creek record, but it's also the most ever by a lineman under Lovelady, a high school coach for 15 seasons.
His exceptional games in last year's playoff run came despite having a broken right wrist in a brace.
"He's a throwback kind of kid," Lovelady said. "He works his butt off and doesn't worry about a lot of the fluff of the game that's come about. He goes out there and practices hard and gets after it. ... He's one of the most well-rounded players I've had as far as pass blocking and run blocking. Probably what sticks out most on film is his tenacity finishing off blocks.
"His mentality is not just blocking you. He wants to put you on your back. It's not a mean thing, he just wants to get his hands on you and put you on your back."
College programs have taken note of that highlight tape, too. Air Force has already extended an offer, part of substantial college interest thus far for Ruechel.
He plans to attend college camps this summer to garner more interest, then he's completely focused on a Mill Creek team that had a breakthrough 2010 season. The Hawks won their first-ever playoff games in the first two rounds before losing a close one at eventual state champion Colquitt County in the quarterfinals.
"It was awesome. It was great. People started knowing who Mill Creek was," Ruechel said of last year's playoff run. "It was a really big accomplishment, a big breakthrough. Hopefully this year will be even better. ... I feel like we're about to start being one of the powerhouses, one of the teams everybody knows that goes to the playoffs all the time. I think we're about to become one of those better programs."