REGGIE HAYES: Snider alum Ruben Holcomb’s incredible rise to NFL opportunity

Ruben Holcomb, center, walks out with family during Senior Day at the University of Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy University of Indianapolis)
Ruben Holcomb (Photo courtesy University of Indianapolis)
Ruben Holcomb (76) lines up at left tackle for the University of Indianapolis. (Photo courtesy University of Indianapolis)
University of Indianapolis left tackle Ruben Holcomb (76) celebrates a touchdown. (Photo courtesy University of Indianapolis)

Last fall, Ruben Holcomb was part of an NCAA Division II football team. Today, he’s part of an NFL one. That’s called rising to the challenge.

Holcomb, a former Snider High School lineman, earned a rookie minicamp tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and it went so well, he signed a contract with the team at the end of camp Sunday.

He’ll remain in Tampa Bay with the Bucs heading into offseason activities and summer camp.

“We knew two years ago he had the potential to be a guy because of his size and mobility and his work ethic,” said Bob Bartolomeo, Holcomb’s head coach at the University of Indianapolis. “We got him on as many lists as we could for scouts that came through the building. A couple area scouts came through, but they’re pretty tight-lipped. They don’t tell you much.”

Holcomb’s story should inspire young players who might otherwise think their circumstances will squelch their dreams. Holcomb’s belief remained strong, even though he didn’t play college football at Ohio State or Michigan or even Indiana or Purdue. He settled in at Indianapolis, also known as UIndy. Then he began his climb.

UIndy is a solid NCAA Division II program. The Greyhounds finished 11-1 last season after going undefeated in the regular season. Holcomb earned NCAA Division II All-America first-team honors as a left tackle after helping his line to allow the fewest sacks in the nation.

But to say UIndy is not an NFL hotbed is a huge understatement. The only UIndy player to reach the NFL is Dick Nyers, who played for the Baltimore Colts in 1956 and 1957.

Holcomb, who is 6-foot-4 and 317 pounds, faced steep odds in even earning an invitation to an NFL rookie minicamp. Teams scout DII players but it’s much more difficult to move beyond the scouting range to a rookie minicamp tryout. It’s even rarer to turn a tryout into a contract.

Bartolomeo praised Indiana University football coach Tom Allen’s willingness to allow Holcomb to compete during IU’s Pro Day in front of a sizeable contingent of scouts. That showcase was huge.

“He had a good workout, and it just snowballed from there in terms of teams keeping in contact,” Bartolomeo said.

After the draft, Holcomb was invited to the Buccaneers’ rookie minicamp as a tryout player. Tryout players have to perform at a very high level to not only earn notice but to land a contract. An assistant Tampa Bay coach told Bartolomeo that Holcomb performed very well.

Bartolomeo expected Holcomb’s talent to shine.

“He’s a powerful guy,” Bartolomeo said. “He uses his power really well. He lived in the weight room and made himself into not only a big, physical mobile guy, but a very powerful guy.”

Holcomb told Indianapolis television station Fox 59 he has been encouraged by many coaches over the years who said he’d have a strong chance to play pro football.

“A lot of guys get counted out just because they’re from a small school but at the end of the day it’s still the same sport, we’re all playing football,” Holcomb told Fox 59 before leaving for Tampa. “I’m just going to go down there with a chip on my shoulder and try to make a name for myself.”

Holcomb’s dreams of an NFL career began where many of those dreams begin: elementary school.

Snider coach Kurt Tippmann remembers first meeting Holcomb at Jason Baker’s Pro Football Minicamp for middle-school students. Holcomb would eventually become part of the first freshman class Tippmann coached after he became Snider’s head coach. Holcomb even found his way into the starting lineup as a freshman lineman in the postseason. His first start was against perennial power Carmel.

“He was always very coachable,” Tippmann said. “He wanted to learn what you were teaching him. Playing as a freshman, he did very well. We knew from that time on he was going to be really good.”

Holcomb was a starter for the rest of his Snider career and was part of the North-South All-Star game, in which Tippmann was a coach. Holcomb was selected by his peers and coaches to be an all-star game captain. That selection demonstrated his character, Tippmann said.

“He was maybe a little under-recruited coming out of high school,” Tippmann said. “The University of Indianapolis got a steal.”

Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter and his staff liked what they saw from Holcomb last weekend.

The Bucs, like every other NFL team, aren’t concerned about where a player played in college. They’re concerned about whether his skills translate to the pro game.

“A lot of schools play football,” Koetter told reporters after the second day of Bucs’ rookie minicamp. “They’re not on national TV every week. …Our scouts are out there beating the bushes and the come across those smaller schools guys and they keep their mouths shut. They don’t spread the word.”

The word is out on Holcomb now. He’s a Buccaneer for the summer, with his sights set on making the role more permanent this fall.

With Jessie Bates III (a former Holcomb teammate at Snider) being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, the list of Fort Wayne players on NFL rosters includes Bates and Tyler Eifert on the Bengals, Rod Smith and Jaylon Smith on the Dallas Cowboys and, now, Holcomb on the Buccaneers.

Those other four players came from more well-known football colleges: Bates from Wake Forest, Eifert and Jaylon Smith from Notre Dame and Rod Smith from Ohio State.

The jump from the University of Indianapolis to the NFL is the biggest one of the bunch. That’s all the more reason to root for Holcomb.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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