State of the Hogs: SEC Network's Rutledge handles TD Club in style

SEC Network reporter Laura Rutledge on the set of SEC Nation prior to a game between Vanderbilt and Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.

— Laura Rutledge wanted to set the record straight on her chance at stardom in the spring game three years ago. Practice didn't exactly prepare her for her debut as a receiver.

Rutledge was the speaker at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. For the record, she is the best female speaker ever to stand before the club. She could have claimed that. Instead, the host for SEC Nation just said the truth, that she was the club's first female speaker.

Rutledge did top many of her male predecessors at the NWA TD Club with her stylish delivery. She opened with a story about the two tries at catching Sebastian Tretola's pass in the spring game, a recreation of Tretola's TD pass against Alabama-Birmingham the previous fall.

First, there was the revelation that the whole idea was dropped on her at the last moment, not at a Friday night dinner with coach Bret Bielema as some thought.

“Our crew was at dinner with Bret,” Rutledge said. “But he said they wanted to throw the pass to the mascot. He said he didn't know what they were going to do because the mascot had practiced it and was terrible.”

When the TV crew arrived at the game the next day, it was a surprise when Rutledge was told she would sub for the mascot.

“So I got with Sebastian and practiced in the indoor facility before the game,” she said. “I caught every pass.”

The only problem, practice wasn't close to game conditions. First, she didn't have a helmet on in the practice tosses. Worst, she was standing still. Running a route with the helmet bobbing on her head was a different matter.

“I really didn't come close,” she said. “I was terrible. I'm not athletic at all. I'd never done anything like that at all.”

Rutledge kicked off her dress shoes. Running barefooted wasn't the best of ideas.

There was a funny moment later that night when Jen Bielema told her at the baseball game that she'd taken some heat for Rutledge's dropped passes.

“Nobody in the football stadium knew who I was,” Rutledge said. “Jen told me at the baseball game, 'People thought you were me.' I said, Great!' Really, that's a great memory.”

Rutledge might not have nailed her chance to be a receiver, but she nailed her 45 minutes at the TD Club.

“I love Arkansas,” she said. “I have done a lot of games here in football, baseball and softball. I love the way fans here support every sport.”

Rutledge didn't play sports by her own admission, but I think she probably slights herself a little. Her background is in ballet, including time training in China.

There were no plans to do anything sports related when she enrolled at Florida, but degree plans in communications led her to the campus radio station. Next thing you know, she's covering Florida's championship football teams with Tim Tebow.

Rutledge should have seen it coming at an early age. Her father used to call her on the phone to get play-by-play from her brother's games.

“My dad traveled,” she said. “He'd call me on the road and I'd give him the sideline report at age 7.”

Without a doubt, she's learned the game. Her first jobs were in pro baseball with the Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres. Her husband is Boston Red Sox infielder Josh Rutledge. She's begged for a chance to do college baseball and is now a regular at the College World Series.

However, there is little doubt she's a rising star with her college football work, leading the SEC Network's game day show. She's got stories on Paul Finebaum, Marcus Spears and Tebow. She said she's got funny secrets on all of them.

“When we are in the trailer getting ready on Saturday morning, you never know when Tebow and Spears are going to launch into a wrestling match,” she said. “I just get out of the way.”

Josh Rutledge has become close to Andrew Benintendi, the former Arkansas baseball star.

“They love to fish in spring training,” she said. “We've gotten to know Andrew really well. I can tell you this: Josh beats him in fishing every time. They share a love for country music, too.”

Rutledge told the TD Club this week's trip for the Razorbacks to South Carolina is huge.

“Incredibly important,” she said. “I think it's the difference between 7-5 and 8-4 for the Razorbacks.”

After letting that soak in, Rutledge followed with what everyone was thinking since the Hogs are 2-2 and 0-1 in the SEC.

“Wow, you say, you are predicting some wins,” Rutledge said. “I think when you look at this team, there are a lot of winnable games left. I think you could see them finish strong, like they did a few years ago. But, this week is the most crucial game.

“I think there should be some optimism with this team. I stand by my statement of preseason: Austin Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. He just needs some help.”

When questioned by the media afterward, Rutledge said, “The offensive line has to give him more time. That's what I mean by getting some help.”

Rutledge said some think the SEC is down, but it may not be way down.

“I think what Alabama is doing makes everyone think that,” she said. “The SEC seems down because Alabama is so good. I do think Arkansas has a chance to challenge Alabama, like it did in some other years.”

It's not like she's just pulling that out of thin air.

“Arkansas played Alabama to 14-13 just a few years ago,” she said. “It was close two years ago.”

No doubt, she knows. She's seen the game tape. Yes, she does study tape during the week as she prepares for each game. Mostly, she's treated as someone who knows the game by coaches.

“I will say that there are times now and then when a coach might say something in a meeting like, 'You wouldn't understand this,'” she said. “So I want to tell them, 'I can get on your little white board and draw it up!'”

That was the only thing missing Tuesday. She could have been the first female to draw up plays at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club.