Cowboys’ Rudolph sets high bar
Before yanking the redshirt from Mason Rudolph prior to the 2014 Baylor game, Mike Gundy had no clear expectations for his then-freshman quarterback.
“He was not a good practice player as a freshman,” Gundy said. “And all we had to go on was practice.”
Rudolph proved – and continues to prove – to be a gamer; evolving in every way, even as a practice perfectionist. Sound familiar?
Gundy once painted a similar scene around former Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden, considered by most as Oklahoma State’s alltime greatest quarterback.
Weeden’s hold on that status now looms tenuous, with Rudolph, entering his senior season, poised to overtake him if he continues his stellar career path, begun with a furious final three games to that 2014 season. Fittingly, too, this Rudolph-led squad gains favorable comparisons to Weeden’s 2011 team that finished 12-1, won the Big 12 championship and finished No. 3 in the final rankings.
And like Weeden a few years back, Rudolph craves a strong finishing touch for his OSU career and legacy.
“We’ve fallen short of the Big 12 championship the last two years, and that’s what sticks out to me the most,” Rudolph said. “I’m not OK with losing. I want to be a champion. I’ve got all those competitive genes in me.
“So to leave a legacy and do all the things I want to do here, it’s going to take a Big 12 title.”
So, what changed from those fall days of 2014, when Rudolph failed to make an impression on Gundy and his coaches, only to reroute a lost season by engineering a road upset of Oklahoma, then a Cactus Bowl win over Washington?
Much has changed, including Rudolph’s approach and attention to his mechanics and his preparation and a will to be great, although the ability and upside was clearly always there.
“In the Baylor game and the OU game and the bowl game, he played good,” Gundy said. “He didn’t show any of those signs at practice, or we would have played him earlier. Sometimes you see that – not a lot – but sometimes you see a kid who actually plays better in games than they practice.”
Like a lot of freshmen facing a redshirt year, Rudolph admittedly was easing into his Cowboys career. J.W. Walsh stood firm as the starter, and Daxx Garman provided a veteran backup.
Injuries to both Walsh
and Garman, however, forced Gundy’s hand, reluctantly, to play Rudolph.
“I was definitely in cruise mode the first couple weeks when I was No. 3,” Rudolph said. “Then J.W. gets hurt Week 2 and cruise mode goes into serious mode. I definitely switched gears there and from that point I’d say I started really focusing in and preparing like I was the starter.”
Even if it wasn’t obvious in practice, Rudolph had readied himself. As an early enrollee following a standout prep career at Rock Hill’s Northwestern High in South Carolina, Rudolph was at least mentally making gains.
“Coming in early and having that spring under my belt before the fall helped me in understanding the offense, so it wasn’t a big install process,” Rudolph said. “It was just, ‘Let’s study the opponent and see what they do.’”
OSU’s skidding season matched a Gundy-era worst five-game losing streak at Baylor, yet Rudolph played admirably in a 49-28 road loss.
“The first thing you learned was that he’s a total unselfish person,” said offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. “To heck with his redshirt, you’re on a team, play the game and try to win. Very early on in that Baylor game, we were able to see he had that good command. You never know until you see it.
“Right away, his teammates
took to him. And that’s something that is really difficult to evaluate, because you don’t have that game experience and see how guys respond when the bullets start flying.”
Soon, the Bedlam bombshell and the bowl victory was reshaping the future, for the program and for Rudolph.
Gundy’s phone now regularly chimes with messages from Rudolph offering input.
“He texts me all the time about this play or this play,” Gundy said. “Or, ‘We should do this.’ Or, ‘I’ve been studying the Patriots and they’re doing this and I want to do this.’
“We take all those things into account.”
And, Gundy said, that sort of give and take isn’t automatic.
“You kind of earn your stripes, only if you’re a student of the game, which he is,” Gundy said. “If you’re not a student of the game, we’re not going to take into consideration what you say. But if you put time and effort in and work at it, you deserve it.”
Rudolph pores over video of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and patterns his preparedness after Peyton Manning, which has elevated his mental game. Technically, he’s improved with his delivery of the football, his footwork in the pocket and other areas under the tutelage of former OSU quarterback Zac Robinson, who’s now working as a quarterback guru in Dallas. Physically, he’s worked in the weight room to tone the 230 pounds attached to his 6-foot-5
“Mason’s game has improved a lot and he’s going to continue to improve, because he wants to work on it so badly,” Robinson told The Oklahoman last season. “He wants it. He has skills, obviously, but the guys who separate themselves are the ones that are wanting to put in the hours and enjoy doing it. And he’s one of those guys. So he’s just going to keep growing as a quarterback.”
Receiver Marcell Ateman, a fifth-year senior, marvels at the difference these three years have made in Rudolph. Along with the attention to detail in his game and his preparation, Ateman recognizes a next-level communication aspect to his quarterback.
“I see him from when he first started the Baylor
game to where he is now, he’s built himself into a professional,” Ateman said. “Everything he does is like a professional, NFL quarterback. He’s a great leader. He talks about everything. He wants to fine-tune everything just right. I see that professionalism in him.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to see someone like that grow.”
Already, Rudolph holds no fewer than 11 school records, and more are within clear reach.
More importantly, he’s led the Cowboys to a 22-6 record and three bowl trips in little more than two seasons.
And he enters the 2017 season ranked among the top six active players in most of the quarterback
career statistics at the FBS level.
Rudolph excels in the clutch, too, with eight comeback wins after the Cowboys trailed in the second half.
Despite all this, he can be overlooked nationally, landing somewhere down the list when it comes to quarterback rankings or the Heisman Trophy.
Still, equipped with his best set of weapons yet, led by All-American wideout James Washington fronting an elite receiving corps and Justice Hill ready to build on his 1,000-yard rushing year as a freshman, Rudolph will have every opportunity to make people take notice.
Not that he’ll cop to seeking more of the spotlight; not individually. For Rudolph, it’s wins that he wants – the big
wins. And, he informs, he’s turned this corner before.
“I think it’s similar to my high school situation,” Rudolph said. “My sophomore year we weren’t very good, my junior year we made it to the state championship and lost. My senior year we went undefeated and won (the state championship).
“I think the steps I’ve taken personally in just making strides in the offseason… I’m looking forward to this season. We’ve had a great summer and a great offseason. I just want to bring the best out of my teammates, be a great teammate and push those guys every day. That’s all I can do.
“I got one more season and one more chapter to go.”
OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph wants to end his college career on a high note. For Rudolph, that means nothing less than a Big 12 championship.