Cow­boys’ Ru­dolph sets high bar

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SPORTS - John Helsley jhel­s­ley@ok­la­homan.com

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.”

The Evo­lu­tion

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.

Mes­sage Re­ceived

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

pow­er­ful frame.

“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.”

Bet­ter Yet?

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.”

[PHOTO BY NATE BILLINGS, THE OK­LA­HOMAN ARCHIVES]

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.

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