It is said that every great career has its humble beginnings. In the case of Pittsburgh Steelers pick Mason Rudolph, this was certainly the case.
In his freshman year, it was destined to be a redshirt one; that was until a sudden injury to then-starting quarterback Daxx Garman before their week 11 game against Baylor thrust him in as the starting quarterback. With little expectations, Rudolph not only excelled, but he set his first of many school records, by throwing for 281 yards in a 49-28 loss against the Bears — the most by any Oklahoma State quarterback playing their first game in their program’s history. A week later, Rudolph engineered the second-largest fourth quarter comeback victory in their program’s history against the Oklahoma Sooners, in a 38-35 overtime victory. It took only three weeks for Rudolph to amass 853 passing yards and six touchdowns. It may have been a small sample size, but the legend of Mason Rudolph was just beginning.
After former starter Garman decided to transfer in March 2015, Rudolph was expected to be the starting quarterback for his sophomore year, splitting reps with backup J.W. Walsh. Though his first game was a modest one, he came back the following week going 23 for 35, 405 passing yards and two touchdowns. With Rudolph and Walsh, the Cowboys won ten straight games and were undefeated until their week 11 loss to Baylor. Rudolph grew a propensity for throwing the deep ball, as he tied future Rams’ quarterback Jared Goff for the nation’s lead with 40 completions of at least 20 yards. Rudolph ended this season with 3770 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Rudolph’s breakout season came in his junior year. His notable performance came in week 3 against the University of Pittsburgh, when he completed 26 of 46 passes for 504 yards. At one point, Rudolph had 164 consecutive completions without an interception. In week 9 against Kansas State, he threw for 457 yards and five touchdowns. Rudolph was arguably the best in the nation at throwing the deep ball, as his 36 completions of 30 yards or more, ranked him among the best in the nation. He completed his year with 4091 yards, 28 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Rudolph’s senior year was undoubtedly a ‘golden’ one. In week one, he passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns against Tulsa. From that point, Rudolph went on to pass for 300+ yards for five straight weeks. His most notable performance once again came against the University of Pittsburgh, when he completed 23 passes for 497 yards and five touchdowns. Rudolph led his Cowboys to a 10 – 3 record, which culminated with a 30 – 21 victory over Virginia Tech in the Camping World Bowl. In total, Rudolph finished the season with an incredible 4553 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. He helped his Cowboys offense become the first in Big 12 history to produce two 1000-yard receivers, and a 4000-yard passing quarterback. He led all quarterbacks in the nation in passing yards and was awarded the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and the Sammy Baugh Award. He was voted to several All-American teams and was even a semifinalist for the prestigious Walter Camp Award. In totality, Rudolph became arguably the greatest quarterback in Cowboys’ history.
With all these incredible passing statistics in mind, it was clear that the area of focus would be on Rudolph’s ability to throw the deep ball. When evaluating this aspect on film, I came to the realization that his throwing ability was comparable to Steelers second round pick and teammate James Washington‘s ability to run deep routes; it is not spectacular to look at but is incredibly effective. If we were to compare his deep throwing ability to Buffalo Bills first round pick Joshua Allen for instance, there is really no comparison. Rudolph does not possess the type of throwing velocity and strength which Allen possesses; however, he was able to deliver the ball more quickly and accurately downfield than Allen and many of the other quarterbacks in his draft class. Through his deep ball is not considered elite-level, it gets the job done which counts in the end.
30-yard Touchdown Throw vs Iowa State
In this game against the Iowa State, the Oklahoma State offense is seen in an 01 package, showing four wide receivers (three of them to the right and one positioned as the left wide receiver); the tight end represents the fifth receiver in this concept. Running back Justice Hill (wearing #5) at this point is the only one seen in the backfield next to Rudolph. Before the ball is snapped, Hill motions right behind Rudolph; as soon as the ball is snapped, Rudolph sells the idea that it is going to pass on Hill’s side, then turns to look downfield. When he sees his man open, receiver Marcell Ateman in this case, he throws a deep pass to his side.
Aspects to note in this case: Firstly, there is little to no exaggerated arm motion or wind up. Secondly, he does not quite throw it off his back leg; rather, he puts much of his body into it making the motion a little unnatural. Thirdly, his release is impressively quick. Fourthly, he gets the right amount of velocity for the ball to travel, seemingly not much effort needed in this aspect. The pass from first view did not seem promising, but the fact that he able to place the ball where Ateman could grab it between two defenders was quite amazing.
Rudolph’s Deep Pass Attempt vs Pitt
The staple of Oklahoma’s State’s offense is unquestionably the Run Pass Option (known as RPO), a spread concept Rudolph ran primarily during his collegiate career. In this sequence, Rudolph will use this concept against the Panthers on the first possession of the game. Note in this case, Rudolph has both a fullback to his left and a running back behind if he chooses to use the run option. When the ball is snapped, Rudolph will fake the handoff to Hill and look down field. When viewing the video paused, one can see his intention is to throw deep to one of his receivers. The second pause displays his throwing motion. I noted that he got more velocity on the throw, in contrast to the previous clip. As is his trademark, he does not display an exaggerated arm motion. The one aspect I saw here was how much air time this deep pass received. In my opinion, the ball’s trajectory was too high, which likely explains why the Panthers defensive back had time to catch up to receiver Chris Lacy, and make a play which should have resulted in a pass interference call. If there is one area that Rudolph needs to correct, it is the amount of air his deep passes get, otherwise this would have been a perfect throw.
Deep Pass Attempt To James Washington
As in the previous clip, the RPO was in full effect in this sequence. When the ball is snapped, Rudolph fakes the handoff; noted on this play, the Texas Tech middle linebacker coming in on a blitz, which is picked up by the Cowboys’ center. As seen when the video is paused, Rudolph is already looking downfield, his feet are almost shoulder width apart. His throw is smooth as he is able to throw off his back leg. The ball in this case had the right amount of air time and is accurate, as he is able to hit Washington in full stride. Though Washington was unable to complete the reception, I found this to be one of Rudolph’s better throws and the type of deep ball that is very catchable.
With Rudolph, the Steelers received a quarterback with all the physical and mental attributes a team looks for in a quarterback. Coming into this draft, Rudolph’s name was listed alongside the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft such as Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold. For the longest time, many wondered if the Steelers would be able to find a quarterback with the potential of becoming the heir apparent to future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Perhaps the fact that he was not well received from Roethlisberger serves as indication that he has never had any real competition, until now. In my estimation, Rudolph was the most complete quarterback in this draft. With time, I believe he will make all the teams who passed over him regret not taking him.