There are two ways to look at Oklahoma State superstar quarterback Mason Rudolph.
You can start at the end of Rudolph's career and look backwards to his prep days in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he punished the record books and made folks at Northwestern High School quickly forget about his all-world predecessor and eventual Tennessee QB Justin Worley.
If you look at Rudolph's career this way, it's difficult to understand how so many teams in that part of the country passed on the most valuable piece of a college football team's puzzle: a highly-intellectual, big-armed wizard behind center -- the kind of engine that would get the most from even the meekest of vehicles.
Heading into Bedlam on Saturday, Rudolph is in the top six of active NCAA career leaders in total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns and completions.
North Carolina, where his father Brett played football, sits just 165 miles north of Rock Hill. The Tar Heels never offered Rudolph out of high school. South Carolina, which sits just 70 miles south of Rock Hill, didn't call either. They weren't alone. Rudolph was right under the noses of Clemson, LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia and many others. Most had interest but few sent offers.
In the end, Rudolph only counted nine scholarship opportunities. Now there are nearly nine schools in the Big 12 that would trade quarterbacks with Oklahoma State if the opportunity presented itself.
A second perspective on Rudolph's career makes allows one to envision how all of this happened. How a rosy-cheeked, crew cut-wearing quarterback -- who could not be more all-American if his name was Apple Pie Rudolph -- ended up five states to the west in the wind-whipped prairies of Oklahoma embarking on his record-setting career. It's easy to see why nobody in the deep south viewed the cerebral twirler of pigskins as a program-saver.
Rudolph didn't even take up the quarterback position until his sophomore year when he transferred to Northwestern High School to play for then-coach and now-Clemson senior offensive assistant Kyle Richardson. Before then, he was a tight end at a private Christian school in the area, eons away from where he is now, which is on the precipice of being a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
"Physically, it clicked when he was an eighth grader in my camp," explained Richardson. "His eighth grade year going into his ninth grade year, he shot up -- tall, big feet, and he was back there slinging it around. I actually took notice of him then. Before that, he was just a normal kid back there playing quarterback."
Rudolph's father always had an inkling what his son could do if given the opportunity.
"I always thought he could play quarterback," said Brett Rudolph. "All through youth football, either the coach's son was a quarterback or for two years he played on a single wing team that didn't have a traditional quarterback. It just never worked out. I would have dads come up to me and say, 'Your son can throw the ball.' I said, 'Yeah, I know. I wish he could play quarterback.' I sent him to Kyle's camp one summer, and that's what started the dialogue. He said, 'Hey, we need to talk.'"
Eventually, Richardson convinced the Rudolphs to transfer from the private school to Northwestern High. Mason was immediately moved to quarterback. But even when Rudolph beat out a returning senior for the starting job in his sophomore year, plenty was working against him in terms of recruiting.
Rudolph was not the world's greatest athlete. He did not grow up playing the position, let alone attending college camps. He played in a system that produced QBs with gaudy numbers. It could be difficult to separate the wheat and the chaff with quarterbacks in Richardson's air raid attack.
"My high school coach was big on, 'Your film on Friday nights can take care of your recruiting process,'" Rudolph recalled. "He was a little naive to the whole camps and Nike combine and all that. I went to one Rivals camp but didn't do a whole lot other than my Shrine Bowl Combine my senior season."
And it is at these spring and summer camps where college coaches can fall in love. High school football can be so volatile and uneven, so difficult to measure -- especially in an air raid system like Richardson ran. But coaches can control what they can measure, and they can always measure arm strength, speed and power at camps. Rudolph went to a few, but he didn't truly understand how they worked.
"You could tell there were other guys there that were much more refined in the way that they did the camp thing in shorts and a T-shirt," said Brett. "I've looked back and wondered, 'Maybe that was a mistake; he really wasn't ready for that.' I think a lot of schools kind of wrote him off, which seems crazy to me now looking back thinking, 'He's only a rising junior.' I would have that debate with [Richardson]: Is it truly what happens on Friday night, or does this camp thing really matter? We could see he was kind of behind in that way."
The offers eventually came because, even in a good system, Rudolph's high school stats were hard to ignore -- over 10,000 yards, 132 touchdowns and two state title games appearances. And yes, many of those offers came from big-time schools. Les Miles and LSU called. So did Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss. Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech were in relatively early. Dabo Swinney and Clemson were not, but they had a young commitment at the time by the name of Deshaun Watson. All of those decisions made sense.
What didn't calculate is why South Carolina dipped into Florida to grab Michael Scarnecchia, a three-star quarterback at Fleming Island High School who was ranked No. 82 among pro-style QBs in the class of 2014, per 247Sports. Rudolph was No. 17. Scarnecchia ended his career with 9 passing yards. Rudolph could end his career with nearly 90 passing touchdowns. The two quarterbacks North Carolina and South Carolina snagged in the class of 2014 over Rudolph combined to throw three college passes. It's almost laughable now.
"South Carolina was always the mind-boggler," said Rudolph. "You know, in-state kid, played state championship there back-to-back years, played well, had the numbers and what not. [I] went to their camp and for whatever reason wasn't good enough to get the offer, which was fine. I don't even know that I would have gone there if I would have had the offer."
"It was more than surprising," said Brett of the lack of offers. "It was kind of frustrating, really, going through the process. I was seeing what he was doing on Friday nights, and it just didn't seem to translate. We went down to South Carolina's camp. [Steve] Spurrier was the coach at the time. They seemed to like him. They talked to him one day and then we never heard anything."
South Carolina's loss was Oklahoma State's gain. Mike Gundy had just hired a fresh offensive coordinator from Shippensburg University, a Division II school in southern Pennsylvania, who used to draw up plays with LEGOs. He reached out to Richardson just in case.
"Coach [Mike] Yurcich did an unbelievable job recruiting him when he first got there," said Richardson. "One of the first phone calls he made was to me going, 'Hey I really like this kid's tape, is it even worth us recruiting him?' I said, 'Hey, he's going to probably be on a plane somewhere going to school when it's all said and done' because nobody locally was recruiting him. Your plane ride is going to be the same plane ride to Baton Rouge or South Bend, so why not get in the mix? At least you have the carrot to dangle as in similar style offense. It just kind of went from there."
It wasn't considered a coup at the time for Yurcich and Gundy to get Rudolph. He was a top-20 quarterback and a top-300 player overall but far from a sure thing. What it came down to for Rudolph was some collective of stylistic fit, opportunity to play and long-term stability in the program. OSU probably offered the best combination of those qualities.
"I just felt comfortable with Yurcich and Gundy and the system and the amount of quarterbacks on scholarship with J.W. [Walsh] being the only guy," said Rudolph. "So I just kind of pulled the trigger and said, 'Forget the distance, forget all those factors. I'm going to go the best place where I can play and play early and enjoy college.'"
"He chose Oklahoma State because he felt like he was their guy," said Richardson. "They had put a lot of time and effort into his recruitment. They got into the picture because they run a similar style system. When Dana Holgorsen and those guys were there, they were running a similar style system to what I ran at Northwestern and previously ran in college. That's where the interest was sparked by them. Hey, there's a kid over in South Carolina; we don't even recruit South Carolina. But the system helped spark that interest on both sides."
Still, the Rudolph-Cowboys marriage almost never happened. His father said Stillwater, Oklahoma, was so far away (17 hours by car) that they nearly didn't even make the trek over in the first place.
"The funniest thing is that we almost didn't take a visit," Brett recalled. "We came to Oklahoma State's spring game in 2013, and we came out in April. It was so far at that point we weren't really sure that was possible. I remember saying, 'Let's go check it out; we've heard a lot about their facilities.' There was a period there where we were just going to say, 'Nah, that's too far, you're not going to go there anyway.' I'm really glad we came out."
Even with the similar offenses, potential opportunity to play, comfort level with Yurcich, and the love for the facilities, it was still tough. It was difficult to eject from that part of the country and enter a vast unknown in another state.
"The hardest thing for Mason is that he knew choosing a Big 12 school, the cool factor for people around here would be far less than if he chose a SEC or ACC school," said Brett, who got laughed at by his son for once making spreadsheets to help choose a college. "It's just a fact. He never articulated that, but I always sensed that that was probably in the back of his mind."
Rudolph sat for most of his freshman year before he was used as a human injection for a reeling program. Oklahoma State went to Baylor in November 2014 with a record of 5-5 and a host of wounded signal-callers, badly needing something -- or someone -- to place its hope in. Rudolph delivered, throwing for 281 yards and two touchdowns in his college debut, the 11th game of Oklahoma State's season.
"That freshman year, when he got the start against Baylor, we weren't really happy," said Brett. "It wasn't a good thing in our minds. Game 11, we couldn't see how that could possibly be good. Obviously, we were wrong. If he didn't get that opportunity, I think, it's pretty safe to assume J.W. would have come back and probably started in 2015, and Mason would have waited. Maybe that would have worked, maybe it wouldn't have, but I don't think he would have had the opportunity he had and to play as much as he's played."
Instead, Rudolph upset Oklahoma on the road in the final game of the year with a 273-yard, two-touchdown day. He then beat Washington in the Cactus Bowl behind 299 yards and two more touchdowns. Rudolph enters Bedlam on Saturday with a 29-7 record as a starter over the last three and a half years. He reinvigorated a program and gave Gundy a bedrock upon which to build the Pokes' future.
In a lot of ways, Rudolph is an offensive lineman blessed with a quarterback's body. This is why maybe it was difficult for some to envision a future for him out of high school. What makes Rudolph great is not necessarily what leaves college coaches salivating. He plays hurt. He lustily chases attention to detail. He is more obsessed with technique than most.
Gundy has repeatedly touted Rudolph's perfectionism as a reason why he's had so much success.
"He prides himself on being the Peyton Manning, Tom Brady of college football," said Gundy. "That's what he prides himself on, and he backs it up. Most people that are that committed that have some skill are going to be successful. He's a workaholic. The guy's crazy -- over his footwork, his release, his study, the gameplan. I meet with him on the night before games, usually Friday nights, and he goes over the gameplan. He knows it front and back. He understands everything like a coach."
But that has always been the case with Rudolph.
"He had the work ethic, and he was tough," said Richardson of the quarterback's prep days. "He was mentally tough. He was competitive. Then he had the physical tools. On top of that, he's smart.
"When you start getting all those traits together is when you start separating yourself from the masses of quarterbacks who want to do what he's doing now. He's not doing what he's doing now because he has a great arm and because he has the physical traits. He's doing what he's doing now because of his mental makeup, his work ethic, his competitiveness, how hard he works in the film room. On top of he's got some good physical traits at quarterback, too."
Gundy told one recent story about Rudolph loitering in the film room that encapsulates the entirety of his career in Stillwater.
"He's been fantastic," said Gundy. "His commitment to us, his work ethic. A week ago, he texted me at home at 8:47 at night, and he's watching tape. It was on a Thursday. The gameplan is almost over. He's still in there, and he's wanting me to pull up Texas-USC play No. 47 and see if it's something we could think about doing. That's the commitment he's made. ... He deserves all the records."
And now he nearly has them. The little-recruited Rudolph is now king of the books at one of the great recent offensive powerhouses in the country -- most touchdown passes, most yards, most completions. He recently took the biggest one of them all -- most wins as a starting quarterback.
Recruiting a quarterback out of high school is next to impossible. There are too many variables, too much noise to work through to hit a home run on every at-bat. But it's clear that Rudolph was a big whiff from a whole bunch of ACC and SEC schools.
"I don't know if teams regret [not offering Rudolph] or not," said Richardson. "It's an inexact science. It's a lot of hit and miss sometimes. You can watch a kid on tape and see all the physical tools, but until you get him in a meeting room and see what he's got mentally, you don't know that answer. Until you put him out in the fire and adversity of a game and practice at this level, you don't know how he's going to respond."
Rudolph has answered the lack of buzz he received coming out of high school with one of the best four-year runs in Big 12 history. His name will be in the top five among Big 12 quarterbacks all-time in passing yards, joining other greats like Landry Jones, Colt McCoy, Graham Harrell and ... Baker Mayfield.
So what has he taken from all of this?
"It was a good process, crazy like all of them are," said Rudolph of being recruited. "[I] Ended up making the best decision I ever have and coming out to Stillwater, enjoying college life and football."