Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph is a product of his surroundings. Not in the way he's often portrayed, though.
For many, Rudolph is a system quarterback who benefited from playing under head coach Mike Gundy as Zac Robinson and Brandon Weeden did before him. The Cowboys feature a high-flying offense, and the unit led major college football last season with 389.2 passing yards per game.
Rudolph became the program's all-time leading passer with 13,618 yards during his 41 starts. More importantly, the quarterback improved with each season and finished his senior campaign by completing 65 percent of his passes for 4,904 yards and 37 touchdowns.
NFL decision-makers look for more than top production in their evaluations. Translatable traits are a vital part of the process. A large portion of breaking down quarterbacks involves their ability to make NFL-caliber throws, how the signal-callers react to certain situations, the amount of responsibility entrusted to each and their capacity to process information pre- and post-snap.
The 6'4", 229-pound Rudolph is far from an automaton operating in a gimmick offense. He's a standout vertical passer—every bit as responsible for the team's recent success as the program's coaching staff and surrounding cast—with the potential to be a first-round pick in April's draft.
In an exclusive interview, Rudolph discussed perceived areas of concern within his game, current injury status and predraft plans.
Bleacher Report: When the top five quarterbacks in this year's draft class are discussed, Mason Rudolph is a name we don't often hear. Instead, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are mentioned. What's your reaction when you're not included among them?
Mason Rudolph: I'm confident in myself and know what I'm capable of. I know what I did in college, and I know what I'm going to do in the NFL. Obviously, I feel I should be in that conversation. There are those who do have me there, and there are others who don't depending on who you talk to.
B/R: How does it help to be working with Nike's Senior Director of Performance Ryan J. Flaherty alongside Darnold and Allen in your predraft preparation?
MR: I'm a competitor to the bone, no matter who I'm working with whether it's getting ready for the draft or with my teammates at Oklahoma State. In high school, I wanted to compete at the highest level. In turn, it helped me raise my level of play.
I have my own quarterback coach in Zac Robinson. We've been able to get some great work in California to fine-tune our plan for the pro day as well as what will be asked of me at the combine. We're trying to put the finishing touches on those things. That's been the biggest piece of preparation for me.
I've also worked with trainer Ryan Flaherty in regard to speed, strength and agility. In that setting, Sam and Josh are there. It's a good group to compete against and enjoy the process. We're all in the same boat and going through the same thing. It's fun to be around them as competitors as they try to improve themselves.
B/R: As a competitor, are you constantly measuring yourself against two fellow quarterbacks who are being considered for the No. 1 overall pick?
MR: Those on the outside love to compare us. Competing and comparing are two different things. You want to do the best in every single drill of what's being asked of you—whether it's throwing, in the weight room or on the field. I do work my butt off and want to be better than all of them.
At the same time, you must enjoy the process of going to work every single day. I'm going to prepare myself to the best of my ability and do what's best for me right now. Once I'm with a team, I'll do whatever's best for the team.
B/R: So, you break all of Robinson's Oklahoma State passing records and now you're training with him?
MR: I had a great relationship with Zac throughout college. He's a good friend and a Tom House disciple, who has served as a throwing coach for some of the NFL's biggest names. He took a lot of that stuff to Dallas in the Fort Worth area and trains a lot of college and high school guys. I connected with him after my freshman year, actually.
All of the drill work, attention on ground force and rotation as well as disassociation of hips and shoulders are things we've worked on for three years now. He's been great. Obviously, he proved to be successful in college before a five-year NFL career where he learned multiple systems from a lot of great minds. He's definitely a guy in my corner who I'm confident in to get the best advice at all times.
We're actually living together in Southern California. It's extremely convenient when we're on the board, watching film and out on the field. He's a big brother figure to me, and I'm looking forward to him helping with my pro day.
B/R: What specifically is your main area to improve upon as you prepare for the NFL combine and pro day?
MR: Your position coaches aren't always honed in on your mechanics and little details of footwork, release and upper-body mechanics during the season. Obviously, footwork has been a major concentration to show I can play from under center. I've been able to make a smooth transition these last couple months.
It's fun to get better every day while concentrating on the footwork and mechanics of throwing. I want to sharpen my tools and perfect my craft.
B/R: A foot injury prevented you from participating in the Senior Bowl. How has it progressed over the last three-plus weeks?
MR: I suffered a mid-foot sprain on my left foot in the fourth quarter of the bowl game against Virginia Tech. I finished the game even though it was pretty painful. We met with USC's team doctor before being referred to Dr. Anderson, who is the NFL's foot specialist. At the time, everyone recommended not to participate in the Senior Bowl since I had to be in a boot for three weeks.
But I made a commitment to Phil Savage and wanted to follow through by still going down to Mobile (Alabama) and spend some time with NFL teams during the interview process.
As of today, I'm running full speed during some 20- and 40-yard dashes. I'm also 100 percent in regard to throwing and all of that.
With a mid-foot sprain, planting and cutting can give me some troubles being only eight weeks removed from the injury. In a perfect world, I should have worn the boot for six weeks. But I can't, because there are things to do.
I feel very comfortable in doing everything at the combine. Maybe not the short shuttle or L-drill, but I'll definitely be able to broad-jump, vertical, throw and, for sure, compete in the 40-yard dash. If there's something I'm not quite comfortable with at the time, I can knock it out at my pro day.
That's the plan right now, and I definitely feel a lot better physically.
B/R: Just to confirm, you do plan on throwing at the combine, correct?
MR: Yes, I plan on throwing.
B/R: The following is a direct quote from an anonymous scout relayed by Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller regarding your game: "You have him in Round 2 and I just don't see it. He has a weak arm and plays in a bulls--t scheme." What's your response to those claims?
MR: My immediate reaction? I definitely believe I have one of the strongest arms in the class. All you have to do is watch my tape and see my downfield throws and intermediate routes. Obviously, I feel just a little different there.
I've been tagged with the system label for a long time now. If you watch the film, I was asked to throw the ball in ways that marry up with NFL concepts. Did we run a lot of RPOs on first and second down? Yes. That's the system I was asked to run and did so to the best of my ability. My production increased in each of the past three seasons and won a lot of ballgames along the way.
Again, you can only control what you can control. I was doubted and under-recruited coming out of high school. People at LSU, Tennessee and North Carolina thought I was a second-tier guy. I'm sure, if you asked those guys now, they wished they had taken me.
I'm excited about the future and putting my best foot forward at the combine and just killing it. What I already put on tape speaks for itself. Whatever situation I land in, I'm going to attack it.
B/R: Can continued improvement in your footwork eventually dispel any of those aforementioned concerns about arm strength by driving through passes on a consistent basis?
MR: Most of the throws that will be asked of me at the combine will come from under center and I've gotten comfortable doing so over the last eight weeks. I'm confident in my ability to execute those routes and concepts.
You can always improve and I strive to improve my game, mental makeup and football IQ. This grind is part of the process.
B/R: To build upon the system narrative, another anonymous scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, "I've just seen too many of those system quarterbacks struggle to make it in the league so I'm hesitant to buy in. He has gotten better this year."
Can you explain how much responsibility the Oklahoma State coaching staff placed upon you in regard to pre- and post-snap reads?
MR: When people use the term "system," they automatically think of the Air Raid scheme and traditional [Washington State head coach] Mike Leach concepts. Those are things we kind of got away from.
Do we still have a 90s dropback series and traditional scheme that spreads a defense and pushes the ball downfield while utilizing crossing, curls, post and go routes? Yes, we do.
At Oklahoma State, you have some of the best RPO packages in college football. We utilized an off-the-ball tight end who inserts on an outside zone, where a lead fullback scrapes around the C-gap. We read a number of defenders with those RPOs.
We used quick-game packages, too. We dropped back with straight six- or seven-man protections. When I dropped back, there were a lot of progression reads. Yes, there were coverage reads that eliminated one side of the field. But there were true progressions as well where I had to look at one, two, three, four or even five depending on the coverage.
We were also known for a lot of play-action. We threw the ball downfield, and I was extremely accurate in doing so. I believe that's a strength in my game.
Another big package revolved around our "turbo" plays. Basically, one word encompassed the protection, formation, backs and route calls. All of that came in one word, which allowed us to operate so fast at times. Big plays often came using those.
What we didn't do is run too many screens. That's a tag I had to overcome coming out of high school. Yes, I threw a lot of screens in high school, but we barely did that at Oklahoma State. We were always quick to take a shot and blow the top off a defense.
I hear about how these Big 12 defenses only play quarters coverage and make life easier on the quarterback. Yes, most Big 12 defenses did play quarters. But I also played against teams from different conferences like Colorado, Virginia Tech and Washington, who we beat the crap out of in bowl games, that ran different schemes.
[Virginia Tech defensive coordinator] Bud Foster uses anything but vanilla quarters, and we threw for 350 yards on that Hokies defense.
If you look at the teams we played in the postseason as well as different matchups, styles and systems found in the Big 12, plenty of variety exists. Defenses knew they couldn't just give us Cover 4, because we made them pay for it.
As far as control at the line of scrimmage, our center was a four-year starter and made the preliminary "Mike" point, but I was able to trump the center at any time presnap. If I saw a safety rotation to stack right or left, I'd call "easy" and we'd go check rip [right], liz [left] or whatnot. I had the ability to do that as well as checking routes and concepts based on certain coverage looks. If I saw Cover 0 or 1 and wanted to look off the safety to throw a 25-yard fade route to James Washington—a route we were extremely successful and efficient running—I had the ability to do that.
The same applied in the red zone. When you get down there—maybe even plus-35 or 45—in the scoring zone with Cover 0 [man coverage across the board], I had stuff we worked on all week to counter.
I had all of that at my disposal and used them effectively in games. Teams would get into Cover 0—West Virginia did it two years in a row, for example—we burned them early and scored a touchdown this past year.
Teams understood this and got out of certain coverages. When we were on our game, we had answers for everything.
I definitely had a lot more control of the offense. I met with Coach Gundy and the offensive staff weekly, and they were eager for my input to hear my top five favorite schemes that I wanted to install.
B/R: The term "spread offense" is generic, yet it's consistently used to identify multiple different schemes, formations and approaches. How did things differ in regard to your skill set?
MR: I sometimes hear the Bryce Petty comparison. Bryce is a great player and guy, but if you watched Baylor's offense—and we would watch it, because they were so successful—they only used two receivers on one side while the other two just stood there. They saved their legs for the next route. Then, those two guys ran routes on the next play. They were effective, but our routes and concepts are far more involved than the Baylor style people compare with our offense.
B/R: A quarterback can't maximize his skills without the right talent around him. Aside from scheme, what type of symbiotic relationship developed between yourself and the Oklahoma State wide receivers, Marcell Ateman and Biletnikoff Award winner James Washington?
MR: The little time I got with James late in my freshman year developed into instant chemistry. He was always a good friend of mine and a humble guy. As a solid Christian guy, we gravitated toward each other.
My connection with Marcell grew as we got a little older. Marcell and I really started to home into each other during our junior years when he suffered an injury. But it was cool the way it worked out with him coming back and all of us coming out and going through this process together.
I was unbelievably blessed with two receivers of their capability.
James is very explosive with the ability to run by any corner, even with a 15-yard cushion. Also, he did a great job with our route tree and showed efficiency in numerous routes. Marcell is more of a possession receiver, but he's a guy you can target in the red zone with his big body. He doesn't get enough credit as a physical run-blocker. They're two guys who will play on Sunday for a long time.
B/R: You led all prospects with 1,712 yards on deep passes, per Pro Football Focus. Can you describe what it takes to be an elite deep thrower?
MR: Peyton Manning said it best at a previous Manning camp when he was going into his final years with the Denver Broncos. He knew at that point in his career it wasn't about throwing the ball 70 yards. It was about putting the ball between the numbers and the sideline on the correct landmark at the right time.
Not to say I don't have one of the strongest arms in the class, because I do, but touch and accuracy on the deep ball are every bit as important as throwing it a mile. It's a great blend of all three, while also understanding the leverage of the defensive back. That makes the difference between understanding whether to put the ball on the back shoulder or over his shoulder. You find the receiver's line on a post or skinny post to bring him across or lead him near the hash.
Wherever I go, I'm excited to learn the system and hopefully get to do what I do best: That's throwing the ball down the field.
B/R: Was the downfield aggressiveness seen at Oklahoma State part of your makeup, or were you asked to read deep to short based on the play calls?
MR: It all depends on the scheme and play, because it's based on what the defense is giving you.
A lot of times during the last two seasons, teams made sure James Washington wasn't going to beat them. Iowa State was one of them. The Cyclones had a great defense and just knocked off a pair of Top 10 teams [in the Oklahoma Sooners and TCU Horned Frogs]. We went to their place, and they played three deep safeties. They forced us to take the underneath stuff and hit the seams. That's exactly what we did and still scored 49 points. We were patient, took what they gave us and still proved to be effective. I felt it was one of my best performances.
B/R: As part of a very young quarterback class, you're a rare four-year starter. Do the extra starts and experience provide an advantage throughout this process?
MR: Experience is the best teacher, and it will forever be. Production, starts, toughness and playing through injuries describe me in a valid way. I proved myself as a competitive leader and tough guy who can lead an offense down the field.
B/R: How much is communication a key to establishing yourself as a team leader?
MR: I was asked what kind of leader I am at the Senior Bowl a whole lot.
One of the things my dad taught me at a young age is that you lead by example. I never wanted to be a rah-rah talkative guy in high school, at Oklahoma State or the next level. I want to earn my teammates' respect through my actions and how I conduct myself on and off the field. It starts in the weight and film rooms.
Good communication derives from that respect, and those things help grow a great team and end result.
B/R: Are you the best quarterback in the class?
MR: I know that's what everyone wants to ask. I couldn't care less about anyone else but myself. Once I get on a team, it'll be all about the team. Right now, it's all preparing myself for the next chapter of my life and making sure I maximize my potential, leadership skills, on-the-field skills and football IQ.
I don't care about comparisons when I'm trying to put my best foot forward.
B/R: Finally, what's the most important thing for teams to understand about you prior to April's draft?
MR: It was different the way I came across to teams at the Senior Bowl and the way I plan on articulating myself during combine interviews. Teams get to find out who I am behind closed doors. Understanding who I am and what I was asked to do in Oklahoma State's offense is important.
My dream has been to play in the NFL since I was a young kid. I'm from a football family. My dad played at North Carolina, and my little brother is a freshman linebacker at Clemson. Football is in our blood, and I'm excited to be the first in our family to do it professionally.
All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.