ROCK HILL — Two years ago, Mason Rudolph was returning home from a basketball game and listening to the closing seconds of Northwesterns 42-10 win over Greenwood in the state championship game on the radio.
Saturday, Northwestern will again face the Eagles in the Class AAAA-DII state final, but this time Rudolph, the Trojans junior quarterback, will lead the team out onto the field at Williams-Brice Stadium instead of listening at home.
After transferring from Westminster Catawba Christian as a sophomore, and switching positions from tight end, Rudolph was given the reins to the Trojans offense by then first-year coach Kyle Richardson. 2011 was Rudolphs first year playing a new position in a complex new offense at a new school, a public school no less. For a teenager, it was a lot of novelty.
There really were a lot of things stacked against him, and he still found a way to be successful, Richardson said on Wednesday after the team returned from a practice at South Carolinas Williams-Brice Stadium.
A year and a half after Rudolphs conversion, Richardson looks like a genius. The former tight end has thrown for 3,787 yards, 39 touchdown passes, five interceptions, and is completing over 68 percent of his attempts this season.
What he did from Year One to Year Two in the offseason, said Richardson, he physically and mentally took it to another level. Thats where youre seeing mentally hes picked up the offense. The meetings and all that, hes just so much better this year.
Compare the 2012 numbers to last year 27 passing touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and 2,619 yards passing and the improvement is easily quantifiable.
The key is really just experience, Rudolph said. You really cant learn unless youre just thrown in there.
After a mass graduation from Northwesterns unbeaten 2010 state title team, Rudolph and a group of sophomores and freshmen were tossed in at the deep end in 2011. The Trojans went 8-5 and were pummeled by Goose Creek in the second round of the state playoffs, but the experience paid off this year as the Trojans are 12-2 and again playing in December.
Richardson stayed patient with Rudolph even when the learning process was at its most sluggish.
There were multiple times where I could see he was frustrated, things werent working out the way that we wanted them to, Rudolph said. This year weve been able to work a lot of those things out that I couldnt get last year. Its just the process of learning from your mistakes.
At 6-foot-4 and weighing around 200 pounds, Rudolphs physical blessings make him an obvious candidate to lead a huddle, something a slew of top college programs have noticed.
But his mental acuity has accelerated the learning process, putting him and Northwestern in a position to win a state title just two years removed from the days of Justin Worley, the Trojans record setting passer in 2010.
Theres a lot of stuff that comes with playing that spot in this system mentally, Richardson said. Hes identifying things a lot quicker. Everything is kind of slow motion around him and hes just seeing things so much clearer.
As the quarterback, Rudolph and Northwesterns fates are intertwined. As hes improved, so too has the Trojan offense. Theyre averaging 436 yards of total offense and 42 points per outing, while converting 47 percent of third down chances, a stat that keeps the Northwestern locomotive chugging right along, drive after drive. But one of the most impressive facets of the Trojan offense is its ability to adapt to the opponent.
Richardsons offense is like that hard-luck relative that just keeps on taking; give five yards, the Trojans take 10. Last week when they were struggling to throw the ball against Bluffton, Northwestern shifted to a running attack because the Bobcats were keying on the passing game, and ended up with 252 yards on the ground by the end of the night, a 7.2-yard-per-carry average.
The Air Raid isnt a hubris-saddled, pass-at-all-costs offense focused solely on piling up yardage and gaudy stats. Kyle Richardson and company take whatever they can get, however they can get it, with a solitary aim: putting more points on the scoreboard than the opposition.
Its great to throw for a lot of yards and a lot of touchdowns, but none of that matters if youre not winning, Richardson says. Theres a lot of teams out there that can be at the top of the stats, but you gotta find a way to win.
Senior running back LaThomas Long stepped up for the Trojans last Friday night, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown and helping the Trojans find a way. Long is just one of a number of offensive firearms that a fortunate Rudolph can utilize on any given night.
Theres DuPree Hart, the pint-sized grenade and one of the most dangerous athletes in the state with a football; 6-foot-6 Shrine Bowl receiver Rontavious McClure, the tank who turns short passes into big gainers by rolling over tacklers; Long and junior receiver Mustafia Love, the landmines that lurk in the shadows waiting for opponents to focus too much attention on Hart and McClure; the list could go on
Theyre all great guys, they all make plays and catch the ball when its been needed, and have all really stepped up in crucial times this year, said Rudolph. To have athletes like that its just awesome. It takes the pressure off you.
Poised in the pocket
The key is getting the ball to the playmakers, a responsibility that lies in Rudolphs sizable paws. With so many guys worthy of targeting, the big junior has to remain calm and lucid through every play. Endless drilling of his progressions in every situation has helped. So too has Richardsons demeanor.
Hes always calm and collected, no matter whether were playing an undefeated team or a defeated team, Rudolph said. Hes been great with me, bringing me along and teaching me the ways of the system.
I try to follow him in that characteristic, he added. We dont like to get too upbeat or downbeat, just stay level throughout the game.
That composure certainly helped last week when Northwestern fell behind Bluffton 10-0 at the half. The coaching staff made several simple adjustments during the intermission and the game turned in the second half.
After two fumbles, a punt, an interception and a turnover-on-downs in Northwesterns first half drives, the Trojans scored touchdowns on their first six possessions of the second half, and the seventh only ended when the clock expired. Rudolph was an on-field extension of the coaching staffs unfettered belief during the second 24 minutes, igniting the Trojan offense like a sizzling July Fourth M-80.
I feel like hes gotten better at just playing calm and being a team leader, McClure says.
In two short years, Rudolph has come quite a ways from the gangly ninth grader listening to the Trojans on the radio. Said McClure, Hes one of the best team leaders that we actually have.
Bret McCormick 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T