Column: South Carolina paying the price for letting QB Mason Rudolph slip away
The best high school quarterback from the state of South Carolina in the 2014 recruiting cycle is 1,100 miles away from home and undefeated as the starter for No. 6 Oklahoma State.
Mason Rudolph, a product of Rock Hill (S.C.) Northwestern High School — a mere 70 miles from Columbia — has completed 64.4 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. The sophomore has the Cowboys at 10-0 and in position to earn an invite to the College Football Playoff if he can top No. 10 Baylor and No. 7 Oklahoma in Stillwater to close out the regular season.
That would be a bitter pill to swallow for fans of the Gamecocks, who are presently 3-7 and have been forced to endure one of the worst QB situations in the SEC.
RELATED: Poor QB play plagues the SEC
South Carolina has started Connor Mitch, Lorenzo Nunez and Perry Orth this season, and that triumvirate has combined to produce just 190.2 yards per game through the air — ninth in the SEC and 102nd nationally. Mitch has battled injuries, Nunez is more runner than thrower and Orth began his career as a walk-on.
Rudolph, conversely, directs an Oklahoma State aerial attack that’s No. 3 in the pass-happy Big 12 and No. 7 in the country at 353 yards per game.
Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Watch List: Mason Rudolph makes his first appearance. https://t.co/6BFct79tVv pic.twitter.com/uc4v5kd0n6
— O'Colly (@OColly) November 10, 2015
“One of the knocks on Rudolph during his recruitment was that he’s a system quarterback,” said Bret McCormick, who covered Rudolph in high school as the sports editor of The Herald. “He played wide receiver at a tiny private school his freshman year of high school and then transferred to Northwestern, where they promptly switched him to QB.
“He’s only ever played in the Air Raid offense, which is a big reason why he chose Oklahoma State.”
It’s not like South Carolina didn’t have an opportunity to watch the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder play up close and personal.
“Northwestern won the 4A Division II state title in 2013 at Williams-Brice Stadium,” said McCormick, “with Mason throwing 8 TD passes in the game on the Gamecocks’ home field.”
I know what you’re thinking. They don’t play any defense in the Big 12. Every game is 51-50. Anybody could throw for 300 yards on a weekly basis. It’s a legit argument, for sure.
The Cowboys are 51st in scoring defense, allowing 24.5 points per game, but just one spot ahead of them is LSU — a Tigers program known for sending defensive talent to the NFL annually is giving up 24.3.
If anything, Rudolph deserves credit for finding a way to outscore all those high-flying Big 12 offenses Saturday after Saturday.
Meanwhile, in Columbia …
South Carolina fields the 67th-ranked scoring D in the land (27 points allowed per game), so the need for a signal caller that can routinely dent the scoreboard is obvious.
“Neither Clemson nor South Carolina showed a ton of interest in Mason when he came out of Rock Hill, which certainly seems like a mistake now,” said Josh Kendall, who covers South Carolina for The State. “That was the season the Gamecocks made a strong push for Drew Barker out of Kentucky. South Carolina thought they were very close to signing Barker until late in the game, when he went to Kentucky.
“At that point it was too late to get Rudolph, and they ended up signing Michael Scarnecchia to make sure they had a quarterback in the class.”
Scarnecchia, for what it’s worth, was just a three-star prospect in high school. According to Rivals, his only other FBS offer came from UAB. After redshirting last season, he’s thrown a grand total of one pass this year for the Gamecocks.
“If Connor Mitch, a four-star recruit in 2013, had stayed healthy and worked out this year like the Gamecocks had planned,” Kendall said, “the absence of Rudolph in the Palmetto State wouldn’t be as glaring.”
USC quarterback Connor Mitch to miss four to six weeks with a separated shoulder – http://t.co/qMfXj2AKHm pic.twitter.com/5AMuQFYtNm
— The Greenville News (@GreenvilleNews) September 13, 2015
Mitch has started and finished just one game this year, going 9-of-22 for 122 yards with a passer efficiency rating of 102.5 in a 17-13 win over North Carolina.
Nunez threw for 184 yards and ran for another 123 in his first career start to post a rating of 154.8, albeit in a 31-14 victory over still-winless UCF.
Orth connected on 17-of-28 throws for 272 yards, which was good enough for a rating of 147, in South Carolina’s only other W this season: a 19-10 defeat of Vanderbilt.
Rudolph’s passer efficiency rating for the entire season is 155.3 — better than Mitch, Nunez or Orth could put together for a single game.
In his biggest test to date, a 49-29 thumping of previously unbeaten TCU on Nov. 7, Rudolph outdueled Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin with a Stiffarm-worthy stat line of his own: 16-of-24 passing for 352 yards with 5 TDs and 0 INTs.
Passed over by many
To be fair, it wasn’t just South Carolina that whiffed on Rudolph, as a handful of name-brand programs in the southeast could probably use him right about now.
“The list goes on and on with schools within a four-hour distance to us that passed on Mason,” said Kyle Richardson, Rudolph’s coach at Northwestern. “With that being said, he is the starting QB at a top 10 school, while UGA, FSU and Alabama are playing with kids that transferred in from other schools.
“The kids that were supposedly better than Mason are not playing.”
No matter who gets the job in Columbia after finally turning the page on the Steve Spurrier regime, he would be wise to make that 70-mile trek to Rock Hill in the near future.
“I currently have a junior named Gage Moloney who is the same type of QB, and he is battling the same things Mason battled,” Richardson said. “Schools closer to home are doubting his play and potential even though he is doing the same things Mason did.
“My response? Don’t make the same mistake you made with Mason and miss out on a kid who is close to your school.”
Northwestern QB Gage Moloney is @theobserver Friday top performer https://t.co/CQTmne9YKe #clthsfb pic.twitter.com/UxdnuGF5Db
— Langston Wertz Jr. (@langstonwertzjr) November 7, 2015
The Gamecocks currently have a quarterback commitment for the 2016 class from four-star recruit Brandon McIlwain, who is 650 miles away in Newtown, Pennsylvania.