Two years ago, Mason Rudolph was returning home from a basketball game and listening to the closing seconds of Northwestern’s 42-10 win over Greenwood in the state championship game on the radio.
On Saturday, Northwestern will again face the Eagles in the Class 4A Division II state final, but this time Rudolph, the Trojans’ junior quarterback, will lead the team 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 Rudolph’s first year playing a new position in a complex new offense at a new school, a public school no less.
“There really were a lot of things stacked against him, and he still found a way to be successful,” Richardson said Wednesday after the team returned from a practice at South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium.
A year and a half after Rudolph’s conversion, Richardson looks like he picked a winner. The former tight end has thrown for 3,787 yards, 39 touchdown passes, five interceptions, and is completing more than 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. That’s where you’re seeing mentally he’s picked up the offense. The meetings and all that, he’s 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 can’t learn unless you’re just thrown in there.”
After a mass graduation from Northwestern’s 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 weren’t working out the way that we wanted them to,” Rudolph said. “This year we’ve been able to work a lot of those things out that I couldn’t get last year. It’s just the process of learning from your mistakes.”
At 6-foot-4 and weighing around 200 pounds, Rudolph’s physical blessings make him an obvious candidate to lead a huddle, which is something 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 two years removed from the days of Justin Worley, the Trojans’ record setting passer in 2010.
“There’s a lot of stuff that comes with playing that spot in this system mentally,” Richardson said. “He’s identifying things a lot quicker. Everything is kind of slow motion around him and he’s just seeing things so much clearer.”
The Trojan offense is averaging 436 yards and 42 points per outing, while converting 47 percent of third down chances.