Big Time. Young Dolph. East Coast Pretty Boy.
Two lockers over in the Steelers’ practice facility, backup quarterback Devlin Hodges turned toward the laughter.
“Who calls you that, Mase?”
Rudolph, looking every bit a quarterback out of central casting at 6-foot-5 with a strong jaw and dimpled chin, shook his head and told Hodges they were names given to him by his upperclassmen friends at Oklahoma State.
Then Rudolph turned back and nodded his head, acknowledging the names.
“It’s pretty accurate,” he said with a shrug.
That’s typical Rudolph. Always the target of some good-natured ribbing, also always ready to dish it out. It’s one of the traits that helped him as an early enrollee at Oklahoma State. As he prepares for his second start following Ben Roethlisberger’s season-ending elbow injury, Rudolph is rushing to find the same comfort in Pittsburgh.
From the time he took his first snaps as a high school starter, Rudolph has been obsessed with the weekly preparation as much as game day. He’s comfortable in his own skin with a demeanor that makes him a natural leader. He has the off-the-field qualities of a starting quarterback, and now, he has to play like one.
Rudolph wasn’t supposed to take any snaps on Sept. 15 against the Seattle Seahawks. Just as he’d been for the past 16 seasons, Roethlisberger was the Steelers’ starting quarterback.
That didn’t deter Rudolph from going through his meticulous pregame warm-up. He walked up and down the Steelers’ side of the field with his arms bent at a 90-degree angle, moving them up and down near his head like a cyclist signaling a right turn and then a stop over and over again.
During the game, he stood close to the sideline, often with his helmet on as he went through mental reps. If anything happened, Rudolph was ready.
And then it did.
After a deep throw in the second quarter fell incomplete, Roethlisberger grabbed his elbow. He completed one more pass and went to the locker room at halftime. When the team re-emerged, Rudolph was playing. A day later, Roethlisberger was put on injured reserve and had elbow surgery a week later.
The sudden transition might be jarring for another backup, but not for Rudolph. Not for the guy who has always savored the process and prepared like a starter, even as he sat behind one of the most entrenched franchise quarterbacks in the NFL.
“His biggest excitement now, a lot of people think it’s Sunday, playing in the game, but it’s not,” said Kyle Richardson, Rudolph’s high school coach. “His biggest excitement is he gets to go and take first-team reps at practice. He gets to go in meeting rooms and be the first-team quarterback, and he gets to voice some opinions and he gets his reps coached up.
“He gets to get back into that groove of having his starting quarterback routine and being able to do that daily.”
The football part of Rudolph’s brain never turns off. In college, he would quiz teammates about the playbook while playing video games. Sometimes he’d send the clips in iMessage, but other times, in true millennial fashion, he’d send plays in Snapchat. He would set the video on the app to play on an infinite loop, preventing it from erasing after the first view. And then he’d pass it along to a receiver, either praising them for the play or asking what they were doing. He’d send tips and ask questions, anything and everything to get on the same page with his offensive weapons.
“I used to blow James’ [Washington] Snapchat up when I was in college because I would see something … so I’d send him a clip here and there and annoy him at night,” Rudolph said.
Washington, who was one of Rudolph’s favorite college targets and also was selected by the Steelers in the 2018 draft, said his quarterback still does it.
“I’m sure today after practice, he’s going to send me a clip of something and say, ‘Hey, next time do this,'” Washington said a week ago. “So he’s always helping me and sometimes I’m helping him. Whether I’m running a route and I see something that maybe he didn’t see, we’re always informing each other.”
The first time Rudolph stepped to the line of scrimmage as the Steelers’ first-string quarterback against Seattle, he smiled and winked.
Across the line from him was a familiar face: Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Like nearly two dozen other NFL players, both are from Rock Hill, South Carolina — dubbed Football City, USA, on the York County visitors website.
“It was pretty cool that his first snaps in the NFL came against another Rock Hill guy,” Richardson said.
A tight end as a freshman, Rudolph transferred to Northwestern High School as a sophomore and became the starting quarterback for Richardson’s squad the same year.
Two games 10 weeks apart told Richardson all he needed to know about Rudolph and his trajectory.
In that first game, Northwestern took on Southpoint, one of the team’s two major rivals. At the end of the game, Northwestern was driving with a chance to win it. Richardson called his final timeout and told Rudolph: “Don’t take a sack.”
“He was just like, deer in the headlights. Like just looking through me.”
On the very next play, Rudolph took a sack. Time ran out and the team lost.
A little more than two months later, Rudolph was in the same situation against Northwestern’s other rival, Rock Hill. This time, he didn’t take the sack. Rudolph threw a 20-yard game-winning touchdown with eight seconds left.
It’s a story Richardson told to college coaches during Rudolph’s recruitment and one he repeated to NFL scouts a couple of years later.
“This kid is the type of kid who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes once he’s been coached up on them,” Richardson said. “The pressure of both those moments, that’s big-time pressure, especially in that city in those two games. All he did was not only learn from his mistake previously, but just thrived in that pressure moment to go win a football game.”
A year before Rudolph entered the NFL draft, Mike Tomlin stopped by Clemson, where Richardson is now an offensive assistant, for now-Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson‘s pro day. The Steelers coach asked about some of Clemson’s 2017 draft prospects.
Richardson told Tomlin of Rock Hill’s NFL talent, guys such as Ben Watson and Johnathan Joseph. Then he paused.
“‘You coach that Rudolph kid?'” Richardson remembered Tomlin asking. “He was like, ‘Man, he’s a great player.’
“Pretty ironic a year later they go and draft him. And then a year after that, he’s sitting here, going to be the starting quarterback in Pittsburgh.”
Rudolph’s tenure as an NFL starter didn’t have the most auspicious beginning with a four-point loss in San Francisco, but it was a little like his introduction as Oklahoma State’s starter as a true freshman.
After two quarterbacks were injured, Rudolph burned his redshirt on Nov. 22, 2014, by starting against Baylor. The Cowboys lost to then-No. 7 Baylor 49-28, but Rudolph showed poise, completing 13 of 25 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. A week later, he helped his team upset Oklahoma in the Bedlam rivalry to earn a bowl berth.
The weather was a little bit better for his NFL debut, but the result was similar. Playing in a bright and sunny Levi’s Stadium a week ago, Rudolph completed 14 of 27 passes for 174 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in the 24-20 loss.
Afterward, he took the podium and accepted blame for the loss because that’s what team leaders do.
Rudolph has received praise from his teammates and coaches for his ability to step into a difficult circumstance and lead. He’s loud in the huddle and organizes dinners for the backup offensive linemen on Friday nights. Before his first start, Rudolph invited Hodges to the weekly dinner now that he’s the backup quarterback.
For all the preparation, though, Rudolph is a work in progress. He needs the on-field experience to get better. Those who’ve seen him accept the same challenges in high school and at Oklahoma State believe he’ll rise up again. And after the 49ers loss, Tomlin saw those same things in his new starter.
“The quality of performance wasn’t what we always wanted or what he wanted, but I did really like his demeanor, his communication, his awareness in the midst of all of that,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes you get a chance to learn things about yourselves and one another in regular-season in-game action. That was good to see he’s a good communicator in the midst of all of those things, and really an accountable guy. A guy that’s comfortable in his skin.
“That’s going to aid him in terms of getting the productivity and a consistent level of production to the direction that he needs and we need in an effort to be successful.”