Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph grew up in Rock Hill and remembers following the career of Riley Ferguson, another Charlotte-area quarterback who was a grade ahead of him.
Ferguson’s football journey had a lot of twists and turns, but Rudolph did his best to keep up.
“He was a year older than me but we definitely kept tabs on each other’s high school career,” Rudolph said. “And then when he went to Tennessee, I followed him. And he ends up at his next stop.”
While Ferguson, the University of Memphis product and former Butler standout, played at three schools, Rudolph’s career was a little more straightforward – albeit at a Big 12 program more than 1,000 miles from Rock Hill.
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But both ended up in Indianapolis last week, when they were among 19 quarterbacks who worked out for NFL scouts, coaches and general managers at the annual scouting combine.
Ferguson and Rudolph have spoken a few times. They attended the Manning passing camp together last summer in Louisiana, and caught up a bit last week in between meetings and drills at he combine.
Ferguson said it’s cool to see a couple of Charlotte-area passers rated among the top quarterback hopefuls in this year’s NFL draft.
“It’s crazy. A lot of people sleep on North (and South) Carolina football, and it’s actually a pretty big-time thing,” Ferguson said. “There’s a lot of good teams, a lot of good talent coming out of North Carolina and I think me and him kind of show that.”
Draft experts have Rudolph ranked higher than Ferguson, although he is not considered among the top tier of passers that includes Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield.
Rudolph sat out the Senior Bowl with a sprained foot, but ran (4.9 seconds in the 40) and threw in Indy.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said the 6-5, 235-pound Rudolph’s combine performance was in line with what Mayock expected.
“Mason Rudolph is who he is. Big, strong, good-looking kid,” Mayock said. “I have a second-round grade on him. I don’t think his arm strength is in the same conversation (as the higher-rated passers).”
Ferguson, more slightly built at 6-3 and 212 pounds, is viewed as more of a late-round prospect with less pocket poise than Rudolph.
A winding path
Ferguson shared his life story with anyone who asked last week at Indianapolis. A lot of people asked.
Ferguson, who threw for more than 8,000 yards and won two state titles at Butler, went to Tennessee initially. But he sat out his first season with a broken leg and said he never felt comfortable with coach Butch Jones, who was hired after Ferguson had committed to the Volunteers.
So Ferguson left in May of his freshman year – without telling Jones or any other coaches.
“I think a lot of people thought I was done playing when I left there. I came back home and I started working – I worked two jobs. I was detailing cars and I was powder-coating fences, and it was a hard time,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t have a lot of money. I went a couple of days without eating, I was kind of starving.”
Ferguson said he approached Charlotte about playing for the 49ers, but they weren’t interested. He ended up out of football for more than a year before his high school coach helped him land at Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College.
His one-year stint at junior college led him to Memphis, where he became the first Tigers quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season.
Rudolph’s path to the NFL draft was not nearly as winding, although it’s still remarkable that the schools in the Carolinas allowed a state championship-winning quarterback at Northwestern, a Mr. Football finalist and Shrine Bowl MVP go halfway across the country.
Let Rudolph explain.
He says Clemson “already had their guy” in the person of Deshaun Watson. OK, no argument there.
Former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recruited Rudolph, “but never ended up pulling the trigger,” Rudolph said.
North Carolina, where his father, Brett, played in the 1980s, and Tennessee came in late after he’d committed to Oklahoma State. His first offer – and one he considered strongly – came from LSU and former coach Les Miles.
“But I wanted to throw the ball around. I didn’t want to hand the ball off to No. 7 (Leonard Fournette), I wanted to toss it around,” he said. “And I felt like I could play early there and felt like it could be the best kind of pathway to the NFL.”
But four years and a couple of 4,000-yard passing seasons later (including a FBS-best 4,904 in 2017), Rudolph has made it to the brink of the NFL.
And though he took a more circuitous route, Ferguson had made here, too – projected to be picked in the fifth or sixth round, when the Carolina Panthers might be in the market for a backup quarterback.
“That would be crazy. That’s who I grew up liking, the hometown team. I really like the Panthers,” Ferguson said. “But I would be happy no matter who calls me. It is just a blessing to be where I am today.”