A very brief look at quarterback and wide receiver rapport through the lens of the 2017 Oklahoma State Cowboys
All of the attention being heaped on Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph during the Cowboys’ 3-0 start is well deserved. The numbers he’s accumulated thus far in 2017 seem plucked from a video game and with at least nine contests remaining, he has already become the school’s all-time leader in passing yards.
He seems destined for an invitation to New York in December, if he continues at this rate, or even a fraction of this rate. As with any quarterback being thrown into the conversation as a potential high pick in the next NFL Draft, all eyes are on him, poking and prodding at every ball he throws.
But as good as Rudolph has been early this season, he’s also blessed to be working with a stable of weapons rivaled by few teams, if any, in the nation.
There’s the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Marcell Ateman, who sat out 2016 due to a foot injury, but is back to making plays and even making a push up NFL Draft boards with a body tailor-made for the next level.
There’s the speedy, but undersized Jalen McCleskey, who stepped up last year in the wake of Ateman’s injury to rave reviews.
The young running back duo of Justice Hill and J.D. King have kept defenses honest by ripping through defenses at just under seven yards a pop.
And then there’s James Washington.
When Rudolph announced in January his intention to forego the NFL Draft and return for his senior season, he wasn’t alone. It was a joint announcement made via video message with his favorite receiver declaring he wasn’t going anywhere either.
There have been quarterbacks and receivers performing aerial acrobatics on Mike Gundy’s watch before. Zac Robinson hooked up with Dez Bryant for 19 touchdowns in 2008 while Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon led the Cowboys to a 12-1 2011 season.
But Rudolph and Washington are different.
None of the aforementioned quarterback/wide receiver duos served as the respective #1’s for three consecutive seasons, which is what Rudolph and Washington are doing now.
The tough thing about a college quarterback and wide receiver developing a long-term on-field relationship is that so much has to go correctly for a time period together to be elongated.
The Cowboys duo’s on-field rapport is evident when Rudolph zips a ball into a tight window with Washington on the receiving end, trusting his guy is going to snag it.
It’s there when Rudolph senses Washington has beaten his defender deep and the quarterback drops the ball into his lap as if he was standing next to him.
And while Rudolph is shattering Oklahoma State passing records, Washington is reaching his own spectacular heights.
For a school that has had such a strong lineage of wide receivers, he’s within striking distance of Rashaun Woods’ Oklahoma State receiving yardage record and has the chance to do something unique in college football history.
There have been 51 receivers since 2000 that have had seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards, 18 yards per reception and 10 touchdowns.
Two players have accomplished that feat twice: Washington and Michigan State’s Charles Rogers (’01-’02).
No one has done it three times. Yet. But Washington is on pace.
With 367 yards and three touchdowns and a 28.2 yard per reception average through 3 games, he’s well on his way.
Washington and Rudolph are slowly ascending my own list of favorite quarterback/wide receiver duos of my football watching life, which dates back to 1992. To make the following list, the quarterback and wide receiver would have to have played at least two full seasons. These are in chronological order:
Kerry Collins to Bobby Engram – Penn State ’93-‘94
Didn’t even pass the ball that much, but they were new to the Big Ten so they were like the shiny new toy to this Midwestern. Collins had a wealth of targets, but Engram was the favorite and he never dropped a pass. He was the first Biletnikoff Award winner.
Jake Plummer to Keith Poole – Arizona State ’94-96
Etched in my memory is waking up to hear Arizona State had upset #1 Nebraska in 1996 thanks to this duo. They helped the Sun Devils go from 3-8 in 1994 to a near undefeated season and National Title in 1996.
Chris Weinke to Peter Warrick – Florida State ’98-99
The former MLB minor leaguer and the dynamic, do-everything receiver were the engine that drove the ’99 Florida State team to a National Championship victory over Virginia Tech. Even with other explosive weapons on the field, Weinke always seemed to look Warrick’s way in crucial moments.
Cody Pickett to Reggie Williams – Washington ’01-03
Randomly one of my favorite pairs to play with in the NCAA Football video games, my affinity for them is trumped by my surprise that neither did much of anything in the NFL. But they were fun in college.
Kyle Orton to Taylor Stubblefield – Purdue ’01-04
You know when you’re swatting at a gnat and he’s not even moving that fast and you even hit it, but you still can’t rid of it. That was Stubblefield. For four years. He caught everything, even holding the NCAA record for receptions for a bit. Orton, who looked like he was on his way to a Heisman in ’04 with seventeen touchdowns to no interceptions through four games, went on to a lengthy NFL career.
David Greene to Fred Gibson – Georgia ’01-04
This was one was one of the most unique relationships. Gibson actually was never the #1. He was behind Terrence Edwards for two seasons then Reggie Brown for two, in terms of team leaders in catches. But he was a four-year second fiddle who ended up in the Top 250 of all-time receiving yards in college football history. Both were rare four year starters.
Brady Quinn to Jeff Samardizja – Notre Dame ’05-‘06
Both were in the All-American conversation for consecutive seasons as they helped turn the Irish around under Charlie Weis. Their importance to the team was pretty evident when the Irish laid a 3-9 egg in 2007 after they left.
Colt Brennan to Davone Bess – Hawaii ’05-‘07
Part of it was June Jones’ Run And Shoot offense, but part of it was both of these guys were just really good. Bess’ worst season: 89 catches, 1124 yards. Brennan’s worst season: 4301 yards, 35 touchdowns. Together, they got Hawaii to the BCS in 2007 to cap their careers.
Chase Clement to Jarett Dillard – Rice ’05-08
An odd one because not many people will remember them, but as someone that lived a mile from Rice’s campus in ’06-07, I can tell you that these guys had fans in the city excited along with Art Briles, who had reinvigorated Houston’s program. They finished their career with Rice’s first bowl win since 1953 in their home city.
Graham Harrell to Michael Crabtree – Texas Tech ’07-‘08
Texas Tech hadn’t been in the national Top 5 since 1976, but under the direction of Mike Leach, Harrell and Crabtree helped get them all the way to #2 in 2008. A last second hookup to beat #1 Texas got them there, but that was just one of the 41 touchdowns they hooked up for over two years.
Dan LeFevour to Antonio Brown – Central Michigan ’07-09
Before Brown went on to terrorize NFL defenses after inexplicably falling to the 6th round of the draft, he hooked up with LeFevour en route to three straight bowl appearances for the ‘Chips. I had Brown in college fantasy football for his final two years. That was a treat.
Tajh Boyd to Sammy Watkins – Clemson ’11-‘13
DeAndre Hopkins was there as well for the first two years but Watkins was there with Boyd for three seasons and capped it off with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State.
AJ McCarron to Amari Cooper – Alabama ’12-‘13
A championship duo, but oh what could have been if they weren’t running the ball so much and didn’t always have a lead. I’m being hyperbolic, but maybe just a little.
Zach Terrell to Corey Davis – Western Michigan ’13-16
The most recent addition to the list and a prime example of how the continuity between a quarterback and receiver is important to team success, the Broncos were 1-11 in 2013. It was also P.J. Fleck’s first year as head coach. The new head man handed the keys to his freshman duo and by 2016, Western Michigan was in the Cotton Bowl.
It’s a rare occurrence to see a quarterback and wide receiver together for three seasons, especially in a Power 5 conference where the allure of “What’s next?” often takes precedence over everything else.
Whether the Cowboys can finally overtake their in-state rival en route to a College Football Playoff appearance has yet to be determined.
But for all of the attention the quarterback gets during the journey, the climb to the top is a joint effort.