Swagger returns for 2nd-year Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph
James Washington has known quarterback Mason Rudolph longer than any other Pittsburgh Steelers teammate, having shared the same locker room since they were freshmen at Oklahoma State in 2014.
As he prepared for the start of his second NFL season, the young wide receiver noticed something in Rudolph he hadn’t seen since they were terrorizing Big 12 defenses for three-plus seasons:
“He looks more confident back there leading the pack,” Washington said in June during the Steelers’ minicamp. “He was like that at Oklahoma State. He was the guy who likes to take charge of his group, which I like.”
So does starter Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, who will be watching to see whether Rudolph can use that renewed confidence to wrestle the backup job away from third-year player Joshua Dobbs. The Steelers report to training camp at Saint Vincent on Thursday and work out for the first time the following day.
Expectations have increased for Rudolph since his rookie season, when the third-round draft pick was the least experienced of four quarterbacks in training camp and spent his first NFL season as the No. 3 passer on the depth chart. He got the least amount of reps in practice and was inactive for all 16 games last season.
Like Rudolph, Washington joined the Steelers in the 2018 draft class, getting selected in the second round. Washington also endured his share of struggles as a rookie and wasn’t surprised to see Rudolph take a deferential position toward Roethlisberger and, to a lesser extent, Dobbs.
“You feel like these guys have been here longer, so I can’t just tell them what to do,” Washington said. “Now, I feel like he’s trying to play the role of the quarterback and lead his team.”
Roethlisberger also noticed the change in Rudolph’s demeanor during organized team activities and minicamp.
“You see him settling into it a lot,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s not afraid to step to whatever group, whatever receiver. In the past, he might have felt hesitancy to throw to certain guys.”
“His reads are a lot better,” Washington said. “Watching him go through his progressions is a lot different. He seems more relaxed.”
Rudolph approached offseason workouts with the determination that the No. 2 quarterback job was an attainable goal for his second season, particularly with Roethlisberger signing a contract that will keep him with the Steelers through 2021.
“I’ve always been a big believer in being the best version of yourself, looking yourself in the mirror and being a lot better than you were the day before,” Rudolph said. “Anytime in college I was trying to compete against guys, and I was the clear-cut starter. That’s never going to disappear.
“We were playing a trash-can drill, and I was trying to beat Ben the best I can and throw one in the bucket, and I think I might have. We all compete against each other.”
It was that type of approach that enabled Rudolph to become the full-time starting quarterback at Oklahoma State as a sophomore after losing his redshirt as a freshman and starting the final three games of that season. Rudolph’s completion percentage, passing yardage, touchdowns and passer rating increased in each of his three seasons as a starter.
“My motto has been, ‘Let’s be not just a little bit better, but make huge strides from the previous year,’ ” Rudolph said, “whether it’s high school or college, and that’s what I’ve done this year. From a protection standpoint, general knowledge of the offense, operations, coaching and helping guys that are new, I feel like my general knowledge is 100 times better than last year.”
Rudolph, who turned 24 last week, will have the next five weeks of practices, and four preseason games, to unseat Dobbs, who appeared in five games and completed 6 of 12 attempts in 2018.
“Mason has made strides, and Josh is still being productive from the standpoint of doing what we’re asking,” Fichtner said. “I like the competition of where they are at. They understand there is competition, and it is open. To me, that position is always going to be open, no matter who’s here. That battle is every single day trying to put us in the best position if Ben is not in the game that we put the right man in to win the game.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .