When the Oklahoma State players gather for the occasional backyard barbecue, they tend to follow a certain hierarchy.
The way receiver James Washington describes it: “I do the grilling, Mason (Rudolph) does the eating.”
Informed of Washington’s comment, Rudolph demurs, but only slightly. “He does the grilling, yeah. He does some eating, too,” Rudolph said. “He’s got a metabolism like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve got to be careful what I eat, but James is scarfing anything down.”
The buffet line doesn’t end at the backyard. The duo of Rudolph and Washington also feasts on defensive secondaries on fall Saturdays. Rudolph, the senior quarterback from Rock Hill, S.C., and Washington, the senior receiver out of tiny Stamford, Texas, have developed such a special – and prolific – connection over the past three seasons that it’s fair to label them as the top pass-catch combination in the Big 12, if not the entire country.
When the pair arrived in Stillwater as true freshmen in the fall of 2014, they didn’t form an instant friendship. Washington cops to being an introvert, while Rudolph possesses a more outgoing personality. But the quarterback realized that once he broke through Washington’s hard candy shell, an inner sweetness awaited.
“He’s a very quiet guy, kind of hard to connect with early on. But I think I chipped away at him,” Rudolph said. “He’s a fun guy to go have dinner with, just relax and enjoy that college life, because once you get him to open up, get him out of his shell, he’s a fun guy to hang around with.”
Similarly, Washington discovered a confidant, a true friend, in Rudolph once he let his guard down.
“The connection between me and Mason is very close,” Washington said. “I can remember the day that I met him on my official visit, to the guy that he’s become today, it’s great just to see the transformation. He’s a heck of a guy on and off the field. If you ever need help in any hour of the day or the night, he’s there for you.”
Their on-field bond is no less powerful. Since Rudolph shed his redshirt late in his freshman year, the Cowboys have won 22 of the 27 games he has started. And all along the way, he has targeted Washington as much as possible.
Last year, Rudolph completed nearly 64 percent of his passes for 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Washington, meanwhile, averaged 106 receiving yards per game – finishing with 71 catches for 1,380 yards and 10 TDs.
Both players figure to have NFL riches waiting in their future. For now, though, those pro football careers can wait. Though they made their decisions independently of one another, both Rudolph and Washington admitted that it made it easier to come back knowing that the other guy was doing so as well.
“I considered it, but my parents and I talked a lot, and you need that backup plan in case you need to fall back on something,” Washington said. “That’s really what struck me, the fact that Mason came back with me made me want to stay even more.”
When Washington first showed up in Stillwater from small-town Texas, he quickly found out that he had a lot to learn. The game was so much faster than what he was accustomed to, and as such he compared the feeling of making his first catch in a game to scoring a touchdown.
Four years later, his head isn’t spinning anymore. He’s more comfortable, more mature, 40 pounds heavier than he was back then.
“I feel kind of old in a sense, all these younger guys coming up,” Washington said. “They’re so fresh and they run all day. I’m trying to keep up with them, but I’m not going to let them beat me. I’m like that old dog that just keeps running.”
In much the same way, Rudolph has grown more savvy as a decision-maker as he enters his third full season as a starter. He said he has a better understanding of when to try to squeeze a pass into a tight window, and when to just throw it away.
Down by the goal line, though, it’s a no-brainer. Rudolph has no qualms about lofting a jump ball in the direction of the 6-foot-2 Washington. Other teams call those plays “50-50 balls,” but the Oklahoma State duo labels them “70-30” because they complete them so often.
“I’d say we’ve worked on it since he started,” Washington said. “From freshman year to every practice to every scrimmage, we’ve worked on that. That’s not something that just happened. Now that we have that established, we just kind of polish it now. It’s kind of like a feel deal.”
Asked if he recognizes a certain look in Washington’s eyes during those moments – kind of a “Hey, I’ve got this guy right where I want him” conveyance – Rudolph can’t suppress a grin.
“Sometimes the way he looks at me, there’s just such a connection and passion,” he said, chuckling. “Nah, I’m just kidding. There’s definitely times where we start going tempo, and he’s getting heated up and you want to just keep feeding him.”
Sounds pretty smart – feeding the guy who operates the grill. Nobody is going hungry in Stillwater these days.