Back in the fall of 2011, there was a showdown in Austin, Texas between two young signal-callers that few would have guessed would eventually be prominent figures in the 2016 college football season. On one side you had Lake Travis, led by junior QB Baker Mayfield who were on their way to a perfect season and 5th consecutive state championship.
On the other side you had an even younger program up in the same northwest corner of the Austin area by Lake Travis, the Vandegrift Vipers, who were led by senior QB Dakota Prukop. There wasn't too much about this game to capture interest from fans beyond those two schools and the only players on the field receiving major recruiting interest were Lake Travis TE Griffin Gilbert (Garrett Gilbert's younger brother who went to TCU), Lake Travis RB Varshaun Nixon (also went to TCU), and Lake Travis RB/WR Colin Lagasse (went to SMU) who was actually expected to QB the team before Mayfield took the job.
Of course Baker Mayfield wasn't getting much attention from major programs at that time and after a slightly less successful senior year would walk on at Texas Tech. Dakota Prukop was receiving even less attention and was a 0-star player that accepted a scholarship to play Big Sky football at Montana State.
The game went predictably, with the Lake Travis defense swarming the undeveloped Vandegrift passing game and holding to Prukop to 2.2 yards per attempt. Prukop had to go to the ground to produce anything for the Vipers and finished with 82 rushing yards and a TD. Meanwhile Mayfield, Gilbert, and Nixon shredded the Viper defense in a 42-10 route.
Five years later and Dakota Prukop is in position as the heir apparent at Oregon to finally play in some big time football games with considerably more firepower behind him. Is he up to the challenge?
Life as a 0-star Texan HS QB
The fact that Dakota Prukop was overlooked in recruiting is not shocking. After all, the QB who pummeled him in the game mentioned above had to walk on to even play in the Big 12 and is a Heisman contender for the coming season. What's more, Prukop didn't have the kind of junior season that really draws in recruiting eyes nor did he play at an established program that would regularly see visiting coaches.
Since college teams like to have their QBs evaluated and committed well before their senior year even begins that makes it exceptionally easy for players like Prukop to slip through the cracks. Prukop finished out his senior year and enrolled at Montana State over some in-state FCS offers and here's what his statistical profile has looked like as a young QB:
|2010 (Vandegrift HS)
|2011 (Vandegrift HS)
|2014 (Montana St)
|2015 (Montana St)
As a high school prospect, Prukop was like a primitive version of Chad Kelly, he had a strong arm but what really set him apart was his running ability. A 6'2" 175 frame doesn't typically make college recruiters giddy but that's a big kid in tier 2 high school football and when combined with sub 4.8 speed it made for a very effective weapon.
When Prukop would eventually take over at Montana State in 2014 as a 200 pound redshirt sophomore they quickly put him to work on the ground and he did real damage in their system. However, he also did major damage in the passing game, much more than he'd done at Vandegrift. Prukop had planned on transitioning to playing safety full time for the Bobcats but working with George Whitfield convinced him he could stick at QB.
Looking back at the HS tape, the arm strength and ability was always there, but he needed time and development to hone it into a skill set that would attract Alabama and Oregon to recruit him out of Montana State as a graduate transfer.
Proving it in the Big Sky conference
Sadly Montana State did not share a conference with Football Study Hall favorite North Dakota State, but Prukop did square off against Bob Stitt's Montana Grizzlies in the 2015 playoffs. The Bobcats were knocked down but Prukop threw for 313 yards with three TDs and a single INT while adding 66 more yards and another TD on the ground. For their part, the Oregon Ducks are doing what they can to ensure that they won't waste such efforts due to bad defense as they frequently did in 2015.
At Montana State Prukop didn't run the Oregon spread-option offense, but more of a smashmouth/hybrid system that frequently utilized double TE sets and was built off the power running game and deep play-action passing. Prukop excelled here because he was proficient both in the QB option game as well as the deep passing attack.
Here's Prukop executing the power-read play on a 3rd and 2 for the Bobcats:
What's impressive in this example, and evident on many of Prukop's other runs at Montana State, is how he demonstrates vision, agility, and then a little bit of breakaway speed that packaged together make him a player that has to be game planned for in the QB run game.
Prukop actually hits a cutback lane here, which requires both vision and some lateral cutting ability, and his ability to plant and accelerate either laterally or forward are important skills for running power-read or zone read at Oregon. Then when he breaks into the next level you see what's probably 4.7 speed, which is very difficult to catch from behind.
But while that's all nice and dandy (and portends well for Prukop's fit at Oregon), the most important skill for a QB in a power-run based offense is the ability to execute the play-action opportunities that power sets up so well. This is where Prukop is special.
There are two things that make plays like this absolutely horrifying for defensive coordinators. The first is that he escapes pressure and buys time, which means your coverage defenders have to spend that much more time chasing receivers without committing a mistake. It's also brutal when you get effective pressure and still can't get to the QB. You'll notice that Prukop throws this ball in the face of pressure without fear. That's a demoralizing play for the defense.
The second is how far Prukop can sling the ball, in this instance the ball goes about 50 yards in the air. For every bit further down the field the ball travels the more isolated the coverage defender becomes. On this play the defense is in a three-deep coverage but only one of their DBs is anywhere near the ball when it lands.
The easiest way to defend vertical passing is with an "under and over" approach in which there are deep defenders on top and underneath defenders dropping back into the passing windows but it's not possible for a defense to defend a throw like this as a team because it's simply too far down the field.
The fit at Oregon
Oregon is not a smashmouth, power-run based team, but more of a finesse-based spread option squad. For the last several years they've been about over-stressing teams horizontally so that their speedsters or power backs can break through. They don't normally line up in double-TE shotgun sets very often, they recruit their OL more for outside zone then power, and they have a lot more quick passing concepts in their offense than Prukop executed at Montana State.
The 2016 Duck roster is also absurdly loaded with skill talent, starting with RB Royce Freeman who's coming off a year in which he ran for 1836 yards and 17 TDs, but also includes a deep, deep cast of WRs and spark plug Charles Nelson.
Nelson is probably the most explosive athlete on the team and at 5'8" 170 would be a major contender for the "Darren Sproles water bug trophy for most outstanding tiny person" were he in the Big 12 and eligible.
The Ducks also have three good, experienced TEs on the roster now that Pharaoh Brown is back from injury so the possibilities for HC Mark Helfrich are endless depending on what he wants to emphasize in the coming season.
Assuming Prukop wins the starting job, which clips from his competition's performance in the spring game suggests is more than likely, it'll be essential that he be able to execute Oregon's quick-hitting spread option plays so that all of this talent can be leveraged on the field.
Opposing teams aren't likely to have many answers for even basic Duck concepts like the outside zone run with Nelson running a backside bubble or slant and Prukop projects well here. The Montana State offense didn't include a ton of RPOs like that but it did have some and his ability to throw without setting his feet in the pocket should translate to the quick, improvisational requirements of those concepts.
Executing the quick passing game that was a big part of the Mariota system may be more of an issue and Oregon might just tweak the offense to have more of a vertical, play-action component to accommodate Prukop's skill and to make the most of receivers like Darren Carrington. If Prukop proves worthy, Oregon could adjust in many ways to mimic some of what Montana State had success with since they also have multiple TEs.
There was a relatively simple offense a few years back that was built around a few spread-option RPOs combined with vertical play-action elements that leaned on an ultra-fast WR corps and a QB that could buy time before launching bombs past the deepest coverage. The result was a Heisman trophy.
Prukop won't be as good as that central Texas legend, but the once-overlooked signal caller has a nice skill set that might translate into an Oregon offense that is primed to run over the Pac-12 in 2016.