Thursday, April 15, 2010
Patriot League NFL Prospects: QB Dominic Randolph
It's not because I didn't think he was a good quarterback. Quite the contrary. But I knew when he announced his return that Lehigh's road was going to be harder in the Patriot League in 2009, and that Holy Cross would instantly go from question marks to Patriot League title frontrunner.
QB John Skelton has gotten a lot of attention this offseason, and the buzz is that he could possibly be a first day draft pick next Thursday. Skelton was a great Patriot League quarterback, sure. But it's Mr. Randolph that holds every significant passing record at Holy Cross and in the Patriot League after this year - and he will get his shot at the NFL as well, without a doubt. He may not go as a gaudy high draft pick, but almost certainly as a late round steal or preferred free agent he will get a chance - hopefully - to weave his magic in the NFL. I do know as a Lehigh fan, I always feared when he came to town. (more)
In the spring of 2006, Crusader head coach Tom Gilmore was faced with the prospect of replacing three-year starter John O'Neil at quarterback. Randolph was only a sophomore QB on the roster at that point, buried behind Brian McSharry and Mike Finucane on the depth chart. Lumped with "Others competing with McSharry for the quarterback spot," it didn't seem like the kid from St. Xavier Prep in Ohio was going to be a guy that would rewrite the record books at that point. Even prior to the start of the season, Gilmore didn't tip his hand about Randolph, then wearing No. 19. "[Dom] is a very competitive player, who has great football awareness on the field. I can see all three of those guys potentially getting playing time this season," he said prior to the 2006 season.
Randolph certainly didn't seem like a guy that was going to be a record-breaker. True, he did play at the same St. Xavier prep team that had Rob Schoenhoft on it, but as his backup he only played in three games. While he was a competitor - he did end up playing wideout on that team, just to get onto the field - there wasn't much in his high school record to show what sort of talent he was. But you got the impression, though, that Gilmore knew a bit more than he let on before the season began.
Randolph ended up being the starter in Week One - a 26-13 win over Georgetown - but an injury would mean that his next appearance would be Week Four against Marist, a 27-0 shutout. After tough losses to Harvard and Northeastern, by the time league play rolled around again Randolph was the starter - putting McSharry and Finucane in the dust - as he led Holy Cross to a 28-21 win over Fordham.
“I think from the beginning there were some surprises, I would say for him and for everyone,” Gilmore recalled later. “But ever since his first game, it is not a surprise. I think he has raised the expectation level of himself and of this team to a very high level since he has started. We saw something special in him and those expectations have materialized and he continues to get better.”
The Crusaders were doing more than breaking in a quarterback at this time - they were also breaking in a new offensive system, a spread: shotgun formation that looked and felt a lot like the "Run-and-Shoot" or "Air Lehigh"-type offenses of the 1990s. Almost never going to a 3-step drop, Randolph already was starting to shine in this breakaway from Holy Cross' earlier run-oriented offenses, and his "great football awareness" was Holy Cross' best-kept weapon as he picked up on exactly what offensive coordinator Chris Pincince was trying to do. Even as a sophomore he went through his passing reads like a senior.
By the time Holy Cross hosted Lehigh in a rainstorm in 2006, Randolph had very much gotten my attention when Lehigh played a crucial late-season game at Fitton Field. I was wowed by his 70% completion percentage and 13 TD/2 INT ratio, good enough for 8th in the nation in quarterback rating. But what the rest of the Patriot League could not do to Randolph and his offense, Lehigh - with a huge assist from the weather - did, knocking out the Crusaders 28-14. Randolph actually had a great game despite the weather, with his third 300 yard passing day on the year with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. But it was Lehigh's win in the trenches that would be the story of this game, with two rushing touchdowns by RB Matt McGowan, and a fumble recovery by SS Julian Austin that would combine to give Lehigh the victory.
Not out of the title reach by a long shot, Holy Cross found themselves in their first title run since the famous 1991 teams that still had scholarship players. It would only be a season-ending loss to Colgate - 29-28, remember that score - that would prevent the Crusaders from getting the program's first-ever trip to the FCS playoffs. It would be a scenario that would play itself out in November for the boys in purple for the next three years: Randolph and the Crusaders would wow and amaze in September, but would end close but no cigar in November. (Isn't that a country/western song?)
In seven starts in 2006, Randolph would finish with 2,237 yards passing and 19 TDs. But in the final game against Colgate, he would be 18-for-42 passing, and couldn't punch the ball in with first-and-goal on the 8 yard line. (The ensuing 30 yard FG attempt was blocked, and the rest was history).
In 2007, he would dazzle during the regular season with 3,604 yards passing and 30 TDs - including ten versus Brown and Harvard alone. I called him the "best triggerman in the Patriot League" right before the Crusaders embarassed Lehigh 59-10 in a game that many Lehigh fans still talk about today. But it would be his lone interception versus Fordham in early November, where LB James Crockett made a great read on Randolph's precision pass, that would clinch Fordham's title with a 24-21 win and ultimately send Holy Cross home for Thanksgiving.
In 2008, Holy Cross was undefeated in the Patriot League going into the final game of the year, and Randolph had 3,838 passing yards and 34 TDs in yet another stellar campaign. I called Randolph a quarterback "with a real shot at playing on Sundays", and 330 yards, 3 TDs and a 21-0 lead later, Randolph made me look like a soothsayer after their 35-21 victory over Lehigh. But heading up to cold Hamilton once again with the title on the line, it would be another one point defeat to the Raiders - 28-27 this time - that would find Randolph give up a key late interception to CB Wayne Moten and see a final offensive chance to win the game end in a 3-and-out.
Seven points separated Holy Cross from three straight league titles, and the Crusaders were damned upset, especially about the 28-27 nailbiter. “You can’t end your career like that,” said C Chris Smith to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in spring ball in 2009. “It’s something I can’t talk about without getting fired up.” Matter of fact, Smith and Randolph, got fired up enough to return for their fifth years to try just one more time to get those rings - much to the dismay of the rest of the league.
Going into last year, Randolph still seemed like a bit of a "system quarterback". Pincince's system - basically unchanged since Randolph's sophomore year - doesn't really have the QB worry about dropping back most of the time since the shotgun is the base formation. That can hide things that NFL scouts care about: footwork, evading pressure, and stuff like that. The question with Randolph had to be: does the system just display his strengths and hide some key weaknesses?
But his final offseason saw Randolph really develop his game even more - and, in my mind, made him into a quarterback that will play pro ball somewhere.
In 2009, he developed a running game - adding a dangerous new threat to his arsenal. No longer just sitting in the pocket going through the reads - which he still could do better than any other Patriot League quarterback, or quite possibly any FCS-level quarterback - he could now make teams pay if they just sat back in the 3-3-5 and just waited for him to go through all those reads. In an early game against Sacred Heart, it was his 11 rushes for 64 yards and 2 TDs that really opened my eyes.
In addition, “The extra year gave me more experience and knowledge of defensive looks,” Randolph said later. “I feel like it propelled me from point A to point B.” It was clear to anyone watching him play that the system wasn't designed to hide a Bernie Kosar-like deficiency running the ball - and he could still find receivers like Kosar, too.
Holy Cross - now a nationally-ranked team most of the year, thanks to Randolph and the fact that they were the preseason pick to win the Patriot League - played like they had every September for the past few years. Against Harvard, Randolph played error-free ball in a 293 yard, 2 TD effort as Holy Cross won 27-20. They'd avenge last year's loss to Colgate with a 42-28 victory over the previously undefeated Raiders where Randolph - of all things - got the first 100 yard rushing game of his career, with 166 yards and 2 TDs. (Overall, he'd have a part in every TD the Crusaders scored in that game.) Along the way, he broke Steve McNair's FCS record for games with a touchdown pass (he'd end his career with 42) and broke every other significant Patriot League passing record well before November.
“That was a big victory,” Randolph said of the Colgate game. “We learned we could compete with the best of them. We had been waiting a long time for that game.”
By the time the 13th-ranked Crusaders faced Lehigh - with Randolph as the undisputed reason as to why they were ranked that highly - I noted he was leading Holy Cross in everything - including rushing yards. A game Lehigh team had a late lead in what would have been a mammoth upset - but Randolph, as ever, found a way to hit WR Freddie Santana in the end zone and escape Goodman with a 24-21 victory.
It wasn't Holy Cross' best game offensively that afternoon, thanks to the Mountain Hawk defense. "The Lehigh kids came out and they blitzed," a relieved Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore said after the game. "They did a good job changing things up. One time, a play would be there, and the next time we'd get back to it, they had it defended. I thought they did a good job changing things up." Randolph had to dig deep to get the victory - but on that last, important drive, he did. ""Coach McKenzie told me [at the beginning of the last drive] 'forget what whatever you've done, just go out there and play football'," he said. "It kind of brought me back down to realize that it's just a game, and we were a little more loose during that last drive. That gave us the opportunity to move the ball."
One more game remained for Holy Cross in order for them to get what had been denied them three straight years. One win - at home, versus the daunting defense of Lafayette - stood between them and that elusive league title.
And the Leopards hardly made it easy for Dominic and Holy Cross. After forcing Randolph into two early interceptions, Lafayette jumped to a 19-6 lead in a wet, soupy game that seemed to point to yet another curse-of-the-football-gods situation for Holy Cross. But Randolph - and his teammates - simply would not let that happen. He'd engineer drives for three unanswered touchdowns - including a key 40 yard strike to Freddie Santana - that allowed the Crusaders to hang on for a 28-26 victory.
They finally had it - that Patriot League championship and the appearance in the FCS playoffs they so desperately wanted after three straight disappointments for Dominic.
To cap it all off, though Holy Cross would not upset Villanova in the first round, their 38-28 defeat would grab the attention of Andy Talley, the Wildcat head football coach. "Dominic Randolph is a very fine player and I would have to say he is the best pure passer we have seen this season," he said of Randolph's 347 yard, 4 TD performance. That's high praise from the head coach of a team whose defense only gave up 28 points one other time all season.
Randolph swept all sorts of awards in the offseason; Patriot League Player of the Year, New England Football Writers' Harry Aggainis award winner, and in addition was a strong contender for the Walter Payton award, finishing 5th. (The winner was QB Armanti Edwards.) His resume at the end of the year was without question: his team had beaten three teams that had spent time in the FCS Top 25 (Harvard, Lafayette, Colgate) and only lost after putting up more points on Villanova than any other team in the nation, save New Hampshire.
But in the strange business of the NFL draft, the guy who finished behind him in the standings and the statistics finds himself projected as a potential first round draft pick, while Randolph curiously finds himself off the draft boards.
It was John Skelton, not Randolph, that was invited to the NFL Combine. Despite having better numbers (in fewer starts) than Colt McCoy and Dan McFervor, Randolph is the one who has to instead go to Boston College's and UMass' pro days to line up alongside players like Minuteman OL Vladimir Ducasse in order to get looks.
That's not to say that folks are not interested in Randolph. According to this article in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, every NFL team has had scouts looking at Dominic at some point in time.
I really don't get why there isn't more interest. It's a year where there are not a lot of great physical specimens at quarterback, and Randolph is right there with the QBs thought of as being high draft picks. Randolph is taller than Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy, and is just about the same height as Tim Tebow and Jarret Brown. He can't sidearm a pass across his body 50 yards to the end zone like John Skelton, but he can look off people and find openings that other quarterbacks - even NFL ones - can't. His big plus is is quick release - but for some reason, Randolph just can't buy the same buzz, which makes no sense.
It's hard to see how you knock on him. He didn't do enough at Holy Cross? Randolph has plenty of quality receivers over the years, like Ryan Maher and Brett McDermott, but no Division I player did more to lift his team than Dominic. He doesn't have the arm strength? He's not mobile enough? He can deliver quick, crisp passes? He can't look off receivers? Look at the highlight reel yourself and see if you think that's true:
Randolph reminded Georgetown head football coach of Chad Pennington, Harvard head football coach Tim Murphy of an NFL-caliber QB (and he knows something about that, having coached QB Ryan Fitzpatrick), reminded his head coach of Jay Fielder in terms of his savviness as a quarterback. But it seems like these days it's all about sales, and to some teams if you're not in an all-star game or the NFL Combine, you don't exist. (Unless you have "mysterious toe injuries" that suddenly appear to prevent you from going.)
Let it be known, though, that whichever team grabs Dominic Randolph is going to get an NFL-ready quarterback - maybe the next Jay Fielder, or something more.
Take the coaches' word for it and my word for it; Randolph has everything - the physical tools, the understanding of the game, the footwork, the zip in his passes, the touch, everything. He did have some things to work on last year - mobility, escapability, and even sometimes making better decisions - but especially last year he brought his game to a new level. He's not as fast as a Tim Tebow, but he can definitely run. And he's always been an accurate passer and a great decision-maker.
As a Lehigh fan, I feared him from the first time the Mountain Hawks faced him. I'd hope like hell for rain, snow, sleet - anything - to slow him down. I haven't felt that way about a lot of players, but Randolph is definitely one of them.
Sam Bradford may get the fawning on draft day, but it could very well be that a kid from St. Xavier Prep in Ohio might be flying under the radar - again - to give a NFL team a really special quarterback. If a team like the New England Patriots, New York Giants or Cincinnati Bengals don't watch out, someone's going to use a draft pick to pick up Randolph and be a very, very happy team.