Dakota Prukop made sure to remind himself of his current standing at every turn.
The Montana State quarterback hung a copy of the depth chart in his locker. He made sure to have a copy hanging in his room. He even took a picture of the depth chart and put it as the background on his cell phone. He was fully aware of his standing within MSU’s quarterback hierarchy at all times. A year of seeing his name listed as No. 3 was enough for him.
The slick, athletic gunslinger from Austin, Texas showed his impressive speed and athleticism during the Triangle Classic spring game in Great Falls in 2013. He ripped off a long touchdown run and showed great skill in operating the option while wearing a non-red jersey, meaning he was a live target for defenses. But at the completion of fall camp two years ago, Prukop found out he would not be DeNarius McGhee’s backup during his senior season. That job went to Jake Bleskin. Prukop was relegated to third string.
“Coach (Tim) Cramsey knew that would piss me off and he knows that making me mad makes me work that much harder,” Prukop said in May. “Involuntarily, he lit my fire.”
Sitting at No. 3 meant limited practice reps and game days spent giving sideline hand signals. Following a disappointing 2013 — MSU lost its last three games to finish 7-5 and out of the playoffs — Prukop found himself in the middle of the story of the decade. Heading into spring football in 2014, all eyes would be on the battle to replace McGhee, a program pillar who claimed two Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP awards and helped MSU share three Big Sky titles.
Prukop battled Bleskin, a year his elder, and redshirt freshman Quinn McQueary closely through spring drills. In each interview, MSU head coach Rob Ash and Cramsey, MSU’s third-year offensive coordinator, would consistently say Bleskin had a slight edge. For the first two weeks of fall camp, the narrative remained the same. Bleskin was slightly ahead.
Less than two weeks before MSU opened up at FBS Arkansas State, Ash and Cramsey made the announcement everyone around Montana and the Big Sky had been waiting for: Dakota Prukop would be the starting quarterback for the Montana State Bobcats. By the time Prukop made his Bobcat Stadium debut, a game in which he piled up 378 total yards including 176 on the ground, it seemed strange a competition ever existed. By the time Prukop helped MSU take No. 2 Eastern Washington down to the wire before falling 52-51, it was clear Prukop was not only the man at Montana State but among the most talented players in the Football Championship Subdivision.
It was all part of the plan.
“The more you challenge Dakota, the more competitive situation you put him in, the better he’s going to be,” Cramsey said. “A lot of times I tell him he can’t do something just to piss him off. We tried to beat him down and challenge him and make him earn it until he was the guy. And he did. That’s the type of competitor he is. That’s what I knew he had in him.”
Prukop does not lack confidence and that solidified him mentally for the year-plus he battled for recognition. He went through a quarterback competition at Vandegrift High before finally winning the job as a senior. In the back of his mind, he knew he’d be the heir apparent to McGhee. But the tactics presented to his conscience mind by Cramsey motivated him nonetheless.
“I love how we gel and strangely, I love how he can push me to the edge,” Prukop said. “He makes me better and he challenges me. We are close enough to where if I make a mistake, we are going to grill that mistake. He knows he’s not going to hurt my feelings.”
MSU started 2-2 with Prukop at the helm but as the Big Sky slate began, the ghost of McGhee was having a hard time haunting anyone. With Prukop at the controls of Cramsey’s spread attack with triple option elements, the Bobcats seemed like they could score at will. During their first road trip of the league play, they proved they could.
On a two-week jaunt through California, the Bobcat offense piled up 136 points as Prukop put up mind-boggling stats. In a 59-56 win over Sacramento State, he threw for 348 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 140 yards and three more scores. In MSU’s 77-37 win over UC Davis, Prukop led MSU to a program-record 737 yards by rushing for 148 and throwing for 361. He totaled six touchdowns against Davis and 14 during the trip. He fell just three yards short of 1,000 total yards.
The scoring extravaganza lost steam the next three weeks, a stretch that included narrow wins over Weber State (23-13) and Portland State (29-22) and a loss at Cal Poly. Against PSU, the fortunes of MSU’s season changed. On a game-sealing touchdown, Prukop dove into the end-zone and suffered a knee injury. It turned out to be a torn PCL that would cost him starts against Idaho State (a 44-39 MSU win) and Montana (a 34-7 loss). He returned against South Dakota State for a first-round playoff game but looked like a shell of himself in a 47-40 loss.
Despite the surprising and sometimes dominant performance by Montana State in 2014, the season ended in disappointment. It’s yet another motivational thorn in Prukop’s side.
“The way last year ended is a huge motivator and I’m a firm believe that in life, everything happens for a reason, there’s a bigger plan and we are not in control of everything,” Prukop said. “I trust that. I believe in what I can do. I can’t worry about the injury or how the season ended even though I think about it constantly. I can only work on the next chapter.”
On the first day of spring practices this year, Prukop carried himself as an alpha dog rather than a player competing for a starting position. He had a new crispness to his swagger and an elevated sense of maturity in his ability to lead his peers.
“He’s just scraping his potential,” said MSU senior wide receiver Mitch Griebel, a team captain alongside Prukop. “He’s grown as a leader. He came in as kind of forcing himself to lead. Now it’s becoming more natural. It’s hard to get everyone behind you when you first come here. Now he has everyone behind him because he’s proven himself.”
On the first day of spring ball, Prukop made a proclamation of his intentions for his junior season. He said, “Last spring, I was battling three guys here for the quarterback job. Now I’m in a battle to become the best quarterback in the nation.” Despite his affirmed status as a star already — he earned preseason All-Big Sky and All-America honors — he’s put in off-season work reminiscent of when he was trying to dig himself out of the No. 3 hole.
“The one thing I love about Dakota is he never stopped his quest to improve once he got the job,” Ash said. “Some guys work hard to get the job and then they are satisfied. He wasn’t satisfied just to earn the job. That was the starting point for him instead of the finish line. Once he won the job, he wanted to be the best quarterback he could be, the best quarterback in the conference, the best quarterback in the country.”
Cramsey calls Prukop “the quarterback I’ve been searching for since I became an OC.” The brash East Coaster spent most of his career at New Hampshire first learning under Chip Kelly, now the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles who first gained fame at Oregon. Cramsey spent one season at Florida International and he almost landed Nick Marshall, the triple option wizard who helped Auburn to the national title game two years ago. He said Prukop is an even better fit for his offense.
“He has the tools to be one of the best,” Cramsey said. “He can throw it, he can run it and he has the weapons around him to help him. He’s got an experienced offensive line to help him. Everything is on the table for him. This game of football, you are preparing 354 days for 11. He’s got 11 chances to do the job.”
The cohesive relationship Cramsey and Prukop have developed cannot be understated. The mentor knows exactly how to motivate his pupil in an effort to maximize his talents. Their personality similarities are striking and also help aid in a unique and important relationship.
As the old adage goes, you’ve already lost a fight before it begins unless you have unwavering confidence in your ability to remain untouched. It’s become a way of being for Montana State’s gunslinger and the man behind the scenes helping guide a special talent he believes could be the best in the country.
“A lot of people don’t understand this and it’s hard to say it but arrogance isn’t a bad thing,” Prukop said. “Cockiness is a bad thing. We stay away from that. But arrogance may not be a bad thing. In order to be the best, you have to believe you are the best. When Coach Cramsey steps on the field every Saturday, he believes down to the bone that he is the best offensive coordinator in the nation. It’s feeding over to our offense because I believe we have to best offense in the nation. And I believe I can lead this team better than anyone in the nation. Now we have to prove it.”
photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.