An afterthought as a recruit, quarterback Dakota Prukop prepares for transition from FCS to Oregon
Before Dakota Prukop was a touted prospect coveted by some of college football's top programs, he was an incoming freshman at a brand new high school in Austin, Texas. And when Vandegrift high head coach Drew Sanders asked the young Prukop what position he played, adding that he heard Prukop was a safety, Prukop's response became something that Sanders, all these years later, will never forget.
"No coach, I'm your quarterback," Prukop said.
"Here he is, a freshman, and he goes, 'No I'm your quarterback,'" Sanders recalled over the phone in December. "He's carried himself with that confidence ever since."
Some eight years later, that confidence is helping Prukop make the leap from Football Championship Subdivision Montana State to the University of Oregon for his final year of eligibility.
Prukop, who received little attention from Division I programs while he was in high school—Sanders said Montana State started recruiting him after his senior season was finished—now may be the best option to fill the void that Vernon Adams Jr., another graduate transfer, leaves at quarterback after Oregon's 2015 season.
Prukop arrived at Oregon's campus on Jan. 4 and is bringing a resume similar to his predecessor's to Eugene. A first-team FCS All-American in 2015, Prukop manufactured 69 touchdowns in his two seasons as the Montana State starting quarterback and showcased both an exceptionally quick release and the speed to turn broken plays into big gains.
After seeing Prukop's ability and finishing a successful season with Adams under center Mark Helfrich and his coaching staff went after another graduate transfer in Prukop. They got their guy again on Dec. 15, crystallizing what was a blurry outlook for the Ducks at quarterback in 2016 and setting a trend of seeking one-year plans with transfer quarterbacks from the FCS.
For many, it raises question marks about how Oregon, a program that had won 10 or more games for seven consecutive years before 2015, has recruited and developed quarterbacks since Marcus Mariota's arrival. For others, like former Montana State head coach Robert Ash, the idea of the FCS acting as a farm system for the "next level" is worrisome.
"We're Division I like the other level," Ash told the Associated Press last February after Adams committed to Oregon. "Our guys need to start and finish at the same school. We cannot be perceived as a farm system or Triple-A ballclub or anything like that."
About 10 months later, though, Ash, who is no longer coaching at Montana State, saw his former signal caller make the same leap.
But, Ash's stance, while understandable, is something that Elite 11 coach and Pac-12 Networks Analyst Yogi Roth doesn't agree with. The reason: Because of the opportunity that it presents.
"All these young student-athletes see themselves playing at a Power Five schools and what happens is that there's not enough slots for quarterback," Roth said. "What happens, standard recruiting, they go to all these lower division schools. And at division one level, some (quarterbacks) transfer, some weren't gifted, some get injured, some have personal issues, pressure...
"QB's at the lower level are balling out while this happens. And when they're graduating, they're going, 'Wow I can go play Division I.'"
It's the exact career trajectory that Adams took. The Pasadena, California native became a marvel in the FCS from 2012-2014, passing for 10,438 yards and 110 touchdowns, before coming to Oregon. And after just one season, Adams didn't leave any doubt that his skill set could translate, finishing the year with 2,643 passing yards and 26 touchdowns.
The storyline more or less paved the way for Oregon and Prukop to connect, and Helfrich doesn't like the idea that it's merely because his staff can't develop quarterbacks.
"It doesn't really speak to development of anything," Helfrich told reporters in December. "It just speaks to the importance of talent, certainly at that position.
As Roth admits, quarterback is the hardest position to evaluate out of high school.
Although lacking the physical skills to be an FBS prospect, Prukop gradually developed after high school. He built a great relationship with Montana State offensive coordinator, Tim Cramsey, and trained with renowned quarterback guru George Whitfield.
He then began to put all of those improved skills on full display his junior year. As fate would have it, his breakthrough performance came in 2014 against Adams and Eastern Washington.
"That game was his coming out party." said Greg Rachac, a reporter for The Billings Gazette who covers Montana State athletics.
Although a late touchdown and two-point conversion from Adams would help Eastern Washington win, 52–51, Prukop played a near perfect game. He passed for 248 yards, ran for 68 and scored five touchdowns.
He continued to post numbers like those throughout his two years as a starter. Then in December 2015 Prukop became the product of a bidding war, ultimately between Oregon and Alabama, after he decided to explore the possibility of transferring.
Prukop chose Oregon, citing trust and a warm welcome as reasons behind the decision. He joins a group of quarterbacks that include Travis Jonsen, Taylor Alie and Jeff Lockie. In addition, Terry Wilson and Justin Hebert are quarterback commits for Oregon's 2016 recruiting class. A rather large quarterback competition will likely commence when spring practices begin in Eugene.
And Unlike Adams, Prukop will have all of the spring and fall camp to get acquainted with the Ducks offense. But, it's clear that Prukop, like Adams, will get an opportunity no one foresaw when he was a senior high school.
For that reason, Oregon's selling point to Prukop, which he told The Oregonian, was simple.
"Do something that's never been done before there."
Justin Wise is SI's campus correspondent for the University of Oregon. Follow him on Twitter.