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Cole McDonald: Meet The Roughnecks’ Not-So-Secret Weapon

Back in 2020, the Houston Roughnecks had a league-leading passer in PJ Walker. Fast forward three years, and the new iteration of the team likely found a guy who can do the same. Although Houston’s starting quarterback has yet to be announced, there’s no doubt that former University of Hawai’i signal-caller Cole McDonald will see the field at some point this season.

McDonald is a California native who is heading into his fourth year as a pro quarterback, and despite a ton of upside, has yet to do much since leaving college. However, that may be set to change with the arrival of XFL 3.0, kicking off in just over a week.

Coming out of Sonora High School in La Habra, California, McDonald wasn’t highly recruited, but committed to Hawai’i after a scholarship offer from head coach Nick Rolovich came in late. Rolovich played a major role in McDonald’s success through his four years at UH, along with offensive coordinator Brian Smith and passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Craig Stutzmann.

McDonald grew to become a near perfect fit for the program’s “Run-and-Shoot” offense, a fast-paced system with plenty of four-receiver sets. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2016, he served as the backup to current Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Dru Brown in 2017. When Brown left for Oklahoma State in 2018, McDonald was given the starting job and made an immediate impact.

In 2018, McDonald played in 13 games, completing 285 of 484 passes (58.9%) for 3,875 yards, 36 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also added 359 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground, all while playing through a sprained MCL. By now, McDonald was starting to gain some traction, and things continued to get better (for the most part) in 2019.

During what would be his last year with the Rainbow Warriors, McDonald completed 326 of 511 passes (63.8%) for 4,135 yards. Those 4,135 yards were the third-most in all of FBS college football, trailing LSU’s Joe Burrow and Washington State’s Anthony Gordon. The only two areas of regression were passing touchdowns (33) and interceptions (14), but 7 touchdowns on the ground arguably made up for most of that.

Following a 38-34 statement win over Zach Wilson and the BYU Cougars in the Hawai’i Bowl, McDonald officially declared for the 2020 NFL draft. He finished his college career with 8,032 passing yards and 82 total touchdowns. 

McDonald received an invite to the NFL combine, where he recorded the fastest 40-yard dash (4.58s) and the highest vertical jump (36 inches) amongst all quarterbacks in attendance. His great performance at the combine helped him get selected in the 7th round of the draft by the Tennessee Titans (224th overall).

However, it was going to be an uphill battle for McDonald to make the final roster, as there was no preseason in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While a handful of those preseason appearances likely could have boosted his stock, McDonald didn’t even make it to final roster cuts with the Titans, and was let go in mid-August. Shortly after, he worked out with the Carolina Panthers, but no contract was offered.

After being a free agent for the duration of the 2020 NFL season, McDonald signed a futures deal with the Arizona Cardinals in February of 2021. Unfortunately, Arizona’s quarterback room was mostly set before camp even started, which led to him being released in May. By now, it seemed clear that the NFL was not working in McDonald’s favor, and the only other viable option at the time was the CFL. A few months later, on September 13th, 2021, McDonald signed with the Toronto Argonauts as a member of the practice roster.

Since McDonald signed late in the season, he was only active for one game, which happened to be the finale where all the starters were rested. Even then, he was still a backup behind Antonio Pipkin. McDonald was able to see some action in that game, but had a somewhat poor outing, completing 4 of 8 passes for 45 yards and an interception. The Argonauts went on to lose 13-7 to the Edmonton Elks. 

Pipkin left for the BC Lions in free agency prior to the 2022 season, which seemed to open the door for McDonald to be a true backup behind McLeod Bethel-Thompson. However, former Denver Bronco and Indianapolis Colt Chad Kelly signed with the team, and that spot appeared to be automatically taken again even without a proper competition. McDonald would eventually be released by the Argonauts at the start of training camp, once again left looking for a new home.

Now, we find ourselves in 2023, and McDonald is in a “make-or-break” stage of his career. Fortunately, the XFL jumped at the opportunity to get a quarterback who had already fallen out of favor with a majority of the other pro leagues, yet had plenty of college film to showcase his talent. This is the first time in a while that McDonald has actually had an advantage in one of his landing spots, since the XFL is off to a fresh start and the competition is far more equal. While bias still certainly exists, the major selling point on having McDonald as the starter goes beyond system fit.

Back in November, the Roughnecks drafted wide receiver Cedric Byrd, who happened to be one of McDonald’s top targets during his time at Hawai’i. Byrd is a very talented receiver himself, and similar to McDonald, is relatively unproven.

However, familiarity alone could give the Roughnecks a serious advantage. Both McDonald and Byrd will be facing higher competition than they did in the Mountain West, but are more than prepared for the challenge. Offensive coordinator AJ Smith has the tools to make it a more than comfortable environment, and McDonald himself said that the team will likely be throwing the ball “50-60 times a game” on a recent appearance with the Franchise Tag Podcast. 

All in all, Cole McDonald is an incredibly exciting player who has the skills to be the next great quarterback in the XFL. While other teams in the league also have talent at football’s most important position, passing is the way to win in the modern game, and it’s safe to say that the same philosophy worked out pretty well for the Roughnecks last time. 

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Football journalist/scout/future coach covering the Houston Roughnecks. Air Raid/Run-and-Shoot enthusiast.

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