STILLWATER, Okla. -- Just two springs ago, Oklahoma State had a true freshman quarterback emerge out of a three-way battle to stunningly capture the starting job before the season.
This spring, the Cowboys have another true freshman quarterback who might be capable of the same.
After winning 10 games and ranking in the top-10 for several weeks late last season, Oklahoma State kicked off its spring practice on Monday as a team in transition. Of all 128 FBS programs, only Utah State returns fewer starters than the Cowboys. And one of the many positions the Pokes must find starting replacement is at quarterback.
Gone is Clint Chelf, who became just the second quarterback in program history to earn first- or second-team all-conference honors.
J.W. Walsh, who has eight career starts over two seasons, is the only returner at the position with any experience and is the favorite to reclaim the starting job.
But the Cowboys also have an intriguing true freshman in Mason Rudolph, who enrolled early and will be with the squad this spring.
Two years ago, head coach Mike Gundy named true freshman Wes Lunt the starter coming out of spring drills. And one pressing question that popped up Monday during Oklahoma State’s spring press conference was, would Gundy entertain the idea of doing the same again?
“The truth is, if you have a freshman come in and is the better player, you probably play him,” Gundy replied. “It would be hard at that position [quarterback] because we can say what we want, but everybody watches the practices we watch. And everybody has a good feel for what’s happening. And we have a responsibility to our team to give them the best chance to have success. So we have to watch real close. I thought three springs ago that [Lunt] was clearly the best player -- that’s why we named him the starter. What that holds for the future, I’m not sure. But if we didn’t think he was [the best], we certainly wouldn’t have named him the starter. And so we just have to watch and see how it works.”
In other words, Rudolph will have his chance, just like Lunt did.
Rudolph arrived in Stillwater as perhaps the most highly-touted quarterback prospect the school had ever signed.
Lunt was a three-star recruit and was the No. 42-ranked quarterback coming out of high school. By contrast, Rudolph was Oklahoma State’s top recruit of this class and was rated the eighth-best pocket passing quarterback in the nation.
He threw for 4,377 yards and 64 touchdowns as a senior at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, S.C., while leading his team to a state championship.
Weeks later, he was named MVP of the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas All-Star Game after leading his team on a game-winning touchdown drive. Rudolph split time with Georgia quarterback signee Jacob Park, but when the game was on the line, Rudolph was the one the coaches called on. And like he had in high school, Rudolph delivered in crunch time.
“He had that leadership ability that you could see on the sideline with his team,” Oklahoma State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Yurcich said. “When he threw the football, the physical side was apparent.
“He also has an ‘it’ factor. You know when you see it. It’s hard to describe. It’s hard to put into words.”
Whether that “it” factor translates into Rudolph accomplishing what Lunt did two springs ago remains to be seen.
Lunt had an easier path to the starting job then. The Cowboys were replacing first-round NFL draft pick Brandon Weeden, and at the time, neither Chelf nor Walsh had any experience.
Though Walsh’s play dipped last season, he shined as a redshirt freshman after Lunt got injured in 2012 and wound up leading the entire Big 12 in the Adjusted QBR metric.
“J.W. always has had great leadership, and we want him to have a great feel for what we want to accomplish on offense from a read standpoint, footwork fundamentals, things that he can control,” Gundy said. “J.W. brings experience to the table. J.W. will be the guy that goes out there first this year because he has the most experience.”
Experience alone, however, won’t guarantee Walsh the job.
Limited arm strength plagued Walsh’s ability to complete throws downfield last season. That, coupled with poor decision-making, opened the door for Chelf to reclaim the job in early October.
Superior arm strength is what helped propel Lunt to the top of the depth chart two springs ago, and that could also be a similar asset for the 6-foot-4, 217-pound Rudolph this spring. But Rudolph, who rushed for 16 touchdowns as well last season, also seems to possess more mobility than Lunt, who suffered a knee injury after his third start while unsuccessfully attempting to escape the pocket.
“You can also tell he has some fight in him,” said third-year wide receiver Austin Hays. “It’s so hard when you’re a freshman. But towards the end of spring, Wes really started to find his way. Eventually he earned it, and everybody followed him.
“I don’t see why Mason couldn’t do that, too.”