Much at stake for OSU quarterback
J.W. Walsh's first career start will come against his home-state Texas Longhorns
When J.W. Walsh takes the field at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday for what will likely be his first career start, more than 55,000 fans will be watching him closely. Two stand out among the rest.
Denton (Texas) Guyer coach John Walsh will be in attendance. This is his son's big debut.
Jerrod Heard will be up in Stillwater, too. The Guyer junior quarterback and Walsh's successor won't be sitting with his head coach, though. The future Longhorn will be with his father, watching among a mass of Texas fans.
For both, this is a special night. You won't find two bigger Walsh supporters in that stadium than his dad and his apprentice. But Texas vs. Oklahoma State does create an unavoidable conflict.
Not that John Walsh holds any grudges against Texas. He harbors no hard feelings that Texas' coaching staff decided to take David Ash for its 2011 recruiting class and pass up on his son.
Now Walsh and Ash meet again, on the Texas transplant's new home turf. For Walsh, it's a first career start that few could've predicted back in April.
That's when Walsh lost out in the battle to replace Brandon Weeden. He'd had his sights set on that job long before he ever stepped foot on campus. He had a whole year to think about it and work toward it while redshirting as a freshman in 2011. He was next in line.
And then, as is often the case in college football, he got cut in line. Wes Lunt, a true freshman from Rochester, Ill., joined the program this spring. He is in many ways what Walsh is not: A tall pocket passer whose big arm makes up for his limited mobility.
When Mike Gundy made the surprising decision to name Lunt his starter in late April, Walsh could've transferred. Happens all the time with quarterbacks. Why risk spending a career on the bench if you can start for three seasons somewhere else?
That might be the route a lot of coach's sons would take, but not Walsh.
"He had to make a big-boy decision. He decided to stay and be committed," John Walsh said. "I think when you look around the country, the kids who stay, good things end up happening to them.
"You can find stories of guys who transferred and did well for themselves, but you'll find a lot more stories of kids who stuck it out, were true to the school they committed to and good things happened."
Good thing he stuck around. Walsh was confident he'd get another chance if he stayed, put his head down and kept working.
That opportunity came unexpectedly two weeks ago, when a first-quarter knee injury put Lunt on the sidelines and thrust Walsh into action. He was ready. Walsh set an OSU single-game record for total offense (347 yards passing, 73 rushing) in a 65-24 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Now here comes Walsh's big break, a home test against a Texas team that features perhaps the Big 12's best defense. Tough test, but if he does indeed earn the start it's one he's long looked forward to.
Standing on the opposite sidelines this weekend is a Texas quarterback who was forced into the field during his true freshman season and rolls into Stillwater with nine career starts under his belt. That could've been Walsh.
But there's a reason his family holds no ill will toward the Longhorns. When the decision was made in 2010, UT coach Mack Brown paid John Walsh a visit.
"Mack actually came to my office and let me know what they were doing," Walsh said. "It wasn't just a phone call or something I read on the Internet. Mack handled it with class and came to the office and explained why they were going in that direction, which I appreciated."
Walsh still recalls the explanation he got: Texas wanted to transition its offense to a more under-center scheme. More power football, less spread. Ash better fit the needs of the future.
Of course, Greg Davis was still UT's offensive coordinator at the time. The coach who replaced him less than a year later, Bryan Harsin, had offered Walsh a scholarship while at Boise State.
But his father never forgot the fact that Brown went out of his way to end Walsh' recruitment as politely as possible. When Harsin began courting Denton Guyer's precocious new starting quarterback, Walsh kept that kindness in mind.
"Texas has always handled themselves well," he said. "When they came after Jerrod, they definitely had my blessing."
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"I always watched him," Heard said. "I hung out with him on the weekends. I tried to be around him as much as I could. He's a leader."
Heard knows that one-year apprenticeship did him and his development a whole lot of good, and he still trades texts and stays in touch with Walsh. He's still trying to develop the vocal presence that Walsh provided in the Guyer locker room, but he knows that takes time and patience.
To this day, Heard is still learning from Walsh. The fact that his predecessor didn't bail on Oklahoma State after failing to win the starting job left an impression on the touted junior.
"When I heard he was staying, that impressed me that he's that dedicated to that school and that program," Heard said. "Now he gets rewarded for it by getting to play against the best team in the conference. That's pretty cool."
The opportunity to establish himself as OSU's starter is a fleeting one, but for Walsh there's no better stage than this.
Night game. National TV. Bright lights, big home crowd, a top-25 foe with an elite defense.
"If you're at home lying in bed dreaming about your first start as a quarterback in college football," John Walsh said, "I think that's how you dream it up."