STILLWATER — Clint Chelf has been in this position before, taking the first snap of Oklahoma State's spring finale.
And yet, so much has changed.
One year ago, Chelf was days away from not only losing out on the starting quarterback job, but getting buried on the depth chart by two freshmen.
Saturday afternoon, he'll trot onto the field as the front-runner to lead the Cowboys in 2013 after a rash of injuries gave the senior an unexpected shot last November and strong play down the stretch put him in position to hold onto the No. 1 spot throughout the spring.
“Knowing I've played and have some experience under my belt, that just makes you more comfortable as a player and more confident in your ability,” Chelf said. “I definitely feel a lot better this spring than I did last spring.”
Those good feelings surrounding Chelf extend beyond football. In many ways, he's become the Big Man on Campus.
He's now OSU's Male Student-Athlete of the Year after earning his undergraduate degree in business and sports management and beginning work on his masters in business administration. Girls ask to snap a photo with him and then make it their Facebook profile picture. Fans of all ages have made T-shirts featuring trains and Chelf's unofficial rallying cry, “Choo! Choo!”
“It's like a storybook type of journey,” running back Jeremy Smith said.
A journey that, at this point, is well-chronicled. But that doesn't make it any less remarkable.
Former OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken delivered the bad news to Chelf — that Wes Lunt would start the Cowboys' opener in 2012 and J.W. Walsh would be the backup — less than a week after spring ball ended last year. Chelf's brother Colton, a former OSU receiver, recalled that Clint said nothing when he returned to their house after that meeting. Colton later found out from their father, Randy, what had happened.
“It was tough,” Colton said. “I told him just to stick with it and keep plugging and at some point, you're going to get your chance.”
So the family pitched in, venturing out to the artificial turf at Enid High School during the hot summer days as Clint tried to refine his throwing mechanics like shoulder placement. He detailed those workouts — and his vow that he would be ready if his opportunity ever came — following a scrimmage during fall camp, when he stood alone with one reporter while the rest of the media huddled around other seemingly more prominent players several yards away.
Then injuries to Walsh and Lunt spun the quarterback carousel in Clint's favor on that early November night in Manhattan, allowing him to start the Cowboys' final five games and finish the season completing 60 percent of his passes for 1,588 yards, 15 touchdowns and six interceptions while leading OSU's explosive Air Raid attack. He capped it off with an MVP performance in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, and a declaration from coach Mike Gundy that Clint would begin the spring as the starter came at that postgame press conference.
So, yeah, Clint feels different this time around. And looks different, too, according to teammates and coaches.
He's worked to improve his footwork, accuracy and leadership. Smith said the quarterback will throw the ball at a wall if he doesn't have a receiving partner. And Colton noted that a light graduate school class load has allowed Clint to turn more of his attention to football.
The common themes in Clint's improved practice performance, which was a clear issue in previous seasons? Comfort and confidence.
“He's been much better — considerably better — this spring than last spring,” Gundy said. “He was very average last spring … and I think it's because he's more comfortable. He knows that there's competition, but he also knows he's had success, so he's developed confidence. There's nothing greater than playing with confidence.”
Added receiver Tracy Moore: “He never panics. He never gets too excited. He's always at that even level. He never gets down on himself. He's just confident.”
Still, Gundy made it known earlier this week that while Clint has consistently taken reps with the first team, the Cowboys' quarterback race is not necessarily over. He suggested it could continue into fall camp, where OSU will get more than 20 solid practices before its season opener against Mississippi State in Houston.
After all, the same two guys that straight-up beat Clint out last year are back and improved, particularly Lunt following his second winter conditioning program and spring. And even with all the success, Clint's arm deficiencies did occasionally pop up down the stretch.
The quarterback battle likely won't end in August, either, with OSU carrying Big 12 title aspirations into 2013. With two capable signal-callers always waiting in the wings, coaches likely wouldn't hesitate to make a change, if necessary.
Yet Clint's teammates believe he can be the guy who evolves from a feel-good story in 2012 to the full-time starter of a Big 12 contender in 2013.
“It's his (job) for the taking,” Smith said.