STILLWATER — In December 2011, Wes Lunt graduated high school early, enrolled at Oklahoma State University, started classes in January, went through spring practice and by late April was named the starting quarterback for the defending Big 12 champions. It’s quite possible that Lunt was the youngest player ever handed such reins at such a level.
Fast forward two years. Lunt has transferred to Illinois, the Cowboys again are in the market for a quarterback and another intriguing high-school age QB has enrolled at OSU.
Could Mike Gundy make the same gutsy decision for the second time in three springs?
Obviously, the answer is yes. The better question is, did anything happen with the Lunt experiment to make Gundy and staff more or less likely to name Mason Rudolph the starter?
The ballyhooed recruit from Rock Hill, S.C., has been on campus two months now and just concluded his first week of spring practice. Rudolph will compete with veteran J.W. Walsh and journeyman Daxx Garman for the job, and while Walsh has made eight starts over the last two seasons, has proven himself to be a team leader and has a few landmark performances on his resume’, Walsh’s arm strength isn’t quite what the Cowboys’ Air Raid offense demands.
So Rudolph is at least in contention for the job, and he’s got a coach who has pulled such a trigger before.
“The truth is, if you have a freshman come in and is the better player, you probably play him,” Gundy said. “It would be hard (not to) at that position, because we can say what we want, but everybody (players) watches the practices we watch. And everybody has a good feel for what’s happening.
“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 (2012) 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.”
But Gundy admitted that he’ll have an extra focus on playing an early-entry freshman quarterback.
“When I look back at Wes, the only area that could be a concern, he didn’t play and compete very much based on the injuries he got at the time,” Gundy said.
Lunt suffered a knee injury in his third start of 2012, missed three more games, then returned, only to suffer a concussion in his second game back. After battling Clint Chelf and Walsh for the starting job last spring, with only veiled references by Gundy that Chelf was the starter, Lunt transferred to Illinois.
But Lunt left some valuable lessons in his wake. That handful of games that Lunt quarterbacked could help the Cowboys with the development of Rudolph.
“Was he adjusted?” Gundy asked about Lunt. “Was his escapability (from the pass rush) limited because of experience?”
Gundy said those are valid questions and will cause his staff to monitor closely how Rudolph is used.
Gundy said Rudolph’s offseason conditioning was closely monitored, and the same will happen during practice.
“You look back and always try to make it better,” Gundy said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich was at Shippensburg in spring 2012, so he doesn’t have primary-source knowledge of the Lunt experiment. But Yurcich said Rudolph has “done a great job” in the weight room, training, offseason conditioning and film room.
“What Mason has to understand, he’s a true freshman, really should be in high school still right now,” Yurcich said. “He has to take his time and steadily improve. He can’t ask too much of himself early on, stay within himself.”
And Yurcich puts the same restraints on himself.
“I think it’s really important that you try to take small steps and not to ask too much of ’em early, just operate the base offense and execute within his own being,” Yurcich said. “Not try to do something that’s overwhelming to him early on.”
It’s also important for everyone to remember that Lunt and Rudolph, while in incredibly similar circumstances, are not the same individuals.
“Each guy’s different,” Yurcich said. “Some guys you have to bring along slowly. Other guys you can throw a lot at ’em. Regardless, it’s best to take it one step at a time and progressively build ’em up. At the same time, it’s good to overload ’em, then take some back. Get tight and small with it. Whole part whole, if you will. It’s specific to the individual.”