STILLWATER — Mike Gundy admires J.W. Walsh.
Professes faith in Walsh.
Now, can he commit to Walsh?
That’s been a key storyline throughout Oklahoma State’s preseason camp. And not just because Gundy stoked speculation in August with chatter of a “quarterback battle,” which may have been gamesmanship directed toward first-game foe Florida State. And not due to the fact that Gundy has had several opportunities to confirm Walsh as OSU’s quarterback — only to hesitate.
Gundy hasn’t gone all in on Walsh yet.
Not through two seasons. Not now.
None of this is new. Spanning Gundy’s tenure as head coach — and even before — the quarterback situation has rarely been concrete. From Donovan Woods to Bobby Reid and on through Clint Chelf and Walsh, volatility has ruled the position.
Some of that is owed to injury. And some, too, to Gundy’s jostling.
The coach can’t commit, not to his quarterbacks anyway.
“Whoever we play, we hope that, most of the time, they'll play at a solid level,” Gundy said when asked specifically about Walsh earlier this month.”
“Whoever” involves either Walsh, who is certain to be the starter when OSU opens with the Seminoles on Aug. 30, or Daxx Garman or Mason Rudolph.
“Our quarterback situation this year is a little bit different than what it has been in the past,” Gundy said. “We vary our style of offense based on who's in the game. We expect that player and that style to be involved enough to score points.”
That would be different, considering Gundy’s previous stance on the difficulty associated with amending systems inside seasons, let alone games.
And all three quarterbacks offer something different, with Walsh more of a runner, Garman more of a passer and Rudolph a mix of the two.
All three, too, come with major question marks.
Walsh is an odd fit for what the Cowboys ideally want in the trigger man of their Air Raid attack, better built for an offense geared around the quarterback run game. The offense has to be tweaked to accentuate Walsh’s strength — his legs — rather than an arm that has proven erratic.
Neither Garman nor Rudolph have taken a college snap. Garman last played in a game in 2009 — his junior year of high school — after a an adventurous route of frequent transfers. There’s a trust factor that hasn’t been forged.
So all signs point to Walsh as the quarterback. For now.
Cowboys coaches privately turned bullish on Walsh last August, enough to thrust him ahead of incumbent Clint Chelf. But as Walsh gained more exposure, his flaws became more apparent.
And by midseason, Chelf seized the job back, putting Walsh on the back burner.
That doesn’t mean Walsh missed his opportunity. Just a junior, he’s started but eight games, still a small sample size.
“J.W. still hasn’t played one full season,” Gundy said. “He’s been in a lot of practices. He came in a semester early, and he’s been here a long time, so it’s like he’s been here for 10 years. He hasn’t competed in game settings, and he will continue to get better and develop as the season goes on.
“He’ll play better this year than what he played last year, and we start to expect that. It’s our responsibility to put him in that position where he can perform at a higher level. We have a lot of confidence in J.W.”
Walsh has allies in his teammates, who marvel at his leadership and toughness and a work ethic that has become legendary inside the program.
Walsh wants to win. At everything.
Even conditioning drills, like running the Boone Pickens Stadium steps in the offseason.
“Every Friday we have stadiums,” said sophomore receiver Marcell Ateman. “I’ve never seen him not finish first.”
“Stadiums is the big thing we do on Fridays. We’re like, ‘Aw, we have stadiums.’ But J-Dub takes it upon himself to finish first every time. It just amazes me how he beats everyone.”
Said offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich: “There’s a will. There’s a deep down drive the young man has. I don’t want to overdo it or oversell it, but it’s there. It’s impressive.”
“And the best leadership is to lead. He does that with his work day in and day out.”
Walsh has a solid record at beating opponents, carrying a 6-2 record as a starter. He was at the control for two more wins after stepping off the bench.
Overall, the Cowboys are 8-2 in games where Walsh has played a significant role. He’s completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 2,897 yards and 22 TDs, with eight picks; adding 584 yards and 10 more scores rushing.
Solid enough to put him in line to be the Cowboys quarterback. For now.
Walsh, off limits to reporters until after the first game, is just the latest in a recent line of Cowboys quarterbacks to have an unofficial asterisk attached to his starter status.
There have been exceptions. Zac Robinson. Brandon Weeden, once given his shot.
Uncertainty behind center hasn’t hampered the Cowboys success, with the program in the midst of the greatest stretch of football in school history. The run has been led by Gundy, who in nine seasons has climbed to the top of the OSU coaching wins list.
Still, the lack of commitment to the men behind center is at least curious, particularly considering Gundy played and coached the position.
If anything, Walsh is cut from similar cloth as Gundy, drawing many of the same semi-compliments afforded to quarterbacks who don’t fit the prototype: “Winner.” “Competitor.” “Gamer.”
Maybe that’s why Gundy admires Walsh.
Professes faith in Walsh.
Now, can he commit to Walsh?