STILLWATER — Mike Gundy gave his opinion on the do-spread-offenses-cause-more-injuries debate last week at Big 12 Media Days, stating that he believes the system actually makes football less dangerous because there are fewer rough collisions and piles near the line of scrimmage, which naturally come with ground-and-pound attacks.
The Oklahoma State coach also, unsolicited, roped Josh Stewart into his answer. Not to attach to the topic of injuries, but to highlight the increased opportunity the spread offense can give to a 5-foot-10, 185-pound slot receiver.
“If you were in a traditional style of offense, where does he play?” Gundy said. “Even though he's a really, really good player, does he get 100 catches and do we know who he is across the country? I would say no.”
Stewart, who enters 2013 as statistically the Big 12's top returning receiver, is certainly not the first to thrive at that position in the age of hurry-up, wide-open systems.
Wes Welker, who's now widely regarded as the best slot receiver in NFL history, was a primary target of Kliff Kingsbury when he was slinging the ball around in Mike Leach's Air Raid attack at Texas Tech. Former Cowboy Josh Cooper currently ranks in the top 10 in school history in both receptions (161) and receiving yards (1,695), even while playing alongside two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon, and parlayed that production into a spot on the Cleveland Browns' active roster as an undrafted free agent.
But Stewart is the latest to develop into a legitimate Big 12 star after a breakout 2012 season where he tallied 101 catches and 1,210 receiving yards.
Why can the system make such a difference? The key is getting Stewart the ball in space, which is usually easier while playing inside receiver in the spread than playing on the outside in more conventional, two-receiver offensive formations.
While playing in the slot, Stewart is often matched up with linebackers or safeties in the middle of the field, rather than cornerbacks. That allows him to get the ball fast and then use his quickness and ability to dart through defenses — rather than vertical speed or size — to make defenders miss in the open field.
The result? Yards after catch. Lots of them.
And that makes Stewart, along with backup David Glidden, the most difficult receivers for preseason All-Big 12 linebacker Shaun Lewis to defend during practice.
“They're smaller, shifty guys,” he said. “They can change direction on the drop of a dime.”
Cowboy offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich stressed that proclaiming Stewart is successful because of the spread would be severely understating the receiver's ability. But he acknowledged the system puts Stewart in prime position to use his strengths.
“What the Oklahoma State offense does is try to create mismatches and opportunities for him to get open in space, and I think that's critical,” he said. “Regardless of what you call your offense, to be able to get your athletes the ball in space is the goal, and that gives us the best chance to win.
“That's what we've done to get him over 100 catches, being able to get him those spots and being able to utilize him.”
And Stewart is thrilled to be utilized in that way. After all, he was once expected to play defensive back as a Texas A&M commit before switching to OSU to play receiver with best pal and Cowboy quarterback J.W. Walsh.
Now he's flourishing in college football at the perfect time.
In the perfect conference.
In the perfect system for him.
“I think any receiver would love to be in the middle of where I'm at right now,” Stewart said. “Especially in a spread offense, where we air it out the majority of the time. Very blessed to be in the position I am.
“I just focus on taking advantage of the opportunities I get and I think if I stay by that rule with myself, only God knows how far I can go.”