ARLINGTON, Texas — Josh Stewart fielded his first punt of the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year's Day 2013, zipping and weaving his way past Purdue's potential tacklers for a 64-yard gain.
That was the first glimpse of the type of weapon the shifty Oklahoma State slot receiver could be on special teams.
But really, it marked the beginning of a new role carved out for Stewart this season — one where his receiving numbers have gone down, but the number of ways he's been utilized has gone up as the Cowboys enter their final test in Friday's Cotton Bowl against Missouri.
Still versatile. Still valuable.
“He's still dangerous when he's on the field,” Cowboy coach Mike Gundy said of Stewart, “whether he catches it or we pitch it to him and he runs the football. And certainly in the return game.
“I can't speak for other teams, but I know when we compete against teams that have a returner with the ability that Josh does ... you have to be aware of them when they're on the field at all times. I think that's what he really brings to the table.”
As one of the Big 12's breakout stars in 2012, Stewart led the Cowboys with 101 catches, 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns. This season, he's totaled 52 catches, 623 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver, but has become one of college football's finest punt returners, ranking fourth in the nation at 18.2 yards per return with two touchdowns.
Stewart says he saw this shift coming, primarily because he knew he'd have more pass-catching help this season.
Tracy Moore returned from a season-ending ankle injury, using his big body, strong hands and ability to play both outside and inside to lead the Cowboys in receiving yards (638) and touchdowns (six). Charlie Moore (31 catches, 415 yards, five touchdowns) remained a big-play option, while redshirt freshman Jhajuan Seales (36 catches, 529 yards, two touchdowns) became a vertical threat on the outside.
“I kind of understood when Tracy and Charlie (Moore) and all those guys were coming back what this season was gonna be like,” Stewart said. “I wasn't expecting the big numbers.
“I was just expecting to play my role and not try to do too much or cause problems on the team because I'm not getting the ball as much as last year. It's not about that.”
Gundy said in the spring that he hoped to take some of the offensive load off of Stewart this season. Still, the goal has been to get him the ball about 15 times per game.
Sometimes, the Cowboys have needed to get creative in trying to reach that mark, flipping it to Stewart just after the snap or even lining him up in the backfield to take direct handoffs during the Texas Tech game.
And now, defenses are keying in on No. 5.
“The big thing is last year, he was relatively unknown,” Cowboy quarterback Clint Chelf said of Stewart. “But this year, whenever you scout our offense, I think the one person that you would want to take away would be Josh.
“He does so much for us, not only on offense, but obviously on punt returns. That's a tough challenge for us as an offense — and as a staff, I know it is — to figure out ways to get him the ball.”
Stewart was also hobbled by an ankle injury late in the season, just as OSU's offense started to make big strides with Chelf at quarterback.
He missed almost all of the Kansas game and didn't make the trip to Texas, instead watching that game on TV with his girlfriend and 1-year-old son. He said he wasn't quite 100 percent for the Cowboys' contests against Baylor and Oklahoma, but doesn't believe the injury impacted his performance much. He added his health “is going through the roof” as OSU makes its final Cotton Bowl preparations.
Next season, the Cowboys lose both Tracy and Charlie Moore, meaning Stewart could be asked to take back some of the receiving load as a senior.
But then Monday, Stewart — somewhat unexpectedly — dropped the idea of potentially declaring early for the NFL Draft.
No matter what Stewart's future holds, however, he's been satisfied with his production in 2013.
Even if those receiving numbers dipped.
“It's about a team thing,” Stewart said. “I just accepted my role this year, and that was my role. And whatever the stats were, that's what they were.”