PHOENIX — While taking in Oklahoma State's dramatic Fiesta Bowl victory at University of Phoenix Stadium, a frequent thought popped into Wes Lunt's mind again.
He imagined himself on that field. Directing the Cowboy offense. Slinging the ball around to returning receivers like Michael Harrison, Josh Stewart and Isaiah Anderson.
“We all (think about that),” Lunt said. “Laying down before bed, just thinking about the future.”
Lots of Cowboy fans have drawn up that same scenario. The Brandon Weeden era is over at OSU after two historic seasons, a Big 12 championship and BCS bowl win. And though Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh return at quarterback, the overwhelming belief — both inside and outside the program — is that Lunt, the true-freshman-to-be, is the Cowboys' future at the position.
“I'm going to work hard and all the other quarterbacks are going to work hard,” Lunt said. “And whoever wins (the starting job for 2012), wins it. I'm just going to work my tail off and just try to compete.”
Lunt arrives in Stillwater on Sunday to begin that journey. He graduated from Rochester (Ill.) High School early, allowing him to start classes at OSU this week and participate in spring practice.
Weeden left OSU as the 28-year-old veteran who became the program's greatest quarterback.
Meet Lunt, the teenager hoping to follow him.
Andy Lunt describes his son as respectful and a bit of a homebody. Wes' high school coach, Derek Leonard, calls him a quiet leader and the typical small-town guy. Wes claims to have a dry sense of humor. “Awesome” is one of his favorite adjectives, especially when describing his experiences during the past year or so.
As a kid, though, Wes didn't like football all that much. After trying the sport in elementary school, he gravitated more toward basketball and baseball.
But when big brother Wil became Leonard's first quarterback at Rochester High eight years ago, Wes' interest in the sport was renewed. He would tag along when Dad dropped Wil off at the school's gym to throw with Leonard.
Wes was a natural.
“It was God-given,” Leonard said. “...He started growing and it just kind of took off from there. He's got a natural throwing motion like I've never seen. It's so easy. It's so effortless.”
What came next was a standout career for Lunt. Back-to-back Class 4A state titles. More than 3,600 passing yards and 30 touchdowns this past season, despite missing four games with a broken foot. A state-record 590 passing yards in one game in 2011.
“There are times you're in awe,” said Leonard, who coached Purdue quarterback Sean Robinson at Rochester and has seen plenty of elite signal-callers as the son of legendary Illinois high school coach Ken Leonard. “Sometimes, I just became a fan and watched. You let him go, and you just end up catching yourself watching instead of coaching.”
Lunt's 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame makes him an ideal prospect, but that strong arm is what shocked college coaches at a 7-on-7 tournament at Vanderbilt last summer. The throwing motion reminds Leonard of Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.
And that arm is what intrigued OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who is from Wheaton, Ill., and has family deeply rooted in the state's high school football scene. Monken first contacted Wes via Facebook, then came to watch him throw last spring.
“It was instant,” Leonard said of Monken's interest in Wes. “He said, ‘Hey, this is what we want.'”
Wes admits he hadn't thought much about OSU. He was in Big Ten country, after all. But Stillwater had a similar vibe as Rochester, a town about 10 miles southeast of Springfield with a population of about 3,000. He was drawn to Monken's fiery personality and knew how respected that family was in Illinois. And the Cowboys' high-powered, spread offense matched perfectly with the no-huddle, throw-first style he played in high school.
“It was kind of late in the recruiting process, but it was a great decision,” Wes said.
In June, Wes committed to the Cowboys. And since then, he, his family and the Rochester community have latched onto the school, following along as OSU captured its first outright conference title and 12-win season. Wes and his family visited Stillwater during Bedlam week and sat in the student section as the Cowboy faithful stormed the field after the 44-10 rout of the Sooners.
“It was a blast,” Wes said. “Craziest football game I've been to.”
And Wes has always had the opportunity to enroll at OSU for the spring semester. Monken and OSU coach Mike Gundy visited Wes a couple weeks ago to talk about that option, and after discussing it with his parents and Leonard, Wes decided to graduate high school early.
“It was a very difficult decision for Wes and his mom and I,” Andy Lunt said. “The commitment decision and the decision to come early was always (Wes') decision.
“I don't know his thought processes, but we supported him either way, and I know he's excited. At this point, he's made the decision, so he's ready to go.”
This week, Wes will start the transition to college life. Andy said his family will likely visit on the weekends as Wes gets settled into his new home.
Wes has never met Weeden, but he has had friendly conversation with Chelf and Walsh. In a couple months, they will all begin the competition for the starting job.
And Leonard likes Lunt's chances.
“It is tough as a freshman to play quarterback in college,” Leonard said. “It's a lot of pressure for a kid to have. But if anybody can do it, it's Wes.”
Wes Lunt will compete for the Cowboys' starting quarterback job as a true freshman, but here's a look at the other quarterbacks hoping to replace Brandon Weeden in 2012.
Clint Chelf, junior
Chelf has the most experience, completing 20 of his 30 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns as Weeden's backup in 2011.
J.W. Walsh, redshirt freshman
Walsh, who did not play in 2011, compares more to Zac Robinson than Weeden. That means OSU would have to tweak its offense to cater to Walsh's strengths.