STILLWATER — Josh Stewart bobbled punt return chance after punt return chance in Oklahoma State's spring game nearly 18 months ago, essentially erasing his name from the options to fill that special teams role for the Cowboys in 2012.
Saturday night against Lamar, he was weaving through would-be tacklers in the middle of the field and then sprinting down the sideline to finish off a 67-yard score, OSU's first punt return for a touchdown since Josh Cooper found the end zone against Troy in 2010.
Stewart is best known as an electric slot receiver, the type of guy who can turn a five-yard pass into an explosive offensive play because of his speed and twitchiness in the open field. But Saturday, those skills were primarily used on special teams, with 114 of his 176 all-purpose yards coming on punt returns.
We may have seen the beginning signs of Stewart becoming a legitimate weapon in that phase of the game, joining the already proven Justin Gilbert at kick returner.
“It just worked out just like we practiced it,” Stewart said of Saturday's score. “That's what happens when you (are) coachable. As a returner, knowing we've got good blockers that (are) gonna block for you, that makes it easy on me.
“Basically, I look for a hole, I see it, I hit it. It turns out good sometimes, and it did (Saturday night).”
Stewart re-earned the chance to return punts late last season, when he ripped off a 64-yarder that set up a touchdown in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. That one return was enough to vault Stewart ahead of Charlie Moore and David Glidden for the spring and beyond.
And Stewart knew he needed to work on one thing — catching.
“I know once I catch the ball that I can make guys miss,” Stewart said, “so all offseason and leading up to the first game, I've just been practicing my catching ability, because I feel like I can run.
“And I've gotten better.”
OSU coach Mike Gundy noted that punt returns have been a team-wide focus during recent practices. Blocking schemes to help spring the returner are important — and Stewart gave plenty of props to those guys Saturday night — but Gundy also acknowledged that big returns usually get their biggest spark from individual effort.
Cowboy assistant Jason Ray, who works with Stewart on punt returns, has a pretty simple motto. Make one move and go.
“You can't be hesitant,” Stewart said. “When you see a hole, you gotta hit it. When I think you make that first decision to go and not second-guess it, it turns out good for you. (Saturday night) I did that. I didn't think too much, just hit the hole and ran as fast as I could.”
A punt return in the second quarter foreshadowed what was to come. Stewart fielded the punt near the middle of the field at the OSU 43-yard line, began running to his left, quickly changed direction, made a cut to the outside, stiff-armed one Cardinal and broke two other tackles on his way to the Lamar 16.
Then came the big one. Early in the third quarter, Stewart fielded a punt at the OSU 33, zoomed through the crowd of players in the middle of the field, bounced out to the same sideline and used his speed to outrun all Cardinals on his way to the end zone.
Stewart's assessment of the return?
“Very basic,” he said. “We worked hard all week, worked hard on that punt return. Took it serious, every guy.”
After that, Lamar's Kollin Kahler began aiming more punts toward the sideline. Clearly didn't want to get burned again.
Quite the departure from April 2012, when Stewart couldn't even be counted on to cleanly field a punt.
“That's a returner's dream,” Stewart said, “for them to not kick it to (you) because they're afraid you're gonna return it.”