STILLWATER — The Cowboys kept waiting for Desmond Roland to grow up, and effectively, grow into a running back they could rely on.
Roland only now realizes it, but he's been waiting on the same thing.
“Now I know it's not all fun and games,” Roland said. “The coaches are counting on me. There's not a lot of experienced running backs. I just know I have to be ready.”
Oklahoma State has long been a two-back team. Dantrell Savage and Kendall Hunter. Hunter and Keith Toston. Hunter and Joseph Randle. Randle and Jeremy Smith …
Now the Cowboys are looking for their new tandem, with Randle gone to the NFL and Smith moving into the feature role. But do they have a true No. 2, a sidekick fit to help handle the heavy workload created by an OSU hurry-up offense that piles up plays?
Roland says he's ready.
And for the first time, Cowboys coaches say he's ready, too.
“It's time,” said running backs coach Jemal Singleton. “He's not a freshman anymore. He's not a sophomore anymore. He's got two years left to play college football. It's time he shows up.
“And Desmond has really come along. He needed some maturity time and I think that's happened. I think he's ready to play. He wants to play. I think the love of football is really tugging at him, to start doing things that give him that opportunity.”
Cowboys coach Mike Gundy often refers to players who “like to play football.” Yet that liking is not a literal thing, as much as it is multilayered labeling of the player who is willing to do all the right things to thrive.
The player who likes to play football also …
Takes school seriously. Commits to offseason workouts. Avoids off-the-field distractions.
Previously at OSU, Roland didn't “like” to play football enough.
“I've told him this, he wasn't ready to be that guy,” Singleton said. “He hadn't shown, responsibility wise or maturity wise, that we could trust him to do the things we need him to do. Now that's changed.
“There's no ifs, ands or buts about that, with the type of young man that he's become in a lot of different ways. Academically, his GPA has gone through the roof. His tutors are singing his praises. So you can see the maturity change.”
Roland denies none of what Singleton describes, copping to it all, including the growth.
“Coming in my freshman year, I was all over the place,” said Roland, who was the No. 15 prep prospect in Texas in rankings by Scout. “I wasn't fully focused. It's a huge adjustment. Not everybody can come in and adjust that quick. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. It can be a learning experience. There can be some downfalls. You just have to learn how to handle all that. And I feel like I've handled it well.
“I realize now it's important to me. I'm just ready, that's all I can say.”
The Cowboys are counting on it.
Beyond Smith, himself trying to shake a history of injury concerns, Roland is the closest thing they have to a proven commodity. OSU's other options are undersized sophomore Caleb Muncrief and true freshmen Corion Webster and Rennie Childs.
A junior from Dallas, Roland career rushing totals are modest: 63 carries, 396 yards and four touchdowns.
Not that he's had much opportunity, with Randle and Smith in place the past two seasons. And that could have been part of the problem.
“He's going to get playing time,” Singleton said. “With our tempo and the speed at which we play, and just the inherent nature of the position, of exhaustion and taking hits, two backs are going to play a lot. In fact, I'd like to have three guys.
“So he's not going to have any excuse for not getting enough playing time.”
At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Roland is more of a power back than the Cowboys have had recently. Still, there's more to Roland than the obvious.
“Desmond's change of direction is a little deceptive,” Singleton said. “You don't think he can cut and move as well as he does, for being that big of a guy. And he's really learned to lower his pads and use that height and that weight as an advantage, so he's always falling forward.”
Said Roland: “I'm more of a power back, but I'm a little versatile at the same time. I can catch the ball out of the backfield. A lot of teams probably underestimate my speed, but I have the speed to match with the other skills.”
Kansas State won't underestimate Roland's speed, not after he returned a kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, running away from everyone in purple.
“We were working on that the whole week,” Roland said. “The special teams coach (Ty Linder) told us they liked to pooch it. I told him, ‘If they kick it to me, I'm taking it to the house.'
“I knew I wasn't going to get too many chances, so I had to take full advantage of that.”
Roland's chances are expanding. And, again, he needs to take advantage.
“I've been waiting on this moment for three years now,” he said. “Patiently waiting, but now that it's my time, I'm just ready; ready to do whatever the coaches tell me to and be ready whenever my name is called.”