I would define J.W. Walsh’s sophomore campaign as maddeningly inconsistent. When he was thrown into action after a dispiriting few series by Clint Chelf in the season opener, Walsh came in cold off the bench and delivered one of the best rushing performances by a quarterback in school history. That performance earned him the starting job and all seemed well after he ripped off four touchdowns and completed 89% of his passes against UTSA.
But then there were some hiccups against an awful Lamar team and finally an abysmal afternoon in Morgantown that would end up being the low point of the Pokes’ season. Not long after Walsh completed just 43% of his passes against West Virginia while throwing a pair of picks and rushing for just 3.3 yards per carry, he had been supplanted by Chelf, and he never regained a role of any kind as Chelf led the team to the Cotton Bowl.
It’s the nature of the business to get excited about the latest star recruit that your school is pulling in, so, naturally, once Mason Rudolph had arrived on campus for spring ball, there were questions about whether or not the true freshman would go straight from the 4A state title game in South Carolina to starting on the opposite side of Jameis Winston in Oklahoma State’s season opener against the defending national champions.
Those pipe dreams have since been put to rest, and the Pokes’ chances for this season now rest solely on the broad shoulders of Walsh, who will be looking to atone for his shaky performances in 2013. Walsh will surely be feeling Rudolph’s breath on his neck all season long – or perhaps it’ll be the ghost of the mystical Daxx Garman that will spur Walsh on – which is similar to how Chelf must have felt at the beginning of last season. Either way, it’s clear that patience runs thin for Cowboy quarterbacks nowadays, and I suppose that’s a positive thing. Mike Gundy has risen expectations for his program so much over the years that now a transition season best suited to help the young guys grow up would be viewed as a disappointment in the interim.
But there’s a chance, albeit a slight one, that Oklahoma State can keep things afloat this season in spite of 28 seniors departing and a major shakeup amongst the coaching staff now that Joe Wickline calls Austin home. After all, Glenn Spencer is still around, and even though he’s lost the glue to his defense in Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis, as well as his best individual talent in Justin Gilbert, his tactics were always spot on last season and he’s got some key players returning like Ryan Simmons, Kevin Peterson and James Castleman. And who knows, perhaps the much-maligned Mike Yurcich will throw a few new Legos in the playpen now that Wickline's play calling input is gone.
Of course, a lot of things could break right for the Pokes – Desmond Roland and Rennie Childs may go together like Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, Marcel Ateman may take steps towards becoming the next great Oklahoma State receiver, Ra’Shaad Samples may be able to replace Josh Stewart’s all-around production, Tyreek Hill's already mythological speed could completely open up the field, and Spencer may pull off another miracle and have this team playing competent defense after losing all of its leaders from last season – and none of it would matter if the quarterback play isn’t there.
That begs the question: How good is Walsh? Is he someone that we can expect to help the Pokes exceed expectations or will early season struggles force him out of the starting job in favor of fresher faces?
It’s an interesting question to delve into. Based on the numbers, Walsh was fairly good last season, but he also padded his stats against UTSA and Lamar early in the season before struggling against West Virginia and a bit against Kansas State. Overall, Walsh completed 66.9% of his passes on 190 attempts; had he played all of last season at that pace, he would have tied Winston for 16th in the nation in completion percentage. So his strength must be accuracy then, right?
Not really. Take away his 24-of-27 performance against UTSA and his completion percentage drops to 55% on the season, which is just slightly behind what Casey Pachall (and Clint Chelf) did last season, and it wouldn’t rank in the top 100 in the country. Throughout the season I noticed that Walsh was missing some pretty routine throws, like this out route against West Virginia, that represent the occasional disappearance of the precision we’re used to seeing in Gundy’s offense.
Even with some moderate pressure coming, that should be an easy completion to Stewart on the sidelines for a first down. This wasn’t an uncommon sight for either OSU quarterback last season, but Chelf turned in some excellent performances down the stretch against Texas Tech, Texas, and Baylor by cutting back on his mistakes and he ended up being a somewhat comparable threat on the ground to Walsh, so there was never any doubt that he was the better option.
Walsh has to show improvement in two key areas in order to remain the starter for the duration of the 2014 season: 1) He has to be more precise on those out breaking routes and patterns to the sidelines, which will allow the coaching staff to take off the training wheels and let Walsh throw the ball down the field to an area that isn’t up the seams (finding guys up the middle was virtually his only strong suit as a passer last season), and 2) He has to get better at going through his progressions and making good decisions rather than forcing the ball to a covered receiver or relying on his legs to bail him out.
One play I go back and look at to evaluate Walsh’s pocket presence is this one from that same West Virginia game. Now, I realize that Cowboys ran a ton of quick hitting plays into the middle of the field last season and the design here certainly seems to be for Tracy Moore to set a pick on David Glidden’s man to free him for the quick slant. But if Walsh recognizes that massive slip-up by West Virginia’s defense, where they send two defenders to Glidden, leaving Moore wide open on his corner route, the Pokes may be able to convert this huge 3rd-and-8.
If Walsh finetunes those critical aspects of his game, it will allow him to showcase how dangerous he is as a running threat. As we saw as last season progressed and defenses started to respect Oklahoma State’s passing attack more and more, Yurcich has brought in a creative offensive system in regards to packaged run plays that allowed Chelf to go crazy in a couple of games (88 yards and 2 TDs against Tech, 95 yards and 2 TDs against Texas).
Those running plays didn’t have so much success when Walsh was the QB. Part of that was on him, since defenses weren’t respecting his ability to beat them with the pass, but Walsh also never got the benefit of playing alongside Desmond Roland for more than a couple of plays at a time, and Roland ended up being OSU’s best running back last season. Our best glimpse of Walsh’s potential as a running threat in this offense came against Mississippi State when the Pokes busted out the inverted veer out of the diamond formation to spring Walsh loose.
Walsh is clearly a very talented athlete and I think he’s got the chops to be a quarterback [insert compliment about his tremendous leadership and grit here]. The defining moment of his Cowboy career will come at some point during this season and it’s either going to be an extremely uplifting bit of theater or a soul crushing scene, with no in between.
And that’s often how Walsh plays. He’s either reckless or too conservative, too reliant on his natural skills or too focused on finding a predetermined target, often times too invested in the game for his own good. The key this season will be whether he finds that middle ground between his god given abilities and well-honed fundamentals, that middle ground between his passion for the game and the temperament necessary to succeed in the unforgiving world of college football.
And if he does, there is some hope for the Pokes after all.