Entering the 2011 season, Oklahoma State's offense was a well-oiled machine. Even with the departure of Dana Holgorsen, the Cowboys returned Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Newly named OC Todd Monken was charged with the task of building off the spread attack that had brought the Cowboys so much success under Holgorsen.
Waiting in the wings was a true freshman.
J.W. Walsh was pegged to be the next starting QB for the Pokes. Paired with his best friend and high school teammate, Josh Stewart, Walsh looked forward to the possibility of being part of the next great tandem in Oklahoma State football.
Weeden-2-Blackmon? How about Walsh-2-Stewart?
While Stewart didn't waste any time making his impact on the field, the other half of this duo would have to wait his turn.
Since Brandon Weeden decided to forgo the NFL draft and return for his senior season, Walsh would redshirt and get a chance to learn under one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
Walsh had been recruited by Holgorsen prior to his one and only season in Stillwater. The Scout four-star dual-threat prospect from Guyer HS (Denton, TX), had already been interested in Oklahoma State but Holgorsen's hiring was the "icing on the cake". Two weeks after Holgorsen was named OC, Walsh committed.
After graduating high school early, Walsh enrolled at OSU . But before he arrived, Holgorsen had checked out of his hotel room and headed east to Morgantown.
John Walsh, J.W.'s father and HS coach, "J.W. was rock-solid the whole way with OSU. When we committed, I explained to J.W. that Dana would probably be there only a year or two. Dana did a really good job with J.W. in recruiting, so, sure, when we found out that Dana was leaving, it affected J.W. for about half a day. But coach Gundy called J.W. and assured him that everything would be all right, and J.W. was good after that."
Unfortunately, everything would not be all right. As is often the case, things did not go according to plan.
After dealing with injury and taking a ride on a two-year quarterback carousel with the likes of Wes Lunt and Clint Chelf, it appeared Walsh would finally get his chance to run the offense in 2014.
The Cowboys opened the season against the consensus No. 1 team and defending national champion Florida State Seminoles. Walsh would lead a heroic comeback that fell just short of an upset. The nation was put on watch and it appeared it would finally be Walsh's time to shine.
Of course, there was another bump in the road. The very next game would be his last for the season. Against Missouri State, Walsh suffered a lower leg injury that would require surgery and (again) sideline the dynamic playmaker.
The Cowboys' season would also have its ups and downs including a five-game winning streak followed by a five-game losing streak and the emergence of Mason Rudolph.
"I didn't see myself leaving."
Walsh, though now healthy, would not have his starting spot waiting for him. He had one year of eligibility remaining.
Having already graduated, many questioned if he would follow a growing trend of QB transfers. You want to run an offense, be the guy. It made sense to most. But not to Walsh.
"This place is my home," Walsh said. "When I first got here, when I first signed my letter of intent, I made a commitment to be here for my career. I just couldn't see myself in any other jersey. The Cowboys fans and the Cowboy family has treated me so well. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else with any other fans. This place has been great. I didn't see myself leaving."
More than a wrinkle.
As part of a two-quarterback system of necessity, Walsh was the running game in 2015. A struggling offensive line and lack of a tailback who could consistently make plays resulted in a Cowboy offense that became one-dimensional. Walsh was the most effective running option and second leading rusher with 359 yards on 4.66 per attempt and 13 touchdowns.
It's hard to say exactly how Walsh's impact translates into wins and losses. Would Gundy and Yurcich have just gone full spread and let the chips fall where they may? Since Mason Rudolph got close to zero burn in the red zone, we don't know how effective he would have been.
But there is no denying whose heroics helped win an overtime thriller in Morgantown. Or who scored the comeback sealing touchdown in Ames. Or who looked like an All-Big 12 candidate in the fourth quarter in Lubbock.
Walsh never really got to be the guy. It was never "his team", at least not in the way most look at it. But take a poll of those in the locker room and around the program and you may get a different answer.
"He's a great leader on this team." David Glidden said, "He's still the biggest leader on this team."