STILLWATER, Okla. -- It’s no wonder why J.W. Walsh will start at quarterback for Oklahoma State on Saturday when the Cowboys face the defending national champion Seminoles.
Walsh is always the last to leave the practice field. And the first to arrive in the film room. And he climbs stadium steps faster than any player on the team.
“He’s gained the respect of the team,” said linebacker Ryan Simmons. “Everyone trusts him because he’s shown he wants what’s best for this team.
“He’s our quarterback. ... We’re pulling for him and we’re going to depend on him.”
Walsh didn’t earn that trust overnight.
In his first career start two years ago, he showed he was a gamer, totaling 357 yards while nearly leading the Cowboys to a fourth-quarter victory over then 12th-ranked Texas.
Two games later, he validated his toughness, throwing for 415 yards against Iowa State while playing through a serious knee injury.
Then in the opener last year against Mississippi State, Walsh displayed his determination, essentially willing a sluggish Oklahoma State offense to a 21-3 victory.
“He’s the leader of this team,” guard Zac Veatch said of Walsh, who's been off limits to the media this preseason. “People follow him.”
But the biggest question for an Oklahoma State team long on youth and short on experience is not whether Walsh can finally lead the Cowboys as their full-time quarterback.
“He feels the urgency,” Veatch said.
Two years ago, Walsh lost a three-way battle for the starting job to true freshman Wes Lunt. Walsh stepped in after Lunt suffered a knee injury of his own. But Walsh was relegated to operating the Cowboys’ short-yardage package behind Clint Chelf after returning later in the season from his knee injury.
Last season, Walsh took over the offense three series into the Mississippi State game. But after finishing 15th nationally in QBR in 2012, Walsh struggled with his accuracy and decision-making in 2013. And after several games with the offense sputtering with him at quarterback, the Cowboys turned back to Chelf, who became just the second Oklahoma State quarterback ever to earn first- or second-team all-conference honors.
This offseason, Walsh found himself in another three-way battle with true freshman Mason Rudolph and former walk-on Daxx Garman. But even though neither Rudolph nor Garman had ever taken a college snap, coach Mike Gundy waited until this week before finally indicating that Walsh would start against the Seminoles. Gundy also previously suggested that Garman could get 10-15 snaps Saturday.
“Each one of those guys has come a long way since the spring,” Gundy said. “They’ve come along and they’re doing better. If they’re out there in a crucial situation, we’d like to be able to use those guys when we want to use them, not when someone else determines when we use them.”
Because of his experience and leadership, the Cowboys would probably prefer to use Walsh.
Garman has the bigger arm, which seems to be the better fit for an offense stocked with capable receivers. Rudolph, the gem of February’s signing class, has the higher ceiling.
But Walsh has the team.
“He’s the leader of the team,” said cornerback Kevin Peterson. “In workouts, he’s always going to be first. His work ethic is really great. I have all the confidence in J-Dub. If I want to pick anybody, it’s going to be J-Dub, because he shows all the leadership attributes.”
Walsh, however, will have to demonstrate more than merely leadership to keep the job. He’ll have to complete passes at a better rate than the 59 percent he did in 2013.
He’ll have to avoid the costly interceptions, the last of which in the red zone against TCU last fall finally cost him the job.
And he’ll have to flash more of the big-play ability -- both with his wheels and his arm -- he did two seasons ago as a freshman.
The Cowboys want Walsh on the field. But they also want the best quarterback, too.
“Him having the experience and being the veteran is great,” Veatch said. “And him being the veteran and having the experience is going to help him be the guy that plays.
“But whoever is the best guy is going to play.”
Walsh has already proven he’s Oklahoma State’s leader.
Saturday night against the No. 1 team in the country, he’ll have the chance to prove the Cowboys can depend on him to be their quarterback, too.