No More Mystery: Lunt's Exit Elevates Chelf
By Mike Casazza
Mike Gundy has suffered his first loss of the 2013 season, but the summer just got a little easier for the Oklahoma State football coach.
The school announced Thursday sophomore quarterback Wes Lunt will transfer. Thirteen months earlier, Lunt won the starting job as a true freshman following spring practice.
"This was not a decision I took lightly, but it is a decision that I felt was right for me," Lunt said in an athletic department press release.
If it was the right decision for Lunt, it might reveal the decision Gundy has yet to make public about who will start the season-opener Aug. 31 in Houston against Mississippi State.
The Cowboys, with a wealth of returning talent on offense and defense, but with new coordinators on both sides of the ball, are thought by many to be a contender for the Big 12 championship next season. They just hadn’t picked a quarterback.
Lunt, who started the first three games and five overall last season, was battling fifth-year senior Clint Chelf and redshirt sophomore J.W. Walsh. All three won games as the starter last season and each had at least one game with 300 yards passing and at least one game with four touchdown passes.
The pick has been a mystery, even in the presence of what would seem to be clues.
Early in spring practice last month, Gundy told reporters after a scrimmage, “Clint Chelf is our starter. He takes all the reps with the (first-team offense) right now. The other guys compete out there, but I don't necessarily feel like there's a battle out there to start in the first game.” Gundy would later back off that comment, but at the end of the spring, Chelf played quarterback for one team in the spring game while Lunt and Walsh shared snaps on the other team.
It should seem clear now that the high stakes of the season will begin in the hands of Chelf while the future belongs to Walsh.
It once belonged to Lunt, a player whose arrival was celebrated in January 2012. The Cowboys had an awesome thing going on offense and thought they had in Lunt someone who could keep the Brandon Weeden cycle spinning. Lunt looked the part at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds and had the best arm of the three, which matters not just for the quick throws that must be accurate and fitted into tight spaces, but also for the windy conditions quarterbacks are destined to combat in Big 12 stadiums, including Oklahoma State’s. Given his age, Lunt also had the most potential for the Cowboys, if not in 2013, then also beyond.
That's what probably encouraged him to move on with his career. He wants to play, not watch.
That's ironic because now it sure looks like the best thing Chelf has done is hang around Stillwater. He’s been in the offense since before Dana Holgorsen arrived to introduce it in 2010 and Chelf decided to learn from Weeden rather than transfer somewhere else. He took a back seat again last year when Lunt won the job, but Chelf was the team’s most reliable quarterback last season and ended up starting the bowl game, shredding Purdue.
He’s earned trust from his coaches and teammates with the way he handles all the quarterback’s responsibilities when the Cowboys play fast, but he’s also respected because of the way he’s made the best of what could have been discouraging depth charts.
Walsh had been the most intriguing of the three and the Cowboys can look forward to that in coming seasons. He doesn’t have Lunt’s arm, but it’s getting better. He doesn’t move like Chelf, but he can run. He’s going to play. Don’t count out a package for Walsh and some single-wing stuff to make the most of his legs in short yardage or change-of-pace situations.
Those sound like backhanded compliments, but there’s nothing subtle about this: Walsh actually had the best numbers last season.
He played in 10 games — though he only started three — and was tops in passer efficiency (170.11). In 34 fewer passes than Chelf, Walsh had just 24 fewer yards (1,564), two fewer touchdowns (13) and three fewer interceptions (three). Nobody was more accurate than Walsh, who completed 66 percent of his passes, and no one was better running after taking the snap. He carried 50 times for 290 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
Walsh can play and there’s no arguing he improved with game experience last season. He, too, has potential because he has three years of eligibility in his pocket. The Cowboys will recruit the position and find talent, and they also have Arizona transfer Daxx Garman eligible on the roster now, but the third-year sophomore hasn’t played a game since his junior year of high school.
The most influential variable here is not Gundy or the remaining quarterbacks. It’s new offensive coordinator Mike Yurich. He blistered Division II football the last three years at Shippensburg and he leaned heavily on his quarterbacks. He needs to lean on Chelf.
Yurich isn’t going to abandon what Gundy oversaw with Holgorsen and later Todd Monken as his coordinator, so Chelf’s knowledge matters, but it also matters that Chelf knows how to work with and learn from new coordinators. Yurich plays fast and his Shippensburg offenses overwhelmed opponents with the volume of plays. That’s Chelf’s forte. He’s at ease operating quickly and aligning his teammates.
And it doesn’t hurt that he can run (31 carries, 162 yards in 2012). In each of the last two seasons, Yurich’s quarterback had more than 100 carries and the dual-faceted quarterback is a part of the evolution of the offense. Chelf’s never been asked to play a full season, but only has to prove he can stay healthy and effective. Fortunately for Oklahoma State, it has a good backup.