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Oklahoma State QB: Chelf vs. Lunt vs. Walsh

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Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images.
Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images.

Whether it says something about the state of the Big 12 or the state of the quarterback competition at Oklahoma State remains to be seen, but the Cowboys have three accomplished players battling to start at quarterback in 2013 and are widely perceived as a favorite to win the league for the second time in three seasons.

West Virginia has three quarterbacks who will compete throughout the summer and battle in the preseason. You’ll find the Mountaineers at the bottom of most offseason Big 12 predictions.

Yet Oklahoma State’s candidacy is best understood by examining the situation. What head coach Mike Gundy has is not a quarterback controversy. It’s a quarterback convenience.

Senior Clint Chelf, redshirt sophomore J.W. Walsh and sophomore Wes Lunt all 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.

It would be hard for Gundy to make a bad decision, but considering what's at stake, it’s critical he makes the right one. He’ll do so before the start of the season, but don’t expect him to give his first opponent, Mississippi State, much time to prepare.

The case for Chelf

Well, Gundy has seemingly made the case for Chelf already, but so has Chelf by simply hanging around. He’s been in the offense since Dana Holgorsen arrived to introduce it in 2010 and Chelf decided to learn from Brandon 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 trusted quarterback last season and ended up starting the bowl game, when he shredded Purdue.

Early in spring practice last month, Gundy told reporters after an early 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.    

He’s the best runner of the three quarterbacks, and mobility matters, if only because it can keep him out of some of the trouble Lunt and Walsh found on their way to injuries. The physical stuff only complements what's most important. He’s the most seasoned player at the position who knows the core of the offense best. 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 deeply respected because of the way he’s made the best of what could have been discouraging depth charts.

The case for Lunt

The Cowboys cheered when they signed Lunt last year because they were looking for someone to continue Weeden’s success and they thought Lunt was it. There’s no question Gundy likes Lunt, who just looks the part at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. Lunt enrolled in January last year and was actually named the starter at the end of spring practice. He did a decent job early in the season before he was injured.

He has 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 Lunt’s home field. Given his age, he also has the most potential for the Cowboys, if not in 2013, then also beyond. Picking Lunt now does wonders for the future of the position, whereas picking someone else now could encourage a player with three years of eligibility remaining to look elsewhere.

Don’t underestimate what missing time means to Lunt, too. He was injured the first four games of his senior season, but with his college career on the line came back and passed for 3,650 yards and 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions.

The case for Walsh

Simply put, he’s the most intriguing of the three. 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 and 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 sneaky 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. Just like Lunt, picking Walsh can help the Cowboys in 2013 and beyond, though in a different way.

The winner

The most influential variable here is not Gundy or any of the three 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 opponents 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. In each of the last two seasons, Yurich’s starting 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 two good backups.