DALLAS — Now that J.W. Walsh is gone, Mason Rudolph no longer will be looking over his shoulder.
Walsh graduated, the former Oklahoma State quarterback taking his talents to Fort Worth as a TCU assistant coach and leaving the Cowboy offense in Rudolph’s capable hands.
Rudolph may very well be the next great O-State QB, but Walsh will be missed by Cowboy faithful, having accounted for 26 touchdowns last season (eighth in school history) 36 career touchdown passes (sixth in school history) and 61 total TDs (fourth in school history), owner of the program’s second-highest career completion percentage (.631), second-highest passer efficiency rating (153.3), seventh-highest total offense per game (150.1) and the ninth-most yards total offense (4,953).
Walsh’s 8.70 yards per play is the best in school history — by a lot.
Now it’s all on Mason. But nothing, he said, feels any different.
“No, I think I have had full control, man, ever since Day 1, since the first day I started,” Rudolph said.
Rudolph had a grand sophomore season, throwing for 3,770 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 62.3 percent of his passes.
But he spent much of last year jogging to the sideline and watching Walsh work in the Cowboys’ short-yardage offense, and Walsh was mostly exquisite.
“Well, it was different with J.W., because J.W. could run the offense in the open field, and then his ability to run and his toughness allowed us to use him in those situations,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “So not only was he a backup quarterback, but he was a guy who could play 20 plays a game and help us win. So it was the best of both worlds. I would like to have that every year. That way if something happens, you can put a guy in and you can continue your offense without setting yourself back.”
It certainly wasn’t all Rudolph’s fault that Walsh was such a necessity.
Oklahoma State’s run game averaged only 126 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry — both ninth in the Big 12, just ahead of Kansas. Poor offensive line play, lack of physical blocking on the edge and running backs that often looked scared, slow or both meant Walsh had to come in and trick defenses. And he was good at it.
It was surely the best coaching effort of Gundy’s 11-year career, starting a season 10-0 without the ability to run the football.
Rudolph sounds confident the Cowboys won’t have those problems this season.
“I think some of the goal-line package stuff, I think our running backs are gonna take up that slack this year,” Rudolph said. “They’re motivated and they’re looking forward to having those extra touches in the red zone and hopefully putting up points for us. They’re fired up, man, and I think it’s gonna be a great combination, the ground game and the air attack. It’s gonna be lethal for us, and I think it’s gonna be exciting.”
But it’s the same offensive linemen and the same group of running backs, with the exception of a couple of unknown junior college transfers up front and the son of Barry Sanders in the backfield.
The real question now is a hard one to answer:
If OSU still can’t run the ball in short-yardage or goal-line situations in 2016, does Gundy have another Walsh waiting in the wings?
“We’re gonna try to develop somebody. We don’t know who that is. We don’t have anybody right now,” Gundy said.
“If we have somebody that shows up that can contribute and help us in that way, we’ll play ‘em. But in spring, we worked considerably with Mason in short-yardage and goal-line and what his strengths are, what we thought gave us the best chance to score.”
So don’t count on freshman Keondre Wudtee redshirt freshman John Kolar to come in and provide the kind of changeup that Walsh did. If those two don’t develop in that role and the Cowboys still can’t win the line of scrimmage, it may be Rudolph himself — the face of the offense, the future of the franchise — doing all the dirty work.
He ran for 219 yards last season but netted only minus-35.
“I’m not gonna break the 80-yard touchdown runs like ol’ Johnny Walsh,” Rudolph said, “but I’m effective enough and I’m confident in my ability in short-yardage to put my shoulder down and be effective. I’m gonna do whatever this coaching staff asks of me and then hopefully more.”