FRISCO, Texas — Despite all of Oklahoma State’s prolific passing, Mike Gundy doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to picking a quarterback.
Which makes one wonder one of two things following Tuesday’s news that fifth-year senior and former walk-on Taylor Cornelius is OSU’s starting quarterback heading into training camp:
Will Cornelius break the mold and keep the job all season? Or, if he doesn’t, how long does he have?
As a head coach, Gundy picked Al Pena over Bobby Reid, Bobby Reid over Zac Robinson, Alex Cate over Brandon Weeden and J.W. Walsh over Clint Chelf. As an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he also picked Aso Pogi over Josh Fields, though the final call there went through Les Miles.
He also picked Daxx Garman over Mason Rudolph.
Each decision came with extenuating circumstances and layers of detail. For instance, Fields, Robinson and Rudolph were all freshmen and needed time. Weeden came over from pro baseball. Some were runners, some were passers.
But since football is a bottom-line business, we’ll stick with the end result: Gundy goofed.
This year’s decision also is nuanced. How the heck is Gundy supposed to know what Hawaii transfer Dru Brown can do if he’s not even on campus yet? How is Gundy supposed to evaluate freshman Spencer Sanders if he hasn’t been through one practice?
Gundy is smart to get ahead of this thing and identify Cornelius — the oldest and most experienced QB on the roster (experience being a relative term) — as quickly as possible. That allows him to make some big strides these final weeks heading into the preseason.
On Tuesday at Big 12 Media Days, Gundy expounded on his decision to go with Cornelius in July and then let things develop.
“The only thing we can do is know who we were when we came out of spring ball,” Gundy said. “And going into August, he’s the best player we have at the quarterback position at this time. So when we start, he’ll go out there and work the 1s, and then we have a couple-three players that’ll get a lot of reps with the 2s.
“Could something change in three weeks? Sure. Do I have any indication one way or the other? No. That’s why I said he’s our starting quarterback right now. Do I expect him to be the starting quarterback when the season starts? I would say, percentages say yes. But I don’t think there’s a guarantee, just because we’ve got a couple other guys coming in that we don’t know anything about.”
So, hardly a ringing endorsement.
Every quarterback competition Gundy has judged has had its own idiosyncrasies. But even Gundy acknowledged this one is unique.
“It is very different,” he said. “Truth be said, it’s gonna take ‘em three weeks just to figure out what they’re doing. You could potentially have a kid come in that’s very experienced (Brown started two years at Hawaii), he’s older, but he still hasn’t been with us. Then you have young kids come in that showed up in June. They’ll be in an environment in our offense versus college players for the first time in their life.
“So how they’ll react, we don’t have a clue.”
Cornelius wasn’t recruited out of Bushland, deep in the heart of the Texas Panhandle. Yet, he was extremely productive, completing 283-of-437 passes for 3,815 yards and 46 touchdowns as a senior and was 270-of-503 for 3,219 yards and 23 TDs as a junior. He stood 6-foot-5 and had a good arm, but nobody noticed.
“He’s from the middle of nowhere, kinda,” Gundy said. “He’s way out there. Small school. Multi-sport athlete. … We didn’t watch him either. He really showed up and came to us. He was probably really good at a lot of things but not great at a couple. And when that happens, sometimes you miss that level.”
Cornelius walked on and redshirted in 2014 as Gundy shuffled Walsh, Garman and, eventually, Rudolph. With both Walsh and Garman injured, Rudolph came out of redshirt at Baylor with two games left in the season. Rather than throw Cornelius into the fire, Gundy went with Rudolph. That essentially cost Rudolph a year of eligibility, but it also produced landmark victories over Oklahoma in the season finale and over Washington in the Cactus Bowl.
“(Cornelius) wasn’t ready,” Gundy said. “Just like I said Mason wasn’t ready. And I was wrong on that one. Corn Dog might have been ready, also. But we did not consider (playing him at Baylor).
“I think Taylor was like 175 pounds or something, and now he may be 220, or 215 (the 2018 OSU media guide lists him at 232). So he’s changed completely. There’s a big difference in a 175-pound young man and a 225-pound young man.”
Cornelius backed up Rudolph for three years, getting into nine games and completing 15-of-24 passes for 220 yards with zero touchdowns and no interceptions.
“For us, he’s long, he’s lanky. He understands our offense. He knows our snap counts. That’s a big part of what we do,” Gundy said. “We play fast, we change snap counts all the time. If you don’t understand that, you can’t even function. … He understands that part. That’s why he’s got a leg up. And, he’s been in the meeting room with Mike (Yurcich, OSU’s offensive coordinator) for four years. To me, those are his strengths at this time.”
If Cornelius performs well in training camp, he has a good chance to hold onto the starting job. If the Cowboys succeed against an extremely manageable schedule over the first six games, there will be no reason to replace him.
But if he or the team struggles early, or if things take a downturn in the back half of the schedule, Gundy will have another decision to make.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.