Football: Coach saw Stewart’s potential

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Guyer product and Oklahoma State receiver Josh Stewart speaks to reporters Monday at Big 12 media days in Dallas.
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DALLAS — It is nothing but revisionist history now, but Josh Stewart was set to play for Texas A&M in 2010. He could have been on one of the hottest teams in college football and a teammate of Johnny Football.

But 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel most likely would not have been throwing to the former Guyer standout, because Stewart was in line to be a cornerback at the major-college level.

That was, until Dana Holgorsen came calling.

Stewart also is not starring at West Virginia, where Holgorsen is set to enter his third season as head coach. When Stewart was a high school senior, Holgorsen was hot on the recruiting trail in Dallas-Fort Worth as the offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State, and Holgorsen saw something that no one else at his level had seen. He saw a wide receiver.

“We’d been discussing him for a long time,” Holgorsen said. “He initially was a defensive guy, but then he just kept playing a lot of offense [at Guyer] and making a lot of plays and wanted to play offense. You look at him making plays on offense, and I thought he was pretty good.”

The Oklahoma State junior enters the 2013 season as the Big 12 leader in receptions (101) and yards (1,210) among returning players. That’s despite receiving just one late offer — less than two months before National Signing Day — to play offense instead of defense in college.

Stewart was not a serious offensive option as a senior until an injury to starting wide receiver Quint Gardener forced Stewart to become a full-time two-way starter who also played on every special teams unit while helping lead the Wildcats to the Class 5A Division II state championship game.

Stewart hit his stride offensively in the playoffs during his senior season, and Holgorsen took notice.

“I went to three of their playoff games in December [2010] because of [current Oklahoma State and former Guyer quarterback] J.W. [Walsh],” Holgorsen said. “The best player on the field was Josh Stewart. I was like, ‘That’s a pretty high level of high school football, so if he is the best player on that field, he’s probably got a chance to make plays at our level.’”

In 2012, Stewart made Holgorsen look like a wise man, putting up gawdy numbers as an undersized sophomore receiver, generously listed at 5-10. Stewart’s talent was never more clear than against Holgorsen’s Mountaineers.

In a 55-34 Oklahoma State win Nov. 10, Stewart hauled in 13 receptions for a season-high 172 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a 46-yard touchdown run. That game started a four-game stretch for Stewart that saw him record three double-digit reception games and three games of at least 147 receiving yards.

At that point, it was clear that Holgorsen’s gamble had paid off, even if it came back to bite him.

Stewart said he’s forever grateful to Holgorsen for giving him a chance to prove his worth as an offensive player.

“It was a huge deal for me,” Stewart said. “I tried to find him after the West Virginia game to shake his hand and say thank you again, even though he probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk then. He was one of the only coaches that really considered giving me an offense offer. Other coaches were wanting other players. It was a blessing for him to be able to give me a shot, and here I am where I am today. It all worked out.”

Since Stewart exploded onto the college football scene last year, his life has changed. He’s now expected to help carry one of the most feared offenses in college football, in which he’ll catch passes from Walsh, his best friend and high school teammate. He’s on the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to college football’s top wide receiver.

“It’s very cool,” Stewart said of the honors and national respect. “I’m very blessed to be mentioned with some of those names in the Biletnikoff watch right now. The biggest thing is to understand that it’s a big deal for me and somewhere I never thought I’d be, but now that I am there I think it’s cool. But eventually I have to realize it’s a new season.

“I’m not the me from last year. I should be better. I think as long as I keep a level head and go to the best of my ability then there’s no limit of what I or this team can do.”

Stewart has become more responsible off the field and has become more of a leader on it.

“He’s the perfect example of what we strive for at Oklahoma State,” Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy said. “He came in and had shown up some on the class-missed list, but he’s really developed. We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of great receivers at Oklahoma State over the last few years, and each year, as one moves on, as a coaching staff, we see young talent, but you’re always concerned about whether that guy’s going to step up. Josh really stepped up for us last year in a big way. He had over 100 catches, and he ran the ball some, and he’s been a really good team leader.

“Over the last couple of years, he has excelled in the classroom. He doesn’t show up on class-missed lists. He’s been a great worker in the weight room for [strength and conditioning coach] Rob Glass, and we’re as proud of that as anything because he’s a quality young man that’s come in and he’s developed both on and off the field.”

Stewart said he had some growing up to do when he arrived in Stillwater, Okla. At the time, he said, he did not realize what came with being a big-time player in the Big 12.

Now, it wouldn’t be a reach to call Stewart one of the faces of the Cowboys, who were picked by the Big 12 media as the preseason favorite to win the conference title. That was illustrated by the school’s choice to send him to the Omni Hotel in Dallas on Monday for Big 12 media days — one of three players in the Oklahoma State traveling party.

“I’m blessed where I’m at,” Stewart said. “I have to keep a level head because I know why I’m here and it’s because of God-given talent. I have little kids now looking up to me.

“It took me awhile to realize the image I was creating. I never saw myself being this big of an image, but now that I realize how people view me I really have taken that into account.”

While he did not want to let down young OSU fans, he also did not want to let down his teammates or coaches. That desire led to a conscious effort to show he could be someone the university would be proud to be associated with.

“Going into college, I really didn’t have my head on straight,” Stewart said. “I don’t need to go back to being that kind of person. I need to create an image that little kids can look up to and say ‘I want to be like him.’

“It was definitely an effort. Something like that you have to want to change. It was me wanting to change for the better. I have a lot of talent and I can’t put that to waste. That’d be dumb. I definitely see the bigger picture now, and everything’s going to be smooth from here on out.”

While he’s won the favor of Gundy in his two seasons in Stillwater, Stewart will forever owe one of his league rivals for that big chance he received in December of his senior year of high school.

Stewart was in a car with a friend when he got the unexpected phone call from Holgorsen, offering him a chance to play offense alongside Walsh at Oklahoma State. Holgorsen told him to take his time, understanding it was a big decision for a high school kid to make after he had committed to Texas A&M months earlier and was one of the gems of the Aggies’ recruiting class.

But he didn’t need a lot of time, calling an A&M assistant the next day to pull his commitment. From that point, he was a Cowboy, following in the footsteps of recent Oklahoma State star receivers like Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon.

“I think I did surprise a lot of people,” Stewart said. “It’s always a good feeling when you sneak up on people and they really don’t think you are what you are. It’s all God-given talent. I just go out there and go and do what I’ve been doing since I was 5 years old.”

Holgorsen, not one to shy away from a brash comment, can’t even accept full credit for discovering Stewart. He said there are hits and misses in the recruiting game, but most players like Stewart who are recruited to play positions other than their primary spots in high school don’t pan out.

“You never know how quick they’re going to adjust,” Holgorsen said. “Some guys can adjust immediately, which he did, but some guys it takes a little bit of time. You can’t really predict it. You can try, but you’re going to be wrong most of the time.”

ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872 and via Twitter at @aboedeker.


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