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Bill Haisten: The $5 million question — can Mike Gundy reboot at QB?

April 25, 2018 GMT

When the University of Tulsa spring football game began April 7, the temperature was 30 degrees.

At the start of Oklahoma’s spring game a week later, the temperature was in the 40s. A strong wind punished participants and spectators.

Oklahoma State wins the state title for spring-game conditions.

During the Cowboys’ 1 p.m. exercise at Boone Pickens Stadium on Saturday, the temperature is expected to be in the 70s, the wind is expected to be light and the sky is expected to be mostly clear.

What Oklahoma State does not get is an additional season of Mason Rudolph’s big-play passing and leadership.

The first round of the NFL draft occurs Thursday, and the second and third rounds take place Friday. So by 1 p.m. Saturday, Rudolph already will be in his NFL home, with his NFL coaches.

For the first time since Jan. 3, 2014 — when the 2013 Cowboys ended their season with a Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri — there will be a publicly witnessed Oklahoma State football event that doesn’t involve or include the presence of Rudolph, the only OSU QB to record three 10-win finishes.

Instead, the spring game will involve quarterbacks Taylor Cornelius and Keondre Wudtee — neither of whom has taken a meaningful game snap.

And that leads to a $5 million question: Can Mike Gundy, with Cornelius or Wudtee or incoming freshman Spencer Sanders or Hawaii transfer Dru Brown, achieve the type of quarterback play that keeps Oklahoma State competitive in the Big 12?

With a new QB, can Gundy extend program-record streaks of 12 consecutive winning seasons and bowl appearances?

In December, Gundy got a 16 percent raise that was surprising because the 2017 Cowboys had three home losses. This year, he is at the $5 million level of compensation.

Each of Gundy’s past three squads finished 10-3. If he squeezes a 10-3 result from a new quarterback, the university’s $5 million decision wouldn’t seem quite as baffling.

In 103 of his 167 games as the OSU head coach, Gundy had at the starting quarterback position Zac Robinson (who would become the program’s career leader in total offense), Brandon Weeden (who had the best arm in program history) and Rudolph (who completed his Cowboy run with 41 starts and 52 program records).

In 2006, Bobby Reid was the starter in all 13 games. The season ended with an Independence Bowl victory over Alabama. It was the Crimson Tide’s final game before Nick Saban became the Bama coach.

In the third game of the 2007 season, Robinson — then a third-year sophomore — supplanted Reid as the starting QB. Robinson kept the job for the rest of his career, closing the 2009 season with 36 starts and a 24-13 record.

In 2010 and 2011, Weeden executed the passing game better than any previous Cowboy. While obliterating all significant school passing records, he drove the 2011 Cowboys to a Bedlam victory, the Big 12 championship and a Fiesta Bowl triumph over Andrew Luck and Stanford.

Gundy wasn’t so fortunate in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Because of performance fluctuations and injuries, there were five different starting QBs — Wes Lunt, J.W. Walsh, Clint Chelf, Daxx Garman and Rudolph.

Walsh was expected to be The Man in 2014, but he sustained a season-ending foot injury in the second game. Playing behind the worst offensive line of the Gundy era, Garman was beaten to a pulp during his eight starts. Because of concussion symptoms, he was finished after the Cowboys lost at home to Texas.

Rudolph seemed destined for a redshirt season, but a desperate Gundy — in OSU’s 11th game of the season — pulled the redshirt and started Rudolph at Baylor. Rudolph played well in the rain.

Two weeks later, he and the Cowboys won at OU. OSU closed the 2014 season with a bowl win over Washington, and within the span of only three games, Rudolph had become a star.

By 1 p.m. Saturday, Rudolph will be a pro football player and OSU fans get a look at how life after Rudolph might look. And, because Sanders and Brown don’t arrive until June, whatever the fans see Saturday might not be what they see when OSU opens the 2018 season against Missouri State.

Sanders has a chance to join Lunt and Rudolph in becoming a freshman starting quarterback for a Gundy-coached Cowboy team. Because Sanders is a dual-threat athlete and was a polished passer at Ryan High School in Denton, Texas, the guess here is he will be the starter by the start of the Big 12 schedule.

Ultimately, Gundy’s $5 million challenge is to effectively reboot at the quarterback position and give fans confidence OSU can sustain itself as a perennially dynamic offensive program.