By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Josh Stewart has always had a knack for big plays, often turning a 5-yard hitch route into a touchdown with all the flash and pizzazz you’d expect from a big-time receiver.
But when it comes to punt returns, the Oklahoma State junior has a different philosophy — keep it simple.
That philosophy paid off against Lamar Saturday as Stewart racked up 114 yards in returns and became the first Cowboy to score a touchdown on a punt return since Josh Cooper found the end zone against Troy in 2010. That performance also helped him earn Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Week Monday, becoming the third Cowboy in as many weeks to receive Big 12 recognition.
“It was very basic,” Stewart said. “We worked hard all week, worked hard on that punt return. We took it serious, every guy. It just worked out like we practiced. That’s what happens when you are coachable. … Basically, I look for a hole, I see it, I hit it. It turns out good sometimes and it did (Saturday).”
That simple philosophy comes from Stewart’s own struggles. Eighteen months ago, the Denton, Texas, native struggled to field punts in the spring game — admitting that he was trying to do too much and make too many plays.
Now, with a little help from Oklahoma State receivers coach Jason Ray, he’s just trying to make one play at a time.
“My coach, Jason Ray, (said to) just get up the field,” Stewart said. “Basically, make one move and go. I tried to do that (Saturday). Sometimes it got a little cloudy, so I had to make an extra move and find the open hole.
“You can’t be hesitant. When you see a hole, you have to hit it. When you make that first decision to go and not second-guess it, it turns out good for you. I did that. I didn’t think too much, just hit the hole and ran as fast as I could.”
There’s little doubt that Stewart’s legs have the ability to turn what looks to be an ordinary punt into an extraordinary return. But Stewart’s ability to field punts is still a big concern.
“When I have the ball in my hand, I always try to make the play and go harder,” Stewart said. “Basically for me to get better at punt returns, it was just me catching the ball. I know that once I catch the ball, I can make guys miss. All offseason leading up to the first game, I’ve just been practicing on my catching ability, because I feel like I can run.”
And nearly nine months after getting a second chance to show what he can do on the punt team during the Heart of Dallas Bowl last season, Stewart is again finding new ways to make an impact for his team.
“We worked considerably in our return game and it benefited us (Saturday),” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “Obviously Josh made a couple players miss, but in most returns for touchdowns, that’s what happens. Those players make guys miss in space.”
Just as Stewart finally is starting to feel comfortable in his new role as a punt returner, he may not get another chance. Not because he’s too valuable to be out there or because he’s had too many drops in practice, but because teams will be afraid to kick to him.
“That feels real good,” Stewart said. “That’s a returner’s dream, for them to not kick it to you because they’re afraid you’re going to return it.”
It’s been quite the journey for Stewart since that fateful day in April 2011, but even as those accolades roll in Stewart still has one thing on his mind when returning punts — keep it simple.