By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
When Josh Stewart first set foot on the Oklahoma State campus, he wanted one thing — just to see the field.
He would do anything — volunteer for special teams, spend extra hours watching film or stay up all night studying Oklahoma State’s playbook — in hopes someone would take notice.
“My first goal was to actually play,” Stewart said. “I got that opportunity. Now it’s just performing, doing well for my team and playing the best and hardest I can for my team, and it turns out good sometimes.”
These days it’s hard not to notice the junior from Denton, Texas.
From his school record 95-yard punt return in the first quarter to a interception-saving grab over the top of a TCU defender, Stewart was the lone bright spot in an otherwise stagnant offensive performance for Oklahoma State during Saturday’s 24-10 victory over TCU.
“Guys that are really good players and experienced, need to make big plays in games to win when you get into conference play,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “Whether it’s (Justin) Gilbert or (Caleb) Lavey or Josh, most of the time history will tell you that they have to make big plays in order to win games when the score is close. When he made that catch it was 17-10 and we needed a big play. We needed somebody to change the game and that’s what he did.”
Stewart never imagined he could be a game changer.
Even making the catch on an ill-advised throw by Charlie Moore on a reverse, Stewart didn’t realize how big it was.
“I went to the sideline and J.W. (Walsh) said, ‘I don’t think you understand how good of a catch that was,’” Stewart said. “Honestly, when he said it like that, I didn’t realize what I did because I didn’t get to watch the replay. When you just try to make plays for your team stuff like that happens.”
At times Saturday, Stewart felt obligated to make those plays. He knew the offense wasn’t clicking and he had to find a way to make something out of nothing.
That’s why he caught a punt inside his own 10-yard line.
It’s also why his name will likely forever be in the Oklahoma State’s record books, breaking the old record of a 90-yard return held by Jim Wiggins in 1956 and Jim Spavital in 1946 and tying a season record with two punt returns for touchdowns with Dez Bryant, Darrent Williams and Barry Sanders.
“I had a lot of space,” Stewart said. “The punter boomed it. I honestly didn’t know where I was at. ... When I see space, you have to take the chance. Punt returners should be able to make guys miss and I had some great blocks in front of me.”
“He was huge,” Lavey said. “He makes plays and gets the crowd excited. That’s one of the things on defense, you play to the enthusiasm and excitement of the crowd. When Josh Stewart can get that crowd going, we take the field and we’re fired up.”
Sometimes, that’s all it takes — one little spark. One extra hour in the film room or one extra repetition in practice.
Even though TCU held Stewart to just two catches in the second half, the junior has gone from a virtually unknown in recruiting circles coming out of high school to perhaps Oklahoma State’s biggest weapon on offense in three years
His season-high 10 catches for 141 yards and 265 all-purpose yards Saturday are just an indication of how far he has come.
But with all the success also comes more attention from defenses — something Stewart is already preparing for.
“I know teams are probably going to try to kick it away from me,” Stewart said. “I just have to go out and play as hard as I can every play and try to make plays. If teams kick away from you or put an extra guy out there to cover you, you just have to find ways to make plays.”
Three years ago, Stewart came to Stillwater a nameless receiver. Now he’s evolved into a superstar.
Not bad for a player just hoping to see the field.