Mike Gundy flirted with the idea of utilizing a two-quarterback system before the start of the 2019 season, but the emergency of Spencer Sanders in the opener kept the Oklahoma State coach focused on the young quarterback.
That is, until an injury sidelined Sanders late in his redshirt freshman season.
And after Sanders failed to play more than one offensive drive this season before going down with an ankle injury, Gundy is flirting with the idea again after seeing the performance from true freshman Shane Illingworth in keep the Cowboys in College Football Playoff contention through the first three games.
Though Gundy has said the past several weeks that he believes Sanders has to be close to getting back to 100 percent, the notion of potentially using the dual-threat option in Sanders with the pocket-passing capabilities of Illingworth aren’t off the table.
"Well you're glad you've got two guys, I've been without anybody at times,” Gundy said Monday. “So we're glad we've got two guys and we just continue on with what we've done. We've split the reps for a number of weeks now, so we just continue to move forward in that fashion and might even play both guys. It just depends on where we're at."
The numbers could be what’s got Gundy leaning toward keeping his options open.
Despite limited reps, especially in the two weeks leading up to the season opener due to having to quarantine from COVID-19 contact tracing, Illingworth has completed 73 percent of his pass attempts with a 172.39 QB rating. While the OSU offense didn’t need to air it out against West Virginia, thanks to a pair of 100-yard rushing efforts from Chuba Hubbard and LD Brown, Illingworth has recorded 483 yards in just over two games of action.
Oklahoma State’s offense truly flourished with Illingworth behind center in the Kansas contest with the California native throwing three touchdown passes, including the first of his career after going five quarters without a passing touchdown.
The Pokes put up 47 points against the Jayhawks, which was the largest offensive production for Oklahoma State in Big 12 Conference action since Taylor Cornelius was quarterback. The biggest offensive output in league play with Sanders as the signal caller was 35 against Texas Tech – in which Sanders also turned the ball over five times in a loss.
“We got into a good flow offensively, looked like we used to look years ago from an execution standpoint,” Gundy said following the KU game. “It allowed (Illingworth) to prove himself, in my opinion.”
Gundy had also said following the Kansas game that Sanders could have played if needed.
In the weeks following, which was supposed to lead into the game against Baylor last weekend – which was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Bears’ program – Gundy kept emphasizing the health of Sanders.
“He's got to be getting close (to 100 percent),” Gundy said last week. “You never really know until you get in a game. I thought he was pretty close before we played Kansas. So he's moving that way.”
Whether Gundy commits to his redshirt sophomore reclaiming his starting role, or considers a two-QB system, the notion of having multiple quarterbacks who have proven capable of winning in the Big 12 Conference could prove pivotal in a season in which several of the league’s traditional heavyweights already have two losses in league play.
So if a quarterback were to go down once again, or if either Sanders or Illingworth prove ineffective in a game, Gundy has the luxury of looking toward the other with a reassurance of how they may perform against Power 5 opponents.
“I’ve had some years around here where I was down to my third-team guy in the middle of the season,” Gundy said. “We’re just thankful we’ve got a couple guys we trust that can get out there and play, and we’ve got (Ethan) Bullock back as the third. He’s gotten some quality reps, so we’re in pretty good shape at the quarterback position.”