by John Helsley
Justin Blackmon spent a wintry evening chillin’ at a friend’s house, watching TV and lounging on the couch, when his cell phone buzzed with a tempting text message.
The words delivered a simple suggestion from the person at the other end — Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden — yet spurred a dizzying decision that dramatically altered the future of both players, as well as the Cowboys, who hope to ride their premium pair to new heights … again.
Blackmon and Weeden, virtual unknowns before last season, had breakout years together in 2010 and now return as the nation’s most lethal throw-and-catch connection after contemplating jumps to the NFL.
Most figured on an early exit, especially for Blackmon, until Weeden’s text swayed an extended stay and fueled the Cowboys’ optimism for improving on a school-record 11 wins a year ago.
“I had decided, after talking to a ton of people,” Weeden says, “that I wanted to come back. I just threw it to Justin and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about doing it one more year?’”
Without hesitation, Blackmon sped back a reply.
“‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Blackmon says was his response. “It was very exciting. When he sent me that text, I didn’t even second-guess it.”
Blackmon and Weeden did it big in 2010, despite many initial doubts about each of them and their team. The Cowboys had suffered major personnel losses, including quarterback Zac Robinson and wideout Dez Bryant, whose 2009 suspension opened the door for a replacement, yet revealed no promising takers, including Blackmon.
So expectations slipped heading into last season, with many preseason publications picking OSU for the bottom of the Big 12 South.
Inside the program, however, a buzz was brewing around Weeden and Blackmon and what they might do in new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen’s spread offense. Through spring drills and summer workouts and August camp, Weeden and Blackmon grew in the offense and developed as a duo. By the time they’d finished carving up the Big 12, Weeden earned the school’s first all-conference quarterback nod since the early 1930s and Blackmon was toting off the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver.
“I still look back at the season and say, ‘Wow,’” Blackmon says. “It’s incredible what we were able to do. And we’re going to try to top it off this year.”
The Cowboys were never quite sure what they had in Weeden, a former professional baseball player who will turn 28 during this season. He’d been but a bit player in three games in ’09, when he was officially the third-team signal caller, although he did have one big half that offered a glimpse of greatness, rallying OSU to victory over Colorado while Robinson was out with a concussion.
Until then, Cowboys coaches had been looking for any kind of spark out of the low-key Weeden.
“I knew I had a big guy who had a strong arm and could throw really well and throws a nice spiral and is accurate,” says OSU coach Mike Gundy. “That’s all I knew.
“I didn’t know anything about him as a competitor. I didn’t know anything about his toughness, his leadership skills. We didn’t have any answers in that area.”
Not that Gundy and his staff didn’t seek answers.
“Brandon was kind of like a cat that’s a stray,” Gundy says. “You put some milk out and he just keeps coming back every day. Well, he just kept coming back every day. He didn’t look very good at practice and he wasn’t into it very much mentally. We’d jump on him and he’d just turn around and walk off. And he’d come back the next day.
“That was just his temperament; that’s what his body language was. He did zero to ever make us think he could perform. We tried to give him the job for two and a half years. He just never took it.”
With Robinson gone and the job free to seize, Weeden took it — and more.
He was voted first-team All-Big 12 by the coaches and the Associated Press. He set single-season school records for passing yards (4,277), total offense (4,209), touchdown passes (34), completions (342), attempts (511) and completion percentage (66.9).
Weeden, who was third in the nation in passing yards, produced three of the top seven single-game passing totals in program history. His 2010 season included seven 300-yard passing games, and he tossed at least two touchdowns in 11 of the team’s 13 games.
Interestingly, while others wondered, Blackmon says he always saw something special in Weeden.
“When I first got here and he was third-string quarterback, you could tell he was good just by how he was throwing the ball,” Blackmon says. “You could tell he had a great arm and was very accurate.”
Blackmon had to forge his own breakout. With Bryant busted by the NCAA and the Cowboys begging for someone to emerge, Blackmon hardly made a case, totaling only 20 catches for 260 yards in ’09, barely making an impression. But something flipped for Blackmon last summer, prompting a major change in work ethic and toughness.
“I knew he was going to be a good player,” Weeden says. “Now, did I think he would go on and break records and do the things he did, win the Biletnikoff and be consensus All-American and everything? Probably not.
“But once the season got going and we were three or four games in, I knew he had a chance to do something special and be something special.”
And, oh, was it special.
Blackmon led the nation averaging 148.5 receiving yards per game, with his 1,782 yards the sixth-best receiving season in NCAA history. He set an NCAA record with 12 straight games of at least 100 yards and a TD catch. His 20 touchdowns and 111 receptions were school records.
For all that, Blackmon was named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year by the coaches and AP.
“It definitely makes me sleep good at night knowing I have him out there to throw it to,” Weeden says. “It’s comforting.
“It’s not very often you get to play with one of the best players in the country and a guy who’s going to play in the NFL for a long time.”
Of course, the NFL will wait, for both players.
Weeden’s return came as pro talent evaluators looked for more than just one season as a body of work. Weeden seemed to progress with every game in the schedule a year ago and could really enhance his stock with another big year.
“There is no doubt, I will become a better quarterback,” Weeden says.
Blackmon’s stock — with most projections placing him in the first round — was more clear-cut. So he’s passing up a likely big payday for another year of classes and exams. But being in school, with Weeden, has its advantages, too.
“It would have been tough for one of us to stay and the other one leave,” Blackmon says. “We were trying to figure out what we were going to do, what we thought was best for ourselves, him and his wife and his family.
“It felt great going up there at the press conference knowing we were both coming back and we were gong to make another run at another great season and a championship.”
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