SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jaylen Warren’s absence from the Big 12 Conference championship game at the start of the month was felt during the sluggish performance of the Oklahoma State offense.
The team’s leading rusher was a game-time scratch, making his way back to the locker room after trying to play through an injury on the first drive and noticeably unable to play up to his capability.
His status was a question for the week after the league championship even as Mike Gundy said he expected Warren to be able to return for the bowl – Gundy also didn't rule out center Danny Godlevske, but then he was announced Monday to be out for the Fiesta Bowl.
Even during Wednesday’s Fiesta Bowl press conference offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn seemed uncertain on the status of Warren.
“To have him back and available for this game, at least so we think, that's going to make a difference,” Dunn said. “The kid is a great player and he's a spark plug for our offense. And the kids love him and they rally around him. So, yes, it's a difference maker for us.”
But according to Warren himself, he is ready to return for the Cowboys for his final game in one year with the program following an ankle injury.
“Obviously (not playing the Big 12 title game) sucked. You can’t do nothing about it now,” Warren said during Wednesday’s press conference. “But I’m 100 percent right now. I feel good.”
The Utah State transfer has rushed for 1,134 yards this season on 237 rushing attempts with 11 scores. He’s also been used sparingly as part of the passing game with 19 receptions for 191 yards.
His decision to return for the final college game of his career – instead of beginning preparations for the NFL Draft – is a shift for recent starting running backs at Oklahoma State, and even differs from OSU’s opponent Notre Dame that lost its starting tailback as he started focusing on the draft.
“I think missing the last game kind of sealed my decision,” Warren said. “I would play with these boys if we had five more games. I just like playing with them. The brotherhood we've created kind of sticks out for me. And I'm willing to do whatever it takes to keep playing with them. Like this last week of practice has kind of been saddening, knowing it's my last week of practice with them.”
And his return to the offense will obviously give the Cowboys a talented tailback with more experience than his backups.
There was uncertainty at the start of his career in Stillwater about how much of an impact he would have within the Cowboy program, though.
Warren mentioned he originally chose to come to Oklahoma State when transferring from Utah State due to the running back situation. He thought LD Brown was going to be leaving, but Brown ultimately elected to return and began the season as Oklahoma State’s starting running back.
A season-ending injury to Brown early into the year thrust Warren into the starting role, and he immediately made it his own – rushing for over 300 yards in his first start against Boise State.
“I was like, this probably might be the best fit for me. So when I came, LD stayed and it made me – it didn't really make me discouraged, but I was like, ‘OK, that's fine. It is what it is,’” Warren said. “I just put my head down and worked. So I'm grateful for how things played out.”
While Oklahoma State fans know firsthand the difference Warren brought to the Oklahoma State offense, when Notre Dame did the dive into the game film to prepare for the Fiesta Bowl, recently promoted defensive coordinator Mike Elston got to see the difference between an offense with Warren through 11 games and one without him in the Big 12 title game.
“He’s a powerful running back, he’s got great vision and makes decisive cuts,” Elston said. “… He’s got really good hands that they can get him the ball out of the backfield on screens and just makes big plays with the ball in his hand.
“It looked a lot different (when they didn’t have him). He’s quicker, more explosive and is a very impressive running back that you have to bring your feet to tackle him.”