This is going to be a year of transition in Stillwater, Okla., as the Cowboys face a fairly significant rebuilding effort with only nine starters returning from last season’s 9-4 football team that finished second in the Big 12 South.
Head Coach Mike Gundy is beginning his sixth season as the gridiron general at his alma mater. His team’s have improved every year after struggling through a 1-7 conference record in his first year (2005). His second season, the Cowboys improved to 3-5 in the conference, then 4-4 in 2007, 5-3 the following year, culminating in the team’s most successful season in Big 12 play – a six-win season against conference opponents in 2009.
Gundy is 36-27 in his five seasons at Oklahoma State, but this may be his most difficult year yet.
Gundy and his staff face a sizeable challenge in replacing 22 seniors, including NFL first-round draftees Russell Okung (an offensive tackle taken as the 6th overall pick by the Seattle Seahawks), and wide-receiver Dez Bryant (selected 24th by the Dallas Cowboys) who logged significant playing time the last couple of years in leading OSU to back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2008 and ’09.
The Cowboys will be introducing seven new starters on offense, including the all-important position of quarterback, where Zac Robinson manned the controls the past three years. The ‘Pokes also will be breaking in four new starters on the offensive line, which is of great concern. To make the challenge even more daunting, the Cowboys also have a new offensive coordinator in Dana Holgorsen.
A former Oklahoma State quarterback in the late 1980s, Gundy had been calling the offensive plays for the Cowboys. To Gundy’s credit, he realized he was being stretched too thin with the responsibilities as head coach and still trying to call plays, so he brought in Holgorsen to run the offense.
“Now seems as good a time as any to make a change,” Gundy told reporters at Big 12 media day last month.
Holgorsen comes to Oklahoma State with a strong offensive resume that includes time as an assistant under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. For the past two years, Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Houston for another offensive-minded head coach in Kevin Sumlin. Houston was No. 1 in the country last season in total offense and passing and was the second most prolific team in the nation in scoring offense.
Junior Brandon Weeden will take over at quarterback. Weeden is a strong-armed, prototypical pocket passer who brings a much different look to the offense than with Robinson, who presented more of a running threat as a run-pass option QB. Weeden is 26 and a former minor league baseball player. The Cowboys are hoping what he lacks in football playing experience he will make up for with his skill and maturity.
The Cowboys’ best ground threat, Kendall Hunter, was injured much of last season as a junior. He will be carrying a lot of the offensive load as Holgorsen transitions the Oklahoma State offense from a run-first attack to more of a passing game. Hunter gained 1,550 yards during the 2008 season and was named an All-American.
Weeden will have a good complement of receivers to work the ball to, but none with the size, speed and route-running ability of a Dez Bryant. Junior Hubert Anyiam is probably the closest thing the Cowboys have to a primary receiver. Anyiam was OSU’s leading receiver last season, with a modest 42 catches and only three TDs. Ten of those receptions came in one game, against Missouri. Among the other young receivers the Cowboys are high on are sophomores Justin Blackmon and Tracy Moore and inside threat Josh Cooper. a junior.
Defensive coordinator Bill Young, in his second season in Stillwater and an OSU alum, has talent on the defensive side of the ball, but unfortunately very little experience as the Cowboys regroup after losing eight defensive starters. The strength of the defense appears to be at defensive end and at the safety position, which means Young’s defensive unit will undergo a major learning curve down through the middle of the defense.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Young acknowledged.
The linebacking group was arguably the strength of the Cowboys defense last season.
Graduation forced the loss of three senior starters. The group coming up might be more athletic, according to Young, but someone is going to have to step up in a big way if the Cowboys are going to avoid problems in the middle of their defense in 2010.
Whatever happens, Oklahoma State’s defensive challenges in the upcoming season couldn’t be much worse than they were before Young joined the team in the 2009 season to make major improvements. “BY” (before Young), the Cowboys ranked 93rd in the country in total defense. Young’s touch was golden – to go along with some talented players on defense – as OSU turned things around in a single year, improving to 31st in the country in defense.
Special teams always seems to be a strength for the Cowboys, and it should again in the coming season. Sophomore Quentin Sharp ranked 5th nationally in kickoff proficiency, with 35 of his kickoffs going into the end zone for touchbacks, and he could be one of the best punters in college football this year. He averaged 45.1 yards per punt a year ago. Replacing Perrish Cox and Dez Bryant, both of whom are now in the NFL, on kickoff and punt returns won’t be easy.
The Cowboys 2010 non-conference schedule isn’t overly difficult, with three of their four opponents ending the year at or below .500 last season. Texas A&M (Sept. 30), Nebraska (Oct. 23), Baylor and Bedlam-rival Oklahoma come to Stillwater this season, while the ‘Pokes go on the road to face Texas Tech, Texas and the two Kansas schools.
Making up for the loss of 22 seniors and players with more than 450 career starts creates an experience gap that is going to take some time from which to recover. The Cowboy coaching staff is optimistic it will be able to bridge this growing cycle sooner rather than later. That may be true in the Big 12 North, but not in the tough South Division, where, for the moment, the conference’s best teams reside.
Back to the Big 12 season preview.
For more information:
Oklahoma State University official athletics website
Big 12 Conference official website
Related Big 12 news coverage/commentary
Oklahoma State-specific sports coverage