A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. Five regulars on the front seven ran out of eligibility, and they were pretty long in the tooth: collectively, Marque Fountain, Nathan Peterson, Donovan Woods, Maurice Cummings and Jeremy Nethon had 49 starts last year and more than 100 through their careers. Theirs is not the kind of exodus one generally mourns, though:
|The least you should know about Oklahoma State...
|2007 Record • Past Five Years
|2007: 7-6 (4-4 Big 12; T-3rd/South)
2003-07: 34-28 (17-23 Big 12)
|Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
|2004-08: 37 • 42 • 22 • 30 • 26
|Returning Starters, Roughly
|14 (8 Offense, 6 Defense)
|Dez Bryant might seem like an odd pick here – he spent last season in Adarius Bowman’s shadow, and the magazines love all-Big 12 tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Zac Robinson had better stats; tackle Russell Okung is probably a better pro prospect. But Bryant was the star of the ‘07 recruiting class and, with Bowman slowed, ended the year as the team’s go-to receiver: 28 of his 39 catches were in the last five games, when he had 100-yard efforts against Kansas and in the bowl win over Indiana. He’s one of these leaping, body control guys – and soon, the team’s highlight reel.
|Oklahoma State is the only major university I’m aware of that shares its mascot: the terrifying "Pistol Pete" was originally modeled after cowboy Frank Eaton, leader of an Armistice Day parade in Stillwater in 1923 (42 years after he allegedly shot one of his father’s killers in Albuquerque). It was later, uh, appropriated by both Wyoming and New Mexico State, which briefly took Pete’s pistol away, replacing it with a lasso. "Lasso Pete," uh, he didn’t last too long.
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* According to Rivals.
Historically (that is, recent history), last year’s merely subpar effort against the run is as well as the Cowboys should expect to do – this is the defense, after all, whose average yield to Texas alone since 2000 is 42 points on 525 yards. As the front gets younger, though, it might also get more athletic: Tonga Tea, Derek Burton, Ugo Chinasa, and Richetti Jones haven’t made much impact their first year or two, but they’re all ex-four star recruits, and their promotions – alonside another former four-star guy, Patrick Lavine, who started most of last year at linebacker, and Swanson Miller, a three-hundred-something-pound JUCO tackle who’ll probably slide right in to the rotation – means at least a talent upgrade If the defense is even average, it will be the first time in most of their lifetimes.
What’s the Same. The flip side is the consistently high-flying offense, which has managed to be both explosive and balanced – identical 243.2 rushing and passing averages last year (which had to be intentionally manipulated somehow), after the 2006 averages were just seven yards apart – despite the constant yo yo on the Quarterback of the Future. Donovan Woods did it in ‘04 before he moved to defense, Al Pena took over in ‘05 before he transferred to Houston, and Bobby Reed moved in in ‘06 before the critique of his eating habits and possible mommy complex made him the subject of the infamous Gundy rant. He transfered, too. Prior to that, Zac Robinson seemed to beat Reid fairly for the job and wound up with a TD:INT rate of almost 5:1 in Big 12 games (14 TDs, 3 INTs), besides scrambling for 900 yards (before sacks); he set school records for total offense in a season and in a game (a loss, by the way, though a heart-crusher to Texas courtesy of the defense’s fourth quarter collapse). He’s a keeper, if he doesn’t get hit by a bus trying to help an old lady cross the street or something.
If there’s a dropoff from last year’s prolific production, I think it’s more likely a yearning for departed coordinator Larry Fedora than for Adarius Bowman and/or Dantrell Savage, the leading receiver and rusher, respectively, the last two years. Both thrived under Fedora, but they were also ignored in the draft and are followed by young ‘uns who thrived as backups and should have no problem moving up: Keith Totson and Kendall Hunter have been back-to-back freshman terrors behind Savage (‘06 phenom Totson yielded the No. 2 role last year to Hunter) and Dez Bryant was worth the hype by the end of his first year at receiver; huge tight end Brandon Pettigrew beat out half a dozen bigger names and draft picks (Martin Rucker, Martellus Bennett, Jermichael Finley, Jermaine Gresham, Derek Fine) for the coaches’ first team all-conference slot, and came back to school. This is actually a much more experienced group than last year, Savage and Bowman notwithstanding, operating behind a completely intact offensive line – they’re going to score in the mid-to-high thirties on a weekly basis, and the new "co-coordinators" (Gunter Brewer and fast-rising Trooper Taylor, from Tennessee) should both be looking over their shoulder already if somehow they don’t.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. Any time a defense starts blowing big fourth quarter leads, as OSU did last year to Texas A&M (up 17 at the half) and Texas (up 21 in the fourth quarter), it usualy gets chalked up to "depth." At least, the Cowboys hope it’s depth, since depth is something they can fix, via a truckload of junior college guys expected to class up the joint pronto:
If their performance this spring is any indication, the JUCO-infused Cowboys should be much tougher in 2008.
"We're a better defense," head coach Mike Gundy told The Oklahoman. "It's really hard for me to predict how much better until we start playing in September. But I do feel we're better from a depth standpoint, from a toughness standpoint. And we're faster."
The transformation began on signing day. Oklahoma State's 27-member recruiting class included a half-dozen highly regarded players from the junior-college ranks.
"I've seen a lot of progress and I'm proud of how we're playing," second-year defensive coordinator Tim Beckman told The Oklahoman. "They're buying into the system. We're taking baby steps. We're tackling better, getting off blocks better. I like the effort and the enthusiasm."
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Well, anything is worth a shot. Again, I doubt OSU has ever fielded a quality defense in the history of the program (that’s right, GoPokes.com, never), so any new approach is worth a shot. It’s like a terminal cancer patient agreeing to go on an experimental drug. Half the defense is JUCO guys? What do we have to lose?
There’s one on offense, too: Beau Johnson led the team with 60 yards in the spring game, prompting USA Today to praise "his quick comprehension of the complicated Cowboys offense and his combination of tackle-breaking power and breakaway speed." Well, what’s not to like?
Oklahoma State on You Tube. A couple OSU alums tell y’all how the real ‘pokes get along:
Robinson: Good player, should watch his back.
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Best-Case: No doubt the Cowboys expect to be 4-0 at the end of September, maybe 5-0 going into Missouri if they can finally make up the digit separating them from Texas A&M (TAMU has taken two straight over OSU by one point). The key stretch will begin a few weeks later, with three road games in four weeks: at Texas, at Texas Tech, at Colorado. OSU won’t win all three, but if it can score enough to win two of them, it can get through to Oklahoma at 9-2 and maybe – depending on who’s lost to whom, if the Sooners have lost at all – a flickering shot at taking the division. I don’t give them a realistic chance of beating OU, a serious mythical championship contender, but including the bowl game, the Cowboys can ring up ten wins for the first time in 20 years, since Barry Sanders was scooting around at record-breaking pace. Again, many of the current players weren’t alive then, but they are that good on offense.
Worst-Case: A slow start by the new faces on defense or under the new coordinators, or both, could cost OSU a should-win game in September, as it did last year at Troy; the Cowboys get the Trojans again (albeit a bit de-fanged compared to last year’s edition), after Washington State and Houston, potential snipers all. OSU will probably be an underdog against Missouri, Texas and Texas Tech – all of them can score in demoralizing bunches – and Texas A&M and Colorado are toss-ups. If they bite the dust there (say, 1-4), Oklahoma becomes a must-win for .500 and a bowl game, which most likely leaves State shut out at 5-7.
Non-Binding Forecast: A Six-Shooter Between Your Eyes or Bust. I’m a little surprised this team has received no top 25 love whatsoever – iffy record notwithstanding, it was a couple points away from nine wins last year and looks like the perfect "sleeper" bet with the likely stars on offense and promises of a revamped, readymade infusion bringing the perpetually lame D up to par. I’m not sure you’d have to be a sucker to take it, either. The defense may be too far away to put the Oklahoma-Texas hold on the South in question, but if they can take one of the four tough Big 12 road games – at Missouri, at Texas, at Texas Tech, at Colorado – I think the Cowboys are throttling their way to an eight-win regular season. At the very least, I’d be careful before I swallowed the unanimous nodding toward Texas Tech as the presumed upstart in the division.