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Team preview: Oklahoma State

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(All information as of June 20, 2008)

COACH AND PROGRAM
Last season the Oklahoma State Cowboy world was filled with revelations of all kinds. We learned that alumnus and benefactor T. Boone Pickens is what financial analysts call really, really loaded. We found out then-quarterback Bobby Reid and his mom are close. We learned that coach Mike Gundy was 40. And that he was a man.

Nothing earth shattering, perhaps, and pretty
trivial when you get right down to it, but interesting nonetheless.

We learned other things as well, things that didn't get the same big point-size headlines but are certainly more enlightening and of direct import on the rise or fall of the Cowboys' football program in '08.

We learned that the Cowboys' offense has weapons, on the ground and in the air.
We learned that Zac Robinson is an excellent quarterback who may well end up breaking many of his head coach's school records.

We learned that Dez Bryant may indeed pick up where All-Big 12 receiver Adarius Bowman left off.

We learned that the OSU pass defense is poor, even by the light-em-up, big-number scoring standards of the Big 12.

We learned that a good defense could have made the difference in the Cowboys being a contender instead of an also-ran.

We learned that a team can go from 6-6 in the regular season to Bowl Championship Series worthy in a year, which is just what Kansas did.

We learned that the Cowboys are keen on following in the Jayhawks' footsteps, though they'll point to the correlation only when asked.

We learned that the Big 12, like T. Boone, is loaded, but with quarterbacks and dangerous teams, not necessarily bucks.

Ah, that last one. That's the rub.

The Big 12 is likely to be as deep and balanced as it's been in years, perhaps since its inception in 1996, which makes the quantum rise of any program even harder than ever.
"We have to finish games," said Star [that's OSU's designation, not ours] linebacker Andre Sexton. "We finish two games last year and we'd have been in a BCS Bowl."

Sexton's math was a little off. Two more wins wouldn't have given the Cowboys the South title, and 8-4 teams -- particularly ones that lose to Troy by 18 points -- aren't considered for at-large BCS berths. Still, his point has some validity. OSU lost to Texas A&M by one point and Texas by three -- both games the Cowboys had led by double digits -- and their offense came on strong late, in a loss to Kansas and a 49-33 Insight Bowl win over Indiana.

There are signs, but as Gundy is quick to say, "There are strides that need to be made."

Most of them come on defense, where the Cowboys ranked 11th in pass efficiency defense in the Big 12, 103rd in the nation, and 101st/10th in total and 79th/8th in scoring defense. An influx of junior college players is expected to provide some of the needed quick fix, but there are still some basics that need to be covered.

"There's a lot of room for improvement in that area," Gundy said. "Blocking, tackling, throwing, catching, backpedaling, breaking on the ball, ball security and forcing turnovers on the other side of the ball.
"We had a great spring. We finished strong, and we are just looking forward to seeing the guys improve over the summer."

On offense, the Cowboys must solidify the receiving corps around Bryant and develop Kendall Hunter, the team's third-leading rusher a year ago, into the main man.

An experienced offensive line, with a proven go-to threat in tight end Brandon Pettigrew, gives them a solid base.

QUARTERBACKS
Things can change fast, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the not so good.
A year ago Bobby Reid was touted as the versatile, do-everything kind of quarterback ready to take the keys of the Cowboys' zone read offense.

One season later, after his benching, the subsequent furor over a column in the Daily Oklahoman questioning his moxie and Gundy's bizarre press-conference YouTube-Hall-of-Fame defense of the same; of Zac Robinson's uncanny knack of taking advantage of his opportunities; of Reid's reported dissatisfaction with Gundy's treatment of him and his subsequent transfer to Texas Southern; Reid is a memory.

Now the buzz surrounds Robinson, a junior who didn't start until the Troy game but came on to be the versatile, efficient threat the Cowboys' coaches had hoped Reid could be.

Robinson (6-3, 205) returns with a year's experience, and assuming he can move forward and avoid the seemingly inevitable cognitive backslide of second-year starters -- who now think they can do more than necessary -- the Cowboys will be in business.

Robinson said he thinks he can be judicious and not overextend himself.
"A goal of mine was to try to hit the check down, instead of just if someone was not open taking off and running," he said of his emphasis in the spring. "I know I've taken some hits last year."

Not from his coach, who says that Robinson's among the league's best -- with the accolades, and qualifiers, that go with that statement.
"Zac Robinson is a very good quarterback, with very good being a relative term," Gundy said. "In the Big 12, it means you've still got a lot to prove. He's established himself, taken on a leadership role. There are some real good quarterbacks in this league, but I wouldn't trade Zac for anybody."

Robinson said that with a year behind he feels comfortable running the Cowboys offense.
"The quarterback is always the guy everyone looks to," said Robinson, who played sparingly in the spring game, having already proven himself to his coaches and teammates. "Hopefully I can continue to lead on the field, off the field, kind of just lead by example. I put pressure on myself, but not so much that I worry about mistakes."

When Reid was erratic early last year, Robinson moved into the starting lineup -- and promptly lost at Troy. Not exactly an auspicious debut, but he showed enough to stay as the starter. He ended up starting seven games and rewrote many of the OSU total offense records, including single-game (486 yards against Texas) and season (3,671) and blew up the school single-game passing mark with 430 yards in a bittersweet loss to the Longhorns, who rallied from 21 points down.

Robinson's numbers may be down this year, but that's not a bad thing -- just a product of what he and his coaches hope is an improved defense that makes furious second-half rallies a thing of the past.

The battle for the backup job appeared to tilt toward Alex Cate (6-1, 195), a sophomore who had a solid if not spectacular spring. A SuperPrep All-American recruit out of Salt Lake City Cottonwood in 2006, he redshirted as a freshman and played in only one game last year, in which he did not attempt a pass.

Cate appears to have held off the challenge from redshirt freshman Brandon Weeden (6-4, 220), a
24-year-old who returned to football last year after a stint in the minors as a pitcher for the Yankees, for which he was a second-round pick in 2002, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Gundy, despite having an established starter in Robinson, is keenly aware of the value of a competent and experienced backup. Don't be surprised if he works Cate, and possibly even Weeden, into the game for a series or two worth of experience during the non-league games.

RUNNING BACKS
The Cowboys boasted one of the league's top receivers in Adarius Bowman, and Zac Robinson proved to a pretty good passer last season. But underneath a sky filled with passes came the heart of the Cowboys' offense -- their running game.

A year ago OSU was seventh in the nation in total offense, and the main reason was a running game that produced 3,161 yards and led the Big 12. Dantrell Savage ran for 1,272 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards a carry and making certain defenses played Robinson honestly, both his running and his passing.
Savage is gone, ceding the starting job to sophomore Kendall Hunter (5-8, 180), who averaged about eight carries a game last year in a backup role and produced a respectable 6.5 yards-per-carry average.

Hunter is a small but explosive back who's the team's best big-play threat. He was earmarked for a redshirt last year, but his practice performance made it impractical for him to sit when he obviously could contribute. His performance, which included a 125-yard effort in his second career appearance versus Troy, earned him a spot on The Sporting News' All-Big 12 freshman team.

The Cowboys figure to split the carries, both to keep Hunter from getting worn down and to use some other players who figure to be ready to make significant contributions. The new rule that starts the play clock earlier means less time between plays, and less rest, so depth will be even more important.

Though most of the mid-term JUCO help comes on the defensive side, one newcomer who could figure in immediately is Beau Johnson (5-10, 201), a junior who arrived from Butler County (Kansas) Community College in the spring. Johnson is a slasher type and was the MVP in the JUCO national championship game, where he scored four touchdowns.
"I've been impressed with Beau Johnson with his ability to understand our offense and play with poise," Gundy said. "I saw a side of him that I was excited to see. He really stepped up and made some plays in front of a good crowd [at the spring game]."

Though Johnson moved to second on the depth chart in the spring, the Cowboys will still take a long look at Keith Toston (6-1, 210), a junior who also showed a big-play threat before a knee injury curtailed his sophomore season in '07 and kept him out of spring drills.

Toston started against Florida Atlantic and Troy, before Hunter made his mark, and was hurt late in the season against Baylor. In 11 games before his injury, he averaged 5.0 yards on 38 carries and scored once. If he recovers fully, he'll give the Cowboys a three-player rotation at halfback.

Though the Cowboys work mostly with a one-back, shotgun, zone-read attack, they occasionally still employ a fullback. Bryant Ward (5-11, 215), a sophomore from Stillwater, is listed atop the depth chart but has zero career touches.

His backup is John Toben (6-1, 235), a sophomore who transferred from Hardin-Simmons. It's unlikely either will see much action, except in short-yardage situations and the occasional change-up offensive set.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Adarius Bowman was the man a year ago, catching 67 passes for 1,006 yards and eight touchdowns. When he missed the last two games with an injury, it allowed Dez Bryant (6-2, 210) an opportunity and Bryant made the most of it.

Bryant, a sophomore, looks like the next candidate to follow in what's become an orange-tinged lineage of big-play receivers, following Rashad Woods and Bowman.
"He's real good when the ball is in the air," Gundy said. "He likes to make a play. Dez will have to carry us for a while until we find our receivers, which could take a few games."
Bryant's not the big target Bowman was, but he's more versatile and smoother. The sophomore finished strongly, with 117 yards receiving and two touchdowns in the bowl win over Indiana.

With the Cowboys using three-wide sets a majority of the time, finding capable hands at the other two receiver spots will be a priority in the fall. The unit promises to be deeper and better than a year ago, but it sorely lacks experience.

The two wideouts expected to start alongside Bryant are sophomore Damian Davis (6-5, 180) and junior DeMarcus Conner (6-1, 200), who combined have two career catches (both belonging to Davis). Davis has respectable speed and hands, but his frame is what will probably give him the biggest advantage. Last season he showed signs of his skills by deflecting a pass away from a defender and to himself for a 21-yard gain against Oklahoma.

William Cole (6-0, 180), who played defensive back as a freshman last year but didn't letter, has a chance to produce, likely as a slot-receiver. Red-shirt freshmen Hubert Anyiam (6-0, 185) and Josh Cooper (5-11, 190) will also get a look, but they'd better make the best of it to avoid falling behind the three receiver prospects arriving in the fall -- Isaiah Anderson (6-0, 175), Justin Blackmon (6-2, 190) and Adrian Richards (6-4, 190).

Bryant won't be the only one carrying the receivers early. The Cowboys are blessed with a talented tight end in senior Brandon Pettigrew (6-6, 260), who caught 35 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns last year in earning first-team All-Big 12 honors from the league's coaches. The third-year starter is a good blend of hands, speed and blocking ability, and his 54-yard touchdown with 1:37 left against Texas Tech last fall helped the Cowboys rally from a three-point deficit to take a 49-45 win. Despite his size, he's a big-play threat, with three of his four touchdowns coming from 30-yards or more.

Red-shirt freshman Wilson Youman (6-4, 245) showed promise in the spring as a big-play receiver, but inconsistency catching the ball has been a problem that may keep him from seeing more significant time.

OFFENSIVE LINE
This is the area where the Cowboys smile and know better.
Experts are picking the OSU O-line as middle of the pack, if not worse, in the Big 12. It rankles the Cowboys, but what option do they have but to purse their lips, smile and prove the experts wrong.

It's difficult to understand how a unit that helped pave the way for a Big 12 best rushing attack, allowed the third-fewest sacks in the nation (11) and returns four-of-five starters -- five of five if you consider one of the early season starters from '07 is back from an injury that cost him most of the year, can be lightly regarded. The Cowboys will also add a first-team JUCO All-American, Andrew Mitchell (6-5, 300), to the mix. He was a first-team All-American at Snow (Utah) Community College.

David Washington (6-3, 305), a senior, started the first two games last year at center before breaking his leg, and though the injury kept him out much of the spring, he's expected to step back in the lineup.

While he was out, however, junior Andrew Lewis (6-5, 295) established himself at center, and the coaches will have a decision to make about who starts and who might move to another position. Sophomore Michael Booker (6-3, 310), topped the spring depth chart at left guard, but don't be surprised to see him give way to either Washington or Lewis.
Steve Denning (6-5, 295), a senior, returns at the other guard spot after starting the last nine games in '07.

Junior left tackle Russell Okung (6-5, 300) is the unit's best player. He was an honorable mention coaches' All-Big 12 pick last year and is projected to have a breakout season. Okung has 21 consecutive starts and was so dominant against Indiana, holding the Hoosier's national sack leader, Greg Middleton, without a tackle, that Cowboys insiders believe he could turn pro after this season.

Brady Bond (6-6, 290), a junior who has 18 career starts and started the first game of his freshman season in '06 at left tackle, returns at the other tackle. Mitchell will probably start the season as Bond's backup, though with his credentials, don't be surprised to see him move into the starting lineup sooner rather than later.

KICKERS
The Cowboys return starter Dan Bailey (6-0, 205), but that starter tag comes with a receipt. If Bailey, a sophomore, doesn't develop accuracy to go with his strong leg, it's clear that freshman Quinn Sharp (6-1, 185) -- rated by Rivals.com as the best place-kicking prospect in the nation last year -- gets a healthy shot.

Bailey was good on kickoffs, but he was, at best, erratic on place-kicks. He converted 2-of-4 field goal attempts, none longer than 40 yards, after replacing Jason Ricks (8-of-14) down the stretch.

Sharp comes to OSU out of Mansfield (Texas) High School with a load of credentials after making 11-of-13 field goal tries as a senior, including a 55-yarder.

DEFENSIVE LINE
In a nutshell, the Cowboys need help everywhere. And they're getting it.

"The chemistry on defense will be better this year," Gundy said. "They understand the defense better and feel better about themselves. We'll be a better defense this year than last year."

Forget the secondary, which figures to be the most improved part of the defense, and the linebacking unit. It's the defensive line that's going to make the difference for OSU, one way or the other.

What the Cowboys need are two things: Pressure, more depth and pressure. OK, make that three things.

They have a fair starting group, with athletic but unproven ends, and at least one good and one high-motor defensive tackle. Then they have questions.

Gundy was pleased with the pass rush his unit showed in the spring game.
"I was really excited to watch the defense, including some of the young guys get pressure on the quarterbacks," Gundy said. "It's nice to see that, because we haven't had that kind a pressure in a couple of years at OSU."

Defensive tackle Jeray Chatham (6-3, 280), a former offensive lineman who started the last 10 games, is the only returning regular. The senior had 20 tackles last year, six behind the line. A lack of depth meant Chatham and departed starter Maurice Cummings frequently played nearly all the snaps, a daunting task against high-powered offenses such as Texas Tech's.

Quency Patrick (6-3, 275), a sophomore who made his first career start in the Insight Bowl, returns at the other tackle.

Other prospects are midterm JUCO transfers Chris Donaldson (6-1, 285), a sophomore from Coffeyville (Kansas) Community College), and junior Swanson Miller (6-4, 300), from Butler County (Kansas) Community College. Another candidate is senior Tonga Tee, Jr. (6-0, 300), a backup tackle who didn't live up to his JUCO All-American honors in his first season at OSU in '07.
"Junior needs to be a guy that can get in the 'A' gap and stop the run," Gundy said. "He's got some limitations physically for ever being a great pass rusher, but he needs to push the pocket and he will. He's in much better shape now than he was last year, because he's 20 pounds lighter and he understands the system, and he's gotten over how hard supposedly everything is and just go out and do what you're supposed to do."

At end the projected starters are sophomore Ugo Chinasa (6-6, 250) and junior Derek Burton (6-5, 265). Highly regarded as a recruit in '06, Chinasa was injured as a freshman and redshirted last year. OSU coaches are hopeful he can live up to his potential this season. Burton, who started against Nebraska and Kansas State last year, is also expected to improve.

Red-shirt freshman Richetti Jones (6-4, 240) has shown enough for the coaches to believe he can be more than an adequate player, although he must continue that in the fall to truly convince skeptics who doubt whether he can live up to his physical promise.
"It's yet to be seen, Gundy said. "He still has to prove himself, but he does have some physical abilities."

LINEBACKERS
Tim Beckman had the roughest of introductions as Cowboys defensive coordinator last season. His unit struggled mightily, albeit against some of the best offenses in the nation, but it left him with one vow -- never again.

"It's a challenge," Beckman said. "Last year, in all honesty, was the hardest year I have every gone through. We have to get better; I have to get better as a coach. It starts with that, no matter what defense you play.

"I will not at all accept what happened last year, and it comes on my shoulders. And I totally understand that. We want to make definite strides in every category."

One prime category is at linebacker, where the Cowboys are transitioning from a 4-2 scheme to a 4-3 that utilizes a rover, which the coaches refer to as the "Star" backer. Last season the Cowboys got spotty performance from the position, which helped lead to the defensive woes.

Patrick Lavine (6-3, 225), a junior who led the Cowboys in tackles the last two seasons (151, including 81 last year), is the only returning starter at linebacker. The converted safety is on the Butkus Award watch list.

Junior Orie Lemon (6-1, 240) and sophomore Justin Gent (6-3, 235), will continue to battle for the middle linebacker job in the fall.

Donald Booker (6-0, 225), a transfer from Navarro (Texas) Junior College, arrives in the fall and will get an immediate look. Booker was a JUCO All-American who had a nation-leading 161 tackles, 107 solo.

DEFENSIVE BACKS
This is where the Cowboys most desperately needed help, and they think they've gotten it in the form of Lucien Antoine (6-1, 205), a junior from Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College.

Antoine is expected to shore up a porous secondary that allowed 286.5 yards a game, 112th among Bowl Subdivision schools, and to provide the necessary attitude needed for a defensive renaissance.

"I asked him if there was something I could call him other than Lucien," Gundy said. "He said that they called him 'The Punisher' back home. Well, [I told him], 'The Punisher it is, but you have to live up to that reputation as a tackler' -- which he has.

"He's had five or six big hits in practice, which has really energized the defense. After you see him play one time you'll understand why they call him that."

Last year at Fort Scott, "The Punisher" delivered plenty of misery with 102 tackles, 72 of them solo, which was a team high. He made four tackles behind the line of scrimmage, intercepted three passes and caused two fumbles, helping him earn second-team All-American honors.

Antoine will likely supplant senior Ricky Price (6-1, 195), a converted receiver, as the starter at strong safety, but Price will still figure in a rotation that includes senior Quinton Moore (5-11, 185), the starter at free safety.

Both starters are back at cornerback, and the Cowboys were encouraged last season by the play of Jacob Lacey (5-11, 175) a senior who last year finished strongly, with five interceptions during the second half of the season, including three against Texas, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

Perrish Cox (6-1, 190), a junior, moved into the starting lineup for the last eight games and tied for second on the team with a pair of interceptions. He is also a valuable kick and punt returner.

PUNTERS
The Cowboys are solid here, with the return of senior Matt Fodge (6-1, 195). Fodge averaged 42.9 yards a punt last year, and placed 13 kicks inside the 20 with four touchbacks.

Fodge was a second-team All-Big 12 pick who backslid a bit last year after spending most of 2006 leading the nation in punting. He ended that season ranked eighth, with a 44.9 yard average.

SPECIAL TEAMS
Long-snapper Zach Allen (6-1, 260) is back, and the fact you've probably never heard of the senior is good. Allen is steady, and that's exactly what you want in a long snapper.

The Cowboys' coverage units were not very good last year, particularly on punts, where they allowed an average of 14.0 yards a return. Kickoff coverage was decent (20.4 yard opponent average).

Returns should again be between adequate and solid. Starting cornerback Perrish Cox returns after being one of only three players in major college football last season to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns. Now that Cox is projected as a starter, the Cowboys will look for someone to at least share the duties. That will be a fall special teams priority.

A new kickoff returner to replace Cox is on the fall to-do list, though it's not among the more pressing issues. The likely candidates will include a variety of running backs and receivers, including halfback Keith Toston.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
How do you gauge success for the Cowboys?

In a strong and balanced Big 12 -- Baylor remains the only gimme in the South, but even the oft hapless Bears should be measurably better -- improvement must be measured not by won-loss records, but by quality of play and final ranking.

That doesn't mean the Cowboys can't be the Kansas of this season, rising from mediocrity into the stratosphere, but they have too many Goliaths on their schedule, including North Division power Missouri on Oct. 11. OSU must show well against the Tigers, Longhorns and Sooners, but at the same time that means avoiding embarrassing slipups to Troy (which beat them 41-23 last season) or any of the other mediocre teams on their non-league schedule (Washington State or Missouri State).

If OSU can play improved defense, particularly against the pass, and avoid a penchant for late-game collapses (21 points to Texas; 10 to A&M), the Cowboys can make more than waves in the South. That, unfortunately for the Cowboys, is much easier said than done.

For the most comprehensive previews available on the Division I-A teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2008 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).