Spring practices are beginning to wind down across the Big 12 and teams are sending their squads into summer workouts. As they move forward, we’ll provide some thoughts and observations on things we’ve learned after the past few weeks.
The Cowboys began spring practices in late March and finished up last weekend. Head coach Mike Gundy’s team is coming off a double digit-winning season which had its share of both highlights and disappointments.
Oklahoma State showed in 2017 that they have the potential to perpetually be an elite team, but many of the players who made that possible will be on NFL rosters next fall. What will their replacements will look like when the lights come on next fall? Well, that’s a bit of a mystery.
How will Gundy’s squad improve over the next several months? Below are some thoughts on where things stand with Oklahoma State football.
1. QUARTERBACK AND WIDE RECEIVER WILL BE FINE
While it’s true that the Pokes did lose one of the best wide receivers they’ve ever had to this year’s NFL Draft, the cupboard’s not exactly bare.
Among the headliners who return – Tyron Johnson, Jalen McCleskey and Dillon Stoner – there may not necessarily be a single talent the level of James Washington, but last Saturday’s scrimmage showed that the Cowboys are deep at the position. The athleticism and good hands amongst the returning players will give opposing defensive coordinators adequate fits in 2018.
It will help that they’ll have a capable passer to get them the ball. Taylor Cornelius can enjoy the title of starting quarterback for Oklahoma State until Dru Brown and Spencer Sanders step on campus, but he’s worthy of it.
There are some valid concerns about Cornelius’s arm strength, but as a fifth year senior he knows the offensive system in Stillwater and can execute the offense. There’s no guarantee that “Corn Dog” will still be the first guy on the depth chart in four months, but anyone who wants the job is going to have to take it from him.
2. THE RUNNING GAME HAS POTENTIAL
Justice Hill will headline as the ballcarrier for the Cowboys, but he won’t have to tote the rock all by himself.
For one, he’ll get help from increased athleticism at the quarterback position. Cornelius has deceptive speed for someone who is 6’6″ and incoming freshman Spencer Sanders is a true dual threat. Dru Brown, who comes in from Hawaii, showed off his mobility when playing for the Rainbow Warriors.
There’s a scenario in which all three could feasibly see playing time next season, and they’ll offer a legitimate running threat that will make opposing defenses take notice.
Fellow backs J.D. King and Chuba Hubbard can both be trusted with sharing carries when he needs to rest. Both are young guys, but they have some upside.
King logged almost 100 carries last season, but he’s only a sophomore. Hubbard has never taken a handoff in live college action, but he showed some wheels in the spring game.
3. OFFENSIVE LINE IS A CONCERN
The Pokes got the good news in the offseason that offensive lineman Larry Williams was granted a sixth year of eligibility after he was injured for most of last season. Both he and fellow guard Marcus Keyes could be All-Big 12 types of players, but overall there’s not a lot of starting experience along the line.
Mike Gundy said he “would be shocked” if the play of the offensive line isn’t better in 2018 than it was the year previous, but this position group has the most questions of any on that side of the ball. In time, the pieces on this line might indeed come together to be pretty stout, but as of now everything points to a need for development amongst the big uglies.
4. RUN DEFENSE COULD BE A STRENGTH NEXT SEASON
New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’s defense seems to have been pretty well received by both Gundy and his players. There’s more youth in the back end than up front, so Knowles might find his side of the ball defends the run better than it does opposing passing attacks.
The defensive line has big bodies like Darrion Daniels and Trey Carter, while Calvin Bundage at linebacker could be set for a breakout year. Knowles rotated the three safety positions during spring, so some spots might still need to be solidified on the back end.
Those kinds of holes suggest that the biggest difference made by Gundy’s new hire won’t show itself immediately. It took some time for Knowles to turn the Blue Devils into one of the better defensive teams in the country. The Cowboys are likely to see improvement next fall, but there are also reasons to temper expectations a bit.
There’s not much buzz right now about Oklahoma State as a possible Big 12 title contender, especially considering the exodus of talent from last year’s team. There’s some justification to that perception, but there are also reasons to think that the Cowboys won’t fall very far.
Gundy has seemingly developed a penchant for putting good teams on the field, and Oklahoma State has continued to land some of the better recruits in the conference. The signs point to a regression in 2018, but the Pokes should once again compete in every game they play.
How the wins and losses shake out exactly, though, will likely depend on the progress of the quarterback play and the defense under Knowles. The next four months of work will, therefore, be critical for Gundy’s team.
The Cowboys open their season at home on September 1st against Missouri State.