Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy

Oklahoma State spring football finally kicked off in Stillwater this week and expectations are off the charts for the upcoming season.  And for good reason!

This spring feels familiar for Cowboy fans.  There’s a quarterback and receiver duo on campus that turned down NFL money to come back one more year to terrify defensive coordinators.  The last time a QB/WR combo as prolific as Rudolph and Washington played in Boone Pickens Stadium the Pokes won the Big 12, beat Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl, and came literally inches away from playing for the national championship.  That kind of season could easily happen this year,

Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon lit up the Big 12 in 2011 after turning down the draft.  Weeden loved the deep ball and so does Rudolph, and Washington has the ability to get behind defenses focused on stopping on him just like Blackmon did. The two current Cowboys should pick up right where they left off last year which ended with the shredding of a good Colorado secondary.

But there’s way more to be excited about than those two.  I think this team has the potential to better than the 2011 squad.  Yes, I said it.  I think the 2017 team can be better than the greatest Cowboy team ever.

Hear me out before you roll your eyes too hard.

More Explosive Offense Than 2011?

The 2011 team had an amazing offense, but outside of Weeden and Blackmon it was an unknown commodity before the season started.  The receiving corp was Blackmon and a bunch of role players who noticeably struggled when Blackmon served a one game suspension at Kansas State.  At running back the Pokes were replacing a two-time All-American in Kendall Hunter with Joe Randle. Randle became a great back for Mike Gundy but at the beginning of the season he was just a promoted backup who everyone hoped could fill some big shoes.

This years offense is by far more impressive on paper.  Instead of hoping for a backup running back to step up the Cowboys have known value in sophomore Justice Hill.  As a true freshmen all Hill did was break Thurman Thomas’ freshman rushing record by going for 1147 yards, most of which came in conference play as he continued to adjust to the college game as the season went on.

With another offseason for Rob Glass to shape his body and another spring/summer/fall to improve his skills for this level he may just be the best back in the Big 12 next year.  The great news for Hill is with the receiving corp being so deep (I’ll get to that in a minute) it should be difficult for any defense to line up to slow down the running attack.  If he and whomever wins the back up roles approach 2000 yards total that should be plenty to keep things rolling.  The biggest question for the backfield is who takes over Chris Carson’s job of getting the tough yards?  My guess is Gundy is worried about that too with his talk of bringing back the JW Walsh wildcat package with someone who can run under center instead of Rudolph.  That’s a development to keep an eye on going forward.

I’m not concerned with the departure of running backs coach Marcus Arroyo to Oregon having an effect on the production of the position with an established starter in place, but losing his recruiting acumen will hurt.  His replacement John Wozniak has a resumé that includes being on Les Miles’ staffs at OSU and LSU, on Nick Saban’s staff at Bama, and coaching under Todd Monken at Southern Miss.  He’s a great fit.

The air attack should be downright deadly in 2017.  Despite Weeden having the reigning (and future two-time) Biletnikoff winner to throw to, this years’ receiving group is far more capable as a whole.  Washington is a star and may end up being a Biletnikoff winner himself, but there is serious talent across the board.  Speedsters Jalen McCleskey and Austin Hays are back.  Jump ball specialist Marcell Ateman returns from injury along with Dillion Stoner, who the coaching staff trusted enough as a true freshman to run a wildcat package with him on the goal line on a fourth down. Senior Chris Lacy had a few 100-yard games last year and is a punishing downfield blocker.  LSU transfer and former 5 star recruit Tyron Johnson joins the fold this year and gets to find out how playing with a good quarter back feels.  That’s seven wideouts who would probably be the number one or two receiver on a lot of teams. It’s an embarrassment of riches that has to have offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich giddy!  Gundy has already mentioned running a lot of four receiver sets and doing hockey line style changes where the receivers on the field get subbed out with four fresh guys.  With so many quality targets don’t be surprised if Rudolph has a Weeden-esque year, throwing for close to 5000 yards.

The offensive line is the only major question on that side of the ball but I’m hopeful the improvement we saw the last half of the season will continue despite the coaching change.  I’m not sure exactly what led to Coach Adkins being released but the rumor is lack of recruiting ability, something new offensive line coach Josh Henson excels at.  That also helps soften the Arroyo departure a bit more.  Henson is an OSU alum, was on staff in Stillwater last year as an analyst and under Les Miles as tight ends coach, and served as an offensive coordinator at Missouri for two years.  He’s a big time hire for Gundy!

Can Glenn Spencer’s defense build on Alamo Bowl dominance?

With an offense that capable all the defense needs to do it slow down the opponents A LITTLE.  I think it would be unreasonable to expect this teams unit to do what 2011’s defense did and force 40 turnovers, but I feel they are more prepared to actually stop people occasionally.  Well, as much as anyone can in the Big 12.  The defensive line has improved every year under Joe Bob Clements and actually has depth and talent now.  I think they’ll have a big year despite the early departure of defensive tackle Vincent Taylor.

If you want the truth I’d have taken Taylor staying over Washington staying if given the choice.  He was big time!

I get frustrated with defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer sometimes, but overall he’s solid.  He adjusted schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5 last season with good results, and his group smothered a top ten Colorado in the bowl game.  They’ve already said they want a multiple front defense this year, switching from four down linemen to three depending on the situation and to confuse quarterbacks, and they announced a few eyebrow raising position changes that I love.  Dreadlocked fan favorite, cornerback Ramona Richards, is now a safety, and hard hitting safety Kenneth Edison-McGruder is now a linebacker.  It’s all temporarily while they test it this spring, but I like both these moves, especially the Richards swap. Moving your most experienced corner to safety says a lot about the confidence you have both in him and in the very inexperienced group that played corner behind him.

Here’s why both those moves are smart ones:  Richards is fast and allowing him to play deeper and patrol the field to intercept receivers and running backs that break free will be a good thing, an extra safety net in the most prolific offensive league out there, plus it will protect him from getting beat on stop and go routes on the outside which happened too often.  His aggressive tendency will serve him better as safety than as a man corner.  Expect to see him break on routes and flash in front of receivers for picks often.  I say he gets five this year if the move sticks.  I saw someone say the plan is to have him stick his head in the box and play close to the line of scrimmage but at 5 foot 11 and 185 lbs I don’t think that’s what they’ll do.  Fellow safety Tre Flowers is 6’3” and 200 lbs and much more suited to bang with tackles, tight ends, and full backs if they really want a safety down there.

Moving Edison-McGruder to an already deep linebacker group allows for a few neat tricks as well.  At 6’1” and 215 (he’ll probably be 225 by next season) gives you a faster than normal linebacker with better than average coverage skills for his new position.  Send him on blitzes where his speed is a plus, or man him up in coverage on tight ends or running backs and he should do just fine.  And we’ve all seen him hit like a truck.  He’s an enforcer!

But despite the talent that makes this team better than that great 2011 group, what could make this year special, like league champion and playoff special, isn’t even the team itself.  It’s the rest of the Big 12.  Oklahoma State is peaking right as everyone else is hitting a lull, and the schedule is favorable.

Analyzing Oklahoma State’s schedule

The non-conference schedule isn’t as weak as OSU normally has it, but Tulsa is dangerous, South Alabama beat Mississippi State last year, and Pitt lost its quarterback and running back to the NFL.  Plus we proved their defensive talent can’t hang with our offense last season.  The non-league play should be just enough to motivate the team through the summer and get them focused, but should still be a 3-0 run.

And I’m sure Central Michigan will come up any time focus starts slipping…..

And as conference play starts the schedule really starts to help the Cowboys out.  Just look at this:

Home: TCU, Baylor, OU, KSU, KU

Away: TTU, UT, WVU, ISU

The toughest games are at home, although Austin and Morgantown are no gimmes, and the Cowboys have timely bye weeks before Baylor and Oklahoma.

Texas Tech lost its all-world quarterback talent and still can’t play defense.  TCU has a quarterback competition to see who can turn the ball over less and they lost their OC to Kansas of all places.  Speaking of Kansas, they are headed up, and stealing Meacham from the Frogs is great for them, but the talent gap is still wide between the Jayhawks and everyone else.  Texas joins OU as the only team that is for sure more talented than OSU, but they will still be learning the ropes under Tom Herman Year One.  Baylor’s dumpster fire will take more than a season for Rhule to put out. West Virgina lost its QB, a lot of defensive and a lot of offensive line. Iowa State will be improved but there should still be an overwhelming talent advantage for Oklahoma State, although a November game in Ames will never not scare me.  Kansas State is always tough and Bill Snyder is a wizard, but having them in Stillwater completely convinces me their old school offense won’t be able to score enough to keep up.

The biggest challenge as always is Oklahoma, who still has Baker Mayfield and their entire offensive line from last year.  Despite losing Dede Westbrook, Samanje Perine, and Joe Mixon they will be formidable.  Mayfield gives them a chance in any game, and that line will let any running back be dangerous.  Plus the Sooners recruit at a different level than most of the Big 12, so they just always have more dudes than you do.

Plus Gundy coaches scared against Stoops.

Mike Gundy’s style holds the key

And honestly that’s the key to this season.  Gundy.  It’s all lined up. The team is there, the schedule is there, all the pieces are there for history to be made.

Can he let Yurcich loose in conference games like he did in the Alamo Bowl?  Or will he try to grind it out in the big games like he did in Bedlam last year?  Will he go to Austin and Morgantown more scared of blowing it than seizing victory? Can he let go of the fear of making a mistake and let his offense overwhelm opponents like Hologersen and Monken did as OC?

Like this team is built to do.

Can he beat the Sooners?

Can he beat them TWICE?

Can Gundy get out of his own way?

If he can, I think we’ll see a man in a mullet holding up a Big 12 Championship trophy in December!

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