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With Oklahoma State spring practice over, optimism high in Stillwater

mike gundy oklahoma state spring practice

What can you tell from a spring game?  An estimated 18,000 fans sat on the south side of Boone Pickens Stadium Saturday afternoon for the Oklahoma State spring game hoping to get a glimpse of what next year’s Cowboys squad would look like. And with Oklahoma State spring practice in the books, there’s plenty of reason to be excited for this coming fall.

So what did we learn?

Not much, really.  Spring games are designed for entertainment.  I love how Mike Gundy handles them.  The coaching staff splits up the team into two squads and they play an actual game with a few restrictions: no live kick or punt returns, early whistles to protect players, and don’t touch Mason Rudolph just to name a few.

It’s fun for the players and entertaining for the fans.

This year’s game wasn’t as fluid offensively as the last few years.  Usually it’s a high-scoring April afternoon in Stillwater.  This year was a bit more subdued.  The teams were obviously uneven, with the eventual-winning Orange Squad appearing to be stacked against the Black Squad resulting in an 24-0 Orange victory.

After the game Gundy said he considered going to the offense versus defense scrimmage format most schools use due to the lack of available offensive linemen.  With three projected starters missing it was hard for either team’s offensive line to hold up against a defensive line that truly goes two deep.  The running game for both teams sputtered, and if not for Mason Rudolph there may not have been any scoring at all.

We did learn some things, but we were left with more than a few unanswered questions.

First things first:  Mason Rudolph is ridiculously good.  His footwork, his arm strength, his pocket presence, all of it is next level.  He is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. As easily the best quarterback in a conference known for its quarterback play, if Oklahoma State can get over the Sooner hump and win the Big 12 he should end up being invited to New York.

I understand why Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield is considered a favorite for the Heisman in the preseason.  First off, he plays at a a brand-name university, and while he may be a better all-around football player (I could see Baker making a move to safety or receiver and it working out, Mason not so much), he’s not the same caliber passer as Rudolph.  Mayfield’s damage is done from his ability to create outside the pocket.  He scrambles and spins and hits a receiver that has broken into the open field.  It’s fun to watch whether you are wanting OU to score or hoping a linebacker takes Mayfield’s head off.  He’s arrogant and flashy, and people watch both because they love him and hate him.

Mason Rudolph isn’t near as big a personality as the one that resides in Norman, but he should be deadly through the air.  With his cannon, his ability to read defenses, and the arsenal of receivers at his disposal he should carve up defenses with surgical, almost boring precision.  He almost never made the wrong choice last year, something evident when you see his 2016 stat line: 4019 yards, 28 touchdowns, and only 4 interceptions.

But Rudolph can’t just throw to air, which brings us to our second thing: the receiving corp is stacked!  The Pokes legitimately have eight wideouts that would be starters on almost any other team.  Everyone knows how good James Washington is so I won’t even talk about him.  It was finding him a partner in crime that OSU needed to focus on.

Jalen McCleskey reminded everyone how fast he is on a few underneath crossing routes.  He should flourish there and streaking up the seam into the opening left by a safety rolling over the top of Washington.  While McCleskey will be a weapon on offense and special teams, he’s hampered by his side on being the guy to really help stretch a defense over the top.

Enter Chris Lacy, spring game star, which is amazing in its own way as he is probably the fifth-most physically-talented wideout on the roster.  Lacy had a few good showings last year, going for over 100 yards in back-to-back games.  He’s a great downfield blocker and really made his presence known Saturday by catching two long balls that he had to fight for over great coverage by the corners.  At 6 foot 3 he has the size and speed to be the second downfield threat that the Cowboys need.  His consistency and ability to play hard every down is invaluable.

I personally was anxious to see how receivers Tyron Johnson, the transfer from LSU, and Marcell Ateman, who’s back from injury, performed.  Unfortunately due to the uneven splitting of the teams’ quarterbacks, they both ended up on the Black team where Keondre Wudtee and John Kolar struggled to get the ball to or even near receivers. I can tell you both Johnson and Ateman have speed, as both ran deep routes multiple times.  Getting those two on the field with Rudolph will garner better results.  I’d have like to see Taylor Cornelius, the Orange Squads’ second quarterback after Rudolph, throw to those two.  He performed best of the “other” QBs, even throwing a nice touchdown pass to Obi Obialo.

Figuring out who will be Justice Hill’s main partner in the backfield is still muddy.  Having basically no blocking upfront doesn’t really help spot who is running well.  LaDarren Brown had the best day of all the backs.  He caught a touchdown from Rudolph and ran with the most purpose of the group.  He would hit a hole and take what was there as opposed to dancing around, something I felt the other backs did a bit too much of, especially Jeff Carr, who seemed to go sideways more than forward.  Brown had a couple of long runs and if I had to pick he’d be running back number two for next season.  To Carr’s credit he did run a short touchdown up the middle following one of Lacy’s acrobatic catches.

One of the biggest questions going into next year is the secondary, and the unit seemed to preform well.  Rudolph had a day, going for 200 plus yards, but almost every catch was contested, and they even picked him off once.  All told there were three interceptions, which is a good sign for a young group.   Ramon Richards seems very at home at safety, flying around like a dread-locked bird of prey.  He should be every bit the playmaker I thought he would be at the position.  Once grad transfer Adrian Baker joins the mix, this group should hold up as well as any in the Big 12 can.  Watching the new corners run stride for stride with what is probably the best receiving corp in the country was a welcoming sight for Cowboys fans.

All told the spring game didn’t teach us much, but it didn’t do anything to disprove what we thought.  With Rudolph, this Cowboys team should be amazing on offense, maybe better than 2011’s Weeden/Blackmon/Randle team, and Gundy says he thinks this is the best defense he’s ever had.  With a front seven that has Big 12 level players two deep (a rarity for anyone in the conference not named OU or UT) and a secondary that is coming together nicely, this team has everything it needs to win the conference and make the College Football Playoff.

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