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(All information as of July 1, 2006)
COACH AND PROGRAM
As a player, Mike Gundy came out firing.
As a first-year head coach at his alma mater, the Cowboys' all-time leading passer attempted to do the same thing.
He put the Cowboys in a spread offense, the better to fling the ball all over the field. He handed the ball to young hotshot quarterback Bobby Reid. He stormed into his new position as head coach last year and immediately cleaned house, dismissing seven players, including potential star Prentiss Elliott.
Then the Cowboys got on the field, and the fireworks ended.
OSU's offense, run by pass-oriented coordinator Larry Fedora, flopped. The Cowboys completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes, threw 17 interceptions, averaged a mere 170 passing yards per game and finished as the Big 12's lowest-scoring team. They ranked last in the conference in passing offense and 10th out of 12 in total offense. The only offensive category in which they led the conference was turnovers, with 35.
The defense wasn't any better, giving up 31.3 points per game, worst in the league. The Cowboys finished last (and 107th in the nation) in rushing defense and next to last in total defense and forced only 20 turnovers, fewest in the conference.
Not surprisingly, OSU fell to the bottom of the Big 12 South standings, below even traditionally weak Baylor.
But Gundy is convinced the 2005 disaster was merely an inevitable short-term bump on the road to long-term success, caused by the problems associated with a transition to a new regime and new schemes on both sides of the ball, some bad breaks -- including injury problems that limited Reid and eventually forced him to miss a significant chunk of the season -- and the tragic death of star safety Vernon Grant in a May 2005 car accident.
The road should be much less bumpy this season. The offensive and defensive systems are now in place with a core of players who already understand how they work. The young players who struggled last season have some experience. Reid is healthy and should finally get his shot to make an impact. The recruiting class was ranked among the nation's best.
Clearly, though, there are still some large potholes left to navigate, and a long trek still ahead.
"Whatever you do, you need to think long-term," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. "When you think short-term, it's like a dam. You have a leak here and a leak there, and instead of fixing the main cause, you try to patch each leak and all of a sudden, you've got a gigantic crack and the dam breaks. You want to do things to win right now, but you need to think long-term. Longevity is the key to winning championships."
Gundy is counting heavily on a staff with a very strong pedigree. Fedora came to Stillwater last year after three years as an assistant at Florida, first as run game coordinator, then as perimeter game coordinator and finally as offensive coordinator. Bedford's last two stops were at Michigan and, most recently, as secondary coach for the Chicago Bears, one of the NFL's strongest defensive teams. Assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Joe DeForest, a holdover from Les Miles' staff, has a reputation as an ace recruiter.
And the Cowboys believe they're closer to where they want to go than the numbers suggest. Bedford pointed out that while his defense allowed 203.7 rushing yards per game, it actually played well against the run much of the time. What hurt the Cowboys, he said, were errors and missed assignments by players struggling to learn the new defensive scheme, which led to big plays.
"To me, football is football," Bedford said. "It's technique no matter what system you're in. But kids look at things totally different. What killed us was not people slowly grinding it out against us, it was the big play, because we had guys in the wrong gaps and that type of thing.
"That's why I think we're going to be a lot better defensively. I think the kids understand things better now and hopefully, we can eliminate some of those situations. … Look at the big plays we gave up, and that's where most of the yardage came from. Against Oklahoma, we gave up three big plays for 180 yards to [Adrian Peterson]. Against Texas, we gave up 200 yards on three plays to Vince Young.
"Stats are very misleading. When you look at stats, you have to look at the reasons why. So I think we're going to be a lot better because our kids understand now what we're trying to get done."
Has enough already been accomplished to lift OSU out of the Big 12 basement and perhaps into a bowl game? Perhaps, but contender status is still a ways off.
"Last season, we were 4-7," Bedford said. "We were close enough in several games that if we did a few little things, we'd have won six games and gone to a bowl and everybody would have been happy. We're that close. Hopefully, this year, we make those plays."
The arrival of Bobby Reid (6-3, 225) was eagerly anticipated by OSU's fans, but injuries and youth led to a redshirt season in 2004 and in '05, shortly after he won the starting job from Donovan Woods early in the season, he suffered three dislocated toes and wound up playing only seven games and starting just three.
In that small sample, Reid's production was sub-par. He completed only 48 percent of his passes for 602 yards and threw more interceptions (four) than touchdown passes (two). And while he is still very much the focus of the OSU offense, there's now a nagging concern as to how much of last year's shaky performance had to do with the injury.
Reid tried to answer that concern by seizing the starting job convincingly in spring practice -- Woods was no longer a competitor, having moved to safety. He finished with a decent performance in the spring game, completing 12-of-22 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns, but he also threw two interceptions.
Still, Reid said he understands the system much better now and expects that to translate into better numbers in 2006.
"It's like night and day for me right now," he said after the spring game. "The game has started to slow down for me a lot more. Last year, it was tough with the new system and once I started to get comfortable, I got hurt. There is still work to do, but I feel like I had a good spring.
"Things went left and right, but that's all behind me. It's a new year, a new team and a new focus."
For Gundy, one of the most comforting aspects of Reid's spring performance was his mobility. He showed no lingering effects of his foot injury and was able to get outside of the pass rush to make plays.
"One of the things I was pleased with today was Bobby's ability to move out of the pocket and throw the ball down the field effectively," Gundy said after the spring game. "There were times last year he had chances to do that and he didn't do it. He'd overthrow the guy. He moved out of the pocket some today and hit some receivers for big plays, and that will happen with him because of his ability to run."
With Woods on defense, the battle for Reid's backup comes to down to Al Pena (6-3, 225), who started four of the final six games last season while Reid was hobbled, against redshirt freshman Zac Robinson (6-3, 195).
Pena had history on his side after leading the Cowboys with 1,102 passing yards last season, including a 351-yard, four-touchdown game against Baylor, and eight touchdowns, though he did throw 13 interceptions. But Robinson showed promise as passer and a runner in the spring and heads into preseason drills as the No. 2 quarterback.
As a high school senior in Colorado, Robinson passed for more than 1,500 yards and ran for more than 1,000.
Mike Hamilton isn't quite Barry Sanders, but last season he did Oklahoma State's legacy of excellent running backs proud with the most productive season ever for a Cowboys freshman runner.
Hamilton (6-1, 215) rushed for 961 yards, an OSU freshman record, and averaged a healthy 5.0 yards per carry and heads into the fall as one of the Big 12's top returning backs.
He isn't a speed burner or a shifty sort like Sanders or more recent Cowboys stars such as Tatum Bell and Vernand Morency. Rather, the sophomore from Melbourne, Fla., is a tough, power back who can hit an occasional home run -- he had an 83-yard run against Texas Tech last season -- but gets the majority of his yardage from relentlessly banging away at the defense.
"He's continued to just be steady, he's durable, he plays hard, and he makes plays," Gundy said. "The thing he did well [in the spring was] take care of the football. So he'll get to carry some of the load, and if he stays healthy and makes plays, he'll get a lot more."
Hamilton also showed some good hands last season, finishing as the Cowboys' No. 2 receiver with 20 catches for 161 yards. That aspect of his game could become even more important if the offense gravitates more toward the pass, as expected.
Backing up Hamilton in the Cowboys' one-back formation is bullish junior Julius Crosslin (5-11, 240), a classic power back who handled the short-yardage role last season and responded with 12 touchdowns among his 71 carries, making his pedestrian 3.3 yards-per-carry average a bit misleading.
With all that power in the backfield, the Cowboys might find a place for the quickness of junior college transfer Dantrell Savage (5-11, 185), who makes for an intriguing change of pace. Gundy loves the junior's ability to make defenders miss, as well as his blazing straight-ahead speed. Gundy admitted on signing day that Savage was "brought in here to play right away."
Savage put his 4.3 speed to good use last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, rushing for 1,249 yards.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The most welcomed new face in Stillwater this year actually has been around a little while. Adarius Bowman (6-4, 215) transferred from North Carolina last year but had to sit out the 2005 season in accordance with NCAA rules.
Now the junior gets his chance on the field at last, and he has the potential to make a huge difference -- literally -- in the Cowboys' offense. Bowman has the height to get to balls others can't and the strength to muscle defenders out of his way. Then there's the speed that allowed him to average more than 18 yards per catch in two seasons at North Carolina.
Bowman demonstrated what he can do for the Cowboys early in the spring game, getting open 30 yards down the field to catch a pass from Reid and dragging 185-pound defensive back Cortney Billingsley the rest of the way to finish a 48-yard play.
"He's got some potential to make some big plays," Gundy said.
The addition of Bowman provides some much-needed help for senior D'Juan Woods (6-1, 210), the Cowboys' only established receiving threat. Woods put up terrific numbers last season, catching 56 passes for 879 yards and eight touchdowns, but he was the only one. The next best wide-out, sophomore Ricky Price (6-0, 175), had only 16 receptions for 238 yards last season. Woods accounted for almost half of the Cowboys' 1,880 receiving yards last season.
Woods heads into his senior season with 122 catches for 2,104 yards in his career, trailing only his brother, Rashaun, and Hart Lee Dykes on the school's all-time list. He should pile up more numbers this season, but the difference will be that he won't have to do it alone.
"It gets to a point where we don't have to worry about just one guy making the plays," he told the Associated Press. "I don't have to take a lot on my shoulders. I don't have to feel that if I don't make plays, then no one else will."
Bowman and Woods could get even more help from junior college star Anthony Parks (6-0, 190), a junior who is making a bid for a starting role in OSU's three-wide receiver set. Parks is being counted on as a possession receiver, but he was a deep threat last season at Butler County (Kansas) Community College, where he caught 28 passes for 820 yards, an other-worldly 29.3 yards-per-catch average.
"He gives us what we look for, a guy that's reliable, has got good hands, runs good routes and makes a guy miss," Gundy said. "He's not going to be a 50- or 60-yard play receiver. He's going to be a solid 10- to 20-yard play receiver that we can rely on."
The guts of the Cowboys' offensive line is back, and the anchor of that group is Corey Hilliard (6-5, 310), a senior who has become a fixture at right tackle.
He has started 22 consecutive games and 28 for his career, and has been strong and steady in that spot. Last season he earned second-team All-Big 12 recognition by the league's coaches.
At the other end of the line, David Koenig (6-4, 290) has moved from left guard, where he started all last season, to left tackle, a critical position with the emphasis moving more toward the passing game, Hilliard will be counted on to protect Reid's blind side, making him a key to the Cowboys' hopes for an improved passing attack.
In the middle, sophomore David Washington (6-4, 295) is back after starting all 11 games as a freshman. He'll probably be backed by senior Kurt Seifried (6-4, 300).
The guard spots are up for grabs with veteran Kellen Davis gone and Koenig shifting to tackle. The two starters will come from a group of three players battling for the jobs -- redshirt freshman Andrew Lawrence (6-4, 305), Steve Denning (6-4, 285) and redshirt freshman Noah Franklin (6-4, 305). Jacob Secrest (6-5, 295) has a chance to get playing time as a true freshman.
Another redshirt freshman, Brady Bond (6-6, 260), and senior Marshal Tetsworth (6-5, 275) are the likely backups at tackle.
The Cowboys have a couple of options at this spot.
In 2004, sophomore Jason Ricks (6-1, 190) won the job as a freshman and was solid, making 11-of-16 field goal attempts. He had some trouble with longer kicks, missing all four of his tries between 40 and 49 yards, but he displayed a powerful leg with a 55-yard kick.
But Ricks missed last season with a torn quadriceps in his right leg, giving walk-on Bruce Redden (5-9, 185), a senior, a shot at the job. Redden turned out to be a happy surprise for the Cowboys, putting up even better numbers than Ricks had the previous year. Redden went 11-for-14 and was steady even from long range, making 4-of-5 tries from 40 yards and longer, with a long of 52. His only miss outside of 40 yards was a 55-yard attempt.
Now Ricks is healthy again and both players kicked well in the spring. So who wins the job? Redden is seen as perhaps a slight favorite heading into fall practice, but a decision might come down to how they perform in camp. Either way, the Cowboys are confident the position will be a strength.
For a coach whose defense gave up more than 200 yards rushing per game, OSU defensive coordinator Vance Bedford sure has a lot of faith in his defensive line.
"We'll have more experience up front than we had a year ago and they've had another year in the strength program, so they're going to be better," said Bedford, who called the linemen the leaders of the defense. "They've been in the system for two years now. We should be a lot better because of those guys up front."
Physically, the Cowboys' linemen are imposing. They have three big, solid senior tackles in starters Ryan McBean (6-5, 290) and Larry Brown (6-3, 295) and top backup Xavier Lawson-Kennedy (6-1, 300), who will rotate in and out. Assuming they now know how the scheme works and where to be, they should do a better job of clogging the middle.
McBean recorded 5.5 tackles for loss last season, while Brown and Lawson-Kennedy added three each. Sophomore Jeray Chatham (6-4, 270) isn't to their level, but he'll try to earn a chance to play.
The ends are equally strong, beginning with senior Victor DeGrate (6-3, 250), perhaps the Cowboys' best player. Last season, 11 of his 53 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage, including five sacks. He also broke up three passes and forced three fumbles. He is expected to be the Cowboys' top defensive playmaker.
There is plenty of other experience available at end, as well, including senior Darnell Smith (6-0, 270), who has 13 career starts. He will likely start ahead of juniors Nathan Peterson (6-2, 250) and Marque Fountain (6-1, 260), who have seen extensive playing time the last couple of years and had strong performances in the spring.
The wild card among all this experience is freshman Derek Burton (6-5, 255), one of the nation's top prospects after putting up 17 sacks as a senior at Muskogee (Okla.) High.
With all three starters from 2005 gone, the Cowboys will start from scratch. But that's not as big a problem as one might think, because scratch for OSU includes freshman Chris Collins (6-1, 230), who will move right into the starting lineup.
Collins is an immense talent, one of the top recruits in the nation as a senior at Texarkana (Texas) High. But he comes with baggage, namely an indictment on charges of aggravated sexual assault that caused Texas, to whom he originally committed, to back off him. In June, the case was still pending.
Because of the charges, Collins hasn't played in two years, having sat out his senior season in high school and skipped last season. But he is now enrolled at Oklahoma State and went through spring practice with the Cowboys, and he is clearly the class of the linebackers.
The rest of the spots are up for grabs. Junior Rodrick Johnson (6-3, 255) is the only candidate with experience at OSU, having received extensive playing time last year when Lawrence Pinson was injured.
Sophomore Marcus Brown (6-2, 240), a transfer from Air Force and once a highly regarded recruit, is fighting for a starting job with Johnson and junior Jeremy Nethon (5-9, 200), a former defensive back who was among the players dismissed by Gundy last year. He has been reinstated, and his speed has allowed him to make a run at an outside position.
Others in the mix include sophomore Alex Odiari (6-1, 225) and freshman Donnell Williams (6-3, 200).
Not much is set in the secondary, except for the fact that junior Donovan Woods (6-2, 200), who became an instant starter after moving from quarterback three games into last season, will be in the lineup.
Even that has its uncertainty. Woods, who worked at strong safety last season, is likely to move over to free safety in order to give promising redshirt freshman Andre Sexton (6-1, 190) a spot in the lineup.
Either way, Woods, younger brother of receiver D'Juan Woods, will be the glue that holds the secondary together.
"He's taken a leadership role as far as the overall defense," Bedford said, "which is what we need."
Sexton was expected to play and perhaps start as a freshman before he broke his wrist in preseason drills last year. He is a likely starter in 2006, though sophomore Quinton Moore (5-11, 185) might have a say in that. Senior Grant Jones (5-10, 195) provides depth.
Cornerback is up for grabs. Sophomore Calvin Mickens (6-2, 185) is back after starting six games last season, but there are plenty of contenders for the two starting jobs. Sophomore Jacob Lacey (5-10, 180), who was on the field a lot as a freshman, has a shot, but so do junior Martel Van Zant (6-2, 205), talented junior college transfer Scott Broughton (6-1, 185), a junior, and speedy freshman Perrish Cox (6-1, 180).
Broughton put together an off-the-charts sophomore season at Georgia Military, where he made 10 interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, and blocked two punts. Broughton was chosen a first-team NJCAA All-American.
Cox, from University High School in Waco, Texas, was a consensus Top 100 player and took part in the U.S. Army All-American game. He was also a first-team Class 4A All-State selection in Texas. In a state so loaded with high school talent, that honor means a lot.
"We have a couple of young corners coming in, including a JC corner, and we need some depth at that position," Bedford said. "Jacob Lacey started in the Texas Tech game and did a great job. He has a chance to be a solid player for us."
Sophomore Matt Fodge (6-0, 180) won the job as a freshman and is almost certain to hold it after a solid spring practice. Last season he averaged 39.9 yards per punt and had 20 kicks downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Fodge also has the ability to kick off. redshirt freshman Cole Reynolds (6-3, 215) is his backup.
Receiver Tommy Devereaux, who backed up Daniel McLemore last season, is the favorite to win the punt return role. He returned only two punts last season. Safety Grant Jones brought back 13 kickoffs last season for an average of 19.0 yards per return, and he'll be the No. 1 man at that spot. Freshman Perrish Cox has a chance to contribute as well.
They will be counted on to improve a return game that was spotty at best last season. The Cowboys were last in the Big 12 in punt returns at 7.3 yards per, though their 20.4 kickoff return average ranked fourth in the league. OSU finished next-to-last in the conference in kickoff coverage.
Sophomore Zach Allen (6-1, 270) will handle long-snapping duties, backed by junior Kyle Mariacher (6-3, 225).
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The Cowboys' rebuilding project seems to be taking a significant step forward, with more experience and plenty more athletes on hand.
The offense, which scored the fewest points in the Big 12 last season, looks downright potent, with tons of weapons -- assuming QB Bobby Reid can get them the ball.
There are still questions and too many young players being relied on, especially on defense. But there is reason for OSU to hope, in both the short term and the long term.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).