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August 4, 2009
THE SCHEME: The Cowboys run the spread, and they have been one of the best spread teams in the nation when it comes to running the ball.
STAR POWER: Junior WR Dez Bryant might be the best player at his position in the nation. He had 87 catches last season, including 19 touchdown grabs. And his average per catch was 17 yards. He also is a big-time punt returner. Senior T Russell Okung will be one of the best players at his position. He has started 34 consecutive games and was a first-team All-Big 12 performer last season. He has quick feet and also possesses a mean streak.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman WR Justin Blackmon heads into fall camp as a starter. He has a nice blend of size (6 feet 1/195 pounds) and speed, and his athletic skills - he was a star basketball player in high school in Oklahoma - make him a guy to watch. Oklahoma State needs someone to emerge as the No. 2 receiver, and Blackmon could be the guy. Bryant's presence means the Cowboys' other wide receivers are going to get a lot of single coverage - and opportunities to make plays.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Sophomore TE Jamal Mosley heads into fall drills as the backup, but he looks to have the best receiving skills among the three players bidding to replace star TE Brandon Pettigrew. It wouldn't be a surprise if the three players share the position, but it also wouldn't be a surprise to see Mosley on the field more than the others.
STRONGEST AREA: The Cowboys have a superb playmaking trio in Bryant, QB Zac Robinson and TB Kendall Hunter. Oklahoma State was sixth in the nation in total offense last season. Robinson, a senior, threw for 3,064 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, completing 65 percent of his attempts. He also rushed for 562 yards and eight scores. Hunter, a junior, led the Big 12 in rushing last season at 119.6 yards per game. He ran for 1,555 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, and scored 16 touchdowns. He also is an effective safety-valve receiver.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Someone needs to step up to help out Bryant at wide receiver. Other than Bryant, no returning wide receiver had more than three receptions. The Cowboys also will be breaking in a new tight end with the loss of Pettigrew and his 42 receptions. Bryant put up big numbers last season despite being the focal point of opposing secondaries. Think what he could do if there was a legit No. 2 - and legit No. 3 - receiver on the other side. Coaches have high hopes for Blackmon, sophomore Hubert Anyiam and redshirt freshman speedster Isaiah Anderson; one or two of those guys needs to turn potential into production if the Cowboys' passing attack is to move from solid to awesome.
THE SCHEME: The Cowboys use a traditional 4-3 set, but they frequently use a nickel back because of all the high-powered passing attacks in the Big 12. Bill Young, who spent last season at Miami, is the new coordinator, and he prefers an aggressive unit. Whether he has enough talent on hand is the question.
STAR POWER: This is not a star-studded group. Senior LB Andre Sexton probably has the best chance at all-league honors. He made 100 tackles last season, his first at linebacker after playing safety earlier in his career. He's not overly big (6-0/227), but he can run and has some big-play skills.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: We're going to cheat a little bit here and pick senior FS Lucien Antoine. Antoine was a junior college transfer who played just one full game, the season opener, last season before being hurt early in Game 2. Antoine's nickname is "The Punisher," and befitting someone with that moniker, he is physical. He also can run, and his presence should make opposing wide receivers more leery of going across the middle.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: It's time for senior CB Perrish Cox to step up and be a solid cover corner. Cox is well-known as a return man, but his defensive work has lagged behind his return skills. Young said he thinks Cox has the ability to be one of the better corners in the league.
STRONGEST AREA: All three starting linebackers are seniors who started last season. Sexton is the standout, and Orie Lemon and Patrick Lavine are solid. The trio combined for 260 tackles last season, with 13.5 tackles for loss. Backup Donald Booker, a senior, should benefit from Young's arrival; Young has simplified the defensive playbook, and Booker is one of a handful of defenders who can be expected to make more plays this season.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Oklahoma State had just 15 sacks last season, an embarrassingly low total for a team in the Big 12. It's vital Young and the defensive coaches find a way to get that number into at least the mid-20s. There is a quartet of ends - senior Jermiah Price, junior Ugo Chinasa and sophomores Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick - who need to produce. Blatnick has made big strides in the past 18 months and could be a future star. Chinasa has the physical tools but hasn't put it together. Price, a former junior college transfer, played well at the end of last season. Jones was a big-time recruit but has battled injury problems, including a bad hip last season. The secondary was torched often last season - 267.7 yards per game - but too often, opposing wide receivers had time to get open because the lack of a pass rush enabled opposing quarterbacks to get comfortable in the pocket.
Bryant (punts) and Cox (kickoffs) might be the best return pair in the nation. Bryant averaged 17.9 yards on 17 punt returns and took two back for scores. Cox averaged 29.8 yards on 30 kickoff returns and also took two back for scores. K Dan Bailey is solid, though he was just 2-for-5 from beyond 40 yards. Redshirt freshman Quinn Sharp is the new punter. The Cowboys' punt-coverage unit was strong last season, but the kickoff coverage needs vast improvement. Though there are some concerns about Bailey's leg and how well Sharp will do, the presence of Bryant and Cox overshadows those questions.
Mike Gundy signed a seven-year contract, through 2015, in December. Gundy, a former Oklahoma State quarterback, has overseen some high-powered offenses during his tenure, but the defense has to get better for the Cowboys to be taken seriously as a Big 12 title contender. Oklahoma State is 13-19 in the Big 12 in Gundy's four seasons, including 2-10 against Big 12 South heavyweights Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. Young should help the defense get better this season, while Gundy and co-coordinators Gunter Brewer (wide receivers) and Joe Wickline (offensive line) will keep the offense humming.
The Cowboys open with four consecutive home games, and five of the first six games are in Stillwater. But it's not necessarily an easy start. Game 1 is against Georgia and Game 2 is against a high-powered Houston team. The first two games should provide a good barometer as to how the season will unfold. There are just four road games overall, and three of them are against arguably the three weakest teams in the Big 12: Texas A&M, Baylor and Iowa State. The other is against Oklahoma. All in all, this is a good schedule for a team looking to make some national noise: The non-conference opponents are solid and the toughest games are at home.
It's all about how the defense performs in its first season under Young, an Oklahoma State alum. The Cowboys' offense will be one of the best in the nation, and in Robinson, Hunter and Bryant, Oklahoma State has one of the most potent skill-position trios in the nation. The offensive line is led by Okung, who might be the best tackle in the nation. Bryant and Cox are big-time return men. The defense, though, is a huge question. At the least, this appears to be an eight-victory team, and that's if the defense continues to struggle. If the defense comes through, the Cowboys will win 10 or even 11. It's hard to overstate how important the first two games are for Oklahoma State this season.