Big 12 spring check-ins: Oklahoma State

Ian Boyd

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Mike Gundy sounds pretty upbeat these days. He's normally pretty comfortable in his own skin but he, like many other coaches right now, are plainly very happy to be able to have spring practices and a real offseason again. Gundy has been making regular notes of different players who have been able to make strides as a result of having a spring practice such as Washington State transfer Tay Martin, sophomore slot Brennan Pressley, and most importantly quarterback Spencer Sanders.

The growth from Sanders and the offensive is probably the primary reason Gundy is much more upbeat. Last season the Cowboys had one of their classically strong casts of skill players on offense and then the rare NFL-caliber cornerback in Rodarius Williams anchoring their best defense since 2013. However, Sanders was so inconsistent and the line so wretched Oklahoma State couldn't make the most of their firepower on offense and had to figure out how to win defensive struggles throughout the season.

I'm sure Gundy was quite uncomfortable with it all. In 16 seasons as the head coach at Oklahoma State, 2020 was the fourth worst in terms of points per game on offense (30.2) and the second worst of the decade after the 2014 season when the 'Pokes had to start Daxx Garman for an extended period of time before giving up and pulling the redshirt off Mason Rudolph. They also had their third best season ever on defense under Gundy, yielding only 23.5 points per game, falling behind only 2009 (21.7) and 2013 (21.6). Gundy would surely likely to maintain some ground on defense they've taken under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles but he's probably much more comfortable winning games with explosive offense and a veteran quarterback.

The big question for Oklahoma State next season is primarily, "if the infrastructure is there on offense, can Mike Gundy reload again at the skill positions?" The answer has virtually always been yes. The next question relates to defense.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

Oklahoma State has a lot going right for them along the offensive line by virtue of having another year to develop a young cast. Getting another year of eligibility for Josh Sills was also a massive win, he's a highly versatile player who can be dominant at times when playing guard but was able to adequately hold down right tackle when Teven Jenkins shut it down for the season.

Tackle is a big question mark for the 'Pokes but we'll get to that in the space force section, in terms of left guard to right tackle, there are a lot of options and strengths. They brought in Miami of Ohio transfer Danny Godlevske to upgrade at center where walk-on Ry Schneider had been struggling for the cause, potentially get Sills back inside if they can find a left tackle, and then at the other guard position can choose from Cole Birmingham and Hunter Woodard, who are entering their third and fourth years in the program and were forced into action last season.

I expect Jake Springfield to feature in somewhere, right now they're working him at right tackle in anticipation of a left tackle upgrade, and he was pretty decent for them a year ago. There's a mix of size involved here. Springfield isn't terribly big, maybe 6-3, 300 and Godlevske is a normal center at 6-2, 300. Then Sills checks in at 6-6, 338, Birmingham at 6-8, 310 or so, Woodard at 6-5, 300, and Hunter Anthony at 6-6, 328. They've been developing these bigger guys (and also 6-5, 300 pound Preston Wilson) for the last few years in hopes of building a large, powerful line but they keep having issues crop up that sap their depth. At any rate, they're in much, much better shape heading into 2021.

To help them out along the line they return "Cowboy back" Logan Carter, a 6-4/245 pound former walk-on who was a good blocker for them a year ago they've been developing to serve as the ancillary in their offense. Carter was pretty good last year and should give them as much versatility as they could want in the run game. The run game will have weapons also, L.D. Brown returns from 2020 as an explosive rusher but then they also have some guys behind him and then added an interesting piece in Utah JUCO transfer Jaylen Warren, who's 5-8, 215 and mixes your typical short back quickness with unique power. It's possible Warren will actually carry the load for them.

Spencer Sanders is the other big question mark after pass protection. This kid has a strong arm who can hit throws which make college offense easy at times and he also has elite quickness and speed to execute the zone-option running game. It was often frighteningly easy for Oklahoma State to scheme space for the run game or Tylan Wallace last season. However, the Pokes had trouble with situational downs when teams would clamp down on their top options, pressure the line, and force good, quick decision-making from Wallace. He has a tendency to try and rely on his athleticism to overpower opponents in big moments and he has run or thrown himself into trouble as often as he's overcome the opponent if not more often.

Anyways, he's supposed to be figuring a lot more out this offseason and the hope will be he can make a lot more plays within the design of the system. I'm not sure if he'll ever be an amazing decision-maker in clutch moments, although he can definitely get better, but the Cowboys could become much more dangerous simply by being able to execute a bigger chunk of their normal system on regular downs.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

Oklahoma State was strong pretty much everywhere on defense last year save for nose tackle. Building great defenses is typically the bane of midlevel Power 5 programs. You can't really get away with not having high level athletes who can read and react to offenses and there are three types of athletes you really need who are hard to find because they are A) special and B) in high demand.

1) Defensive tackles who are true athletes at 290+ pounds.
2) Cornerbacks who can stick on top level skill athletes in press-man coverage.
3) Long, bendy pass-rushers who can turn the corner and beat big, athletic tackles 1-on-1.

The Pokes were close to going 2-for-3 here with Ro Williams locking down receivers at left cornerback and Trace Ford rushing the edge along with Cal Bundage and Brock Martin. They lacked high level defensive tackle play but could get by with seven and eight man fronts involving Tre Sterling or Kolby Harvell-Peel playing as an extra man in the box. Linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga also gave them a lot of athleticism and knowhow in the box.

I may catch some flak for this since I didn't foresee Williams' phenomenal 2020 season, but I don't anticipate the Pokes will have an elite corner again in 2021. Jarrick Bernard is a good zone man and Christian Holmes is solid, but neither can take someone away or hold up in isolation without some help or playing off. Korie Black is evidently next up to try and lock things down, I don't know if he'll crack the starting lineup this year or not or just spell Holmes and Bernard. At any rate, I think he's not going to match Williams until he's a senior, if ever.

However, the 'Pokes look good on the edge with Ford and friends back. They can play some tite front or Under with Tyler Lacy now up to 6-4, 295 and Israel Antwine back (same size). Those guys are good, disruptive end/tackle swing players who helped them a lot a year ago. They struggled at nose to find someone who could command and delay a double team. Arkansas transfer Collin Clay could factor in here, a 6-3, 300 pound former 4-star, but he played strong side end for Arkansas in 2019 so battling doubles as a nose may not be his cup of tea. They have some size and athleticism up front, they just need to figure out how to deploy it without getting punctured by double teams.

Safety is in great hands with Harvell-Peel and Sterling both back along with Tanner McCalister. Linebacker got Rodriguez back and Devin Harper will play with him, Harper is an inferior athlete to Ogbongbemiga (or Rodriguez) but he's a solid player who knows what to do. The Pokes should be able to control the middle of the field reasonably well, the only question is whether they can hold up anywhere near as well outside while they do so without the benefit of Ro's coverage.

Space force speed test: Offense

I definitely don't think the Cowboys will miss Chuba Hubbard, he looked slowed up from his 2020 season and exposed a little by the lack of clear running lanes such as he often had in 2019. Gundy has new star running backs ready to go, the 'Pokes tend to do really well there.

They also tend to do very well at receiver although I think replacing Tylan Wallace is a bit trickier. However, Braydon Johnson is a dangerous man in his own right, Brennan Pressley is an explosive weapon in the slot, and Wazzu transfer Tay Martin was starting to come alive at the end of 2020. I think they'll be able to stretch the field with Pressley and Johnson's speed and Martin offers them a better possession target to box out corners then they've had since Marcell Ateman graduated.

Sanders' arm strength paired with the speed of Pressley and Johnson, particularly when running double vertical patterns on the same side of the field, is going to be a major threat for opponents. If they can get some RPOs going, even better. Both the RPO and play-action game should be much more opened up this year with a more competent offensive line and consistent run game threat along with a more experienced quarterback. The speed is here, both of these guys have done some damage in the past.

Space force speed test: Defense

The Cowboys will be made significantly better if Trace Ford can make a leap this offseason in run defense. Brock Martin got a lot of snaps as the LEO end last season because he was a superior run defender over Ford, then Ford and Bundage would get more of the work in the passing downs package when they flooded the front with athletes.

Bundage actually lead the team with 7.5 sacks despite being a situational player, he's moving along now but whoever Knowles focuses as the tip of the spear in his pass-rush tends to put up pretty good numbers in this system. I think they'll be fine on passing downs. Whether or not they are consistently good on the edge on 1st and 10 when the other team decides to drop back and test them is another question.

Then outside at cornerback, we've already covered this topic. The Cowboys have some solid defensive backs but I don't think any of them can lock down a good outside receiver 1-on-1 without a lot of help. This isn't some terrible sin but it does take a lot of the oomph out of their 2020 formula.

In summation

I expect Oklahoma State to be strong on offense more in keeping with what you tend to find from a Mike Gundy offense. They've long been masters of the art of combining space, speed, and run/pass conflicts to torture opposing defenses and light up the scoreboard. It doesn't take a high level of infrastructure to execute such a vision, but you do need to be solid and dependable along the line and have a quarterback who understands how to distribute the ball. Sanders has seen the field early in his career because he's an elite athlete, better than most all of his predecessors, but the knowledge angle is actually more important. At least to a certain baseline.

Oklahoma State should be at the baseline now and then will hope Sanders' athleticism can be felt more by opponents.

Winning the Big 12 though requires either a remarkably overpowering offense or also a strong defense. I don't think this unit will be a totally overpowering offense so how far Oklahoma State can get using their recruiting strategies and the portal to find high level athletes on defense should set their ceiling.
 
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dmatx

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If they can unlock Sanders they will be a team to watch out for. I think he could be a *very good* college quarterback but you gotta scheme to his strengths.
 

stilesbbq

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Interesting the OSU camp seems to have increasing confidence in Sanders. I expected Illingsworth to get a lot of play next season

COVID year has the Cowboys bringing back quite a few good defenders. Will be a good barometer test of PK and Sark, glad we get them at home
 

Abe Lemons

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Mike Gundy sounds pretty upbeat these days. He's normally pretty comfortable in his own skin but he, like many other coaches right now, are plainly very happy to be able to have spring practices and a real offseason again. Gundy has been making regular notes of different players who have been able to make strides as a result of having a spring practice such as Washington State transfer Tay Martin, sophomore slot Brennan Pressley, and most importantly quarterback Spencer Sanders.

The growth from Sanders and the offensive is probably the primary reason Gundy is much more upbeat. Last season the Cowboys had one of their classically strong casts of skill players on offense and then the rare NFL-caliber cornerback in Rodarius Williams anchoring their best defense since 2013. However, Sanders was so inconsistent and the line so wretched Oklahoma State couldn't make the most of their firepower on offense and had to figure out how to win defensive struggles throughout the season.

I'm sure Gundy was quite uncomfortable with it all. In 16 seasons as the head coach at Oklahoma State, 2020 was the fourth worst in terms of points per game on offense (30.2) and the second worst of the decade after the 2014 season when the 'Pokes had to start Daxx Garman for an extended period of time before giving up and pulling the redshirt off Mason Rudolph. They also had their third best season ever on defense under Gundy, yielding only 23.5 points per game, falling behind only 2009 (21.7) and 2013 (21.6). Gundy would surely likely to maintain some ground on defense they've taken under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles but he's probably much more comfortable winning games with explosive offense and a veteran quarterback.

The big question for Oklahoma State next season is primarily, "if the infrastructure is there on offense, can Mike Gundy reload again at the skill positions?" The answer has virtually always been yes. The next question relates to defense.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

Oklahoma State has a lot going right for them along the offensive line by virtue of having another year to develop a young cast. Getting another year of eligibility for Josh Sills was also a massive win, he's a highly versatile player who can be dominant at times when playing guard but was able to adequately hold down right tackle when Teven Jenkins shut it down for the season.

Tackle is a big question mark for the 'Pokes but we'll get to that in the space force section, in terms of left guard to right tackle, there are a lot of options and strengths. They brought in Miami of Ohio transfer Danny Godlevske to upgrade at center where walk-on Ry Schneider had been struggling for the cause, potentially get Sills back inside if they can find a left tackle, and then at the other guard position can choose from Cole Birmingham and Hunter Woodard, who are entering their third and fourth years in the program and were forced into action last season.

I expect Jake Springfield to feature in somewhere, right now they're working him at right tackle in anticipation of a left tackle upgrade, and he was pretty decent for them a year ago. There's a mix of size involved here. Springfield isn't terribly big, maybe 6-3, 300 and Godlevske is a normal center at 6-2, 300. Then Sills checks in at 6-6, 338, Birmingham at 6-8, 310 or so, Woodard at 6-5, 300, and Hunter Anthony at 6-6, 328. They've been developing these bigger guys (and also 6-5, 300 pound Preston Wilson) for the last few years in hopes of building a large, powerful line but they keep having issues crop up that sap their depth. At any rate, they're in much, much better shape heading into 2021.

To help them out along the line they return "Cowboy back" Logan Carter, a 6-4/245 pound former walk-on who was a good blocker for them a year ago they've been developing to serve as the ancillary in their offense. Carter was pretty good last year and should give them as much versatility as they could want in the run game. The run game will have weapons also, L.D. Brown returns from 2020 as an explosive rusher but then they also have some guys behind him and then added an interesting piece in Utah JUCO transfer Jaylen Warren, who's 5-8, 215 and mixes your typical short back quickness with unique power. It's possible Warren will actually carry the load for them.

Spencer Sanders is the other big question mark after pass protection. This kid has a strong arm who can hit throws which make college offense easy at times and he also has elite quickness and speed to execute the zone-option running game. It was often frighteningly easy for Oklahoma State to scheme space for the run game or Tylan Wallace last season. However, the Pokes had trouble with situational downs when teams would clamp down on their top options, pressure the line, and force good, quick decision-making from Wallace. He has a tendency to try and rely on his athleticism to overpower opponents in big moments and he has run or thrown himself into trouble as often as he's overcome the opponent if not more often.

Anyways, he's supposed to be figuring a lot more out this offseason and the hope will be he can make a lot more plays within the design of the system. I'm not sure if he'll ever be an amazing decision-maker in clutch moments, although he can definitely get better, but the Cowboys could become much more dangerous simply by being able to execute a bigger chunk of their normal system on regular downs.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

Oklahoma State was strong pretty much everywhere on defense last year save for nose tackle. Building great defenses is typically the bane of midlevel Power 5 programs. You can't really get away with not having high level athletes who can read and react to offenses and there are three types of athletes you really need who are hard to find because they are A) special and B) in high demand.

1) Defensive tackles who are true athletes at 290+ pounds.
2) Cornerbacks who can stick on top level skill athletes in press-man coverage.
3) Long, bendy pass-rushers who can turn the corner and beat big, athletic tackles 1-on-1.

The Pokes were close to going 2-for-3 here with Ro Williams locking down receivers at left cornerback and Trace Ford rushing the edge along with Cal Bundage and Brock Martin. They lacked high level defensive tackle play but could get by with seven and eight man fronts involving Tre Sterling or Kolby Harvell-Peel playing as an extra man in the box. Linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga also gave them a lot of athleticism and knowhow in the box.

I may catch some flak for this since I didn't foresee Williams' phenomenal 2020 season, but I don't anticipate the Pokes will have an elite corner again in 2021. Jarrick Bernard is a good zone man and Christian Holmes is solid, but neither can take someone away or hold up in isolation without some help or playing off. Korie Black is evidently next up to try and lock things down, I don't know if he'll crack the starting lineup this year or not or just spell Holmes and Bernard. At any rate, I think he's not going to match Williams until he's a senior, if ever.

However, the 'Pokes look good on the edge with Ford and friends back. They can play some tite front or Under with Tyler Lacy now up to 6-4, 295 and Israel Antwine back (same size). Those guys are good, disruptive end/tackle swing players who helped them a lot a year ago. They struggled at nose to find someone who could command and delay a double team. Arkansas transfer Collin Clay could factor in here, a 6-3, 300 pound former 4-star, but he played strong side end for Arkansas in 2019 so battling doubles as a nose may not be his cup of tea. They have some size and athleticism up front, they just need to figure out how to deploy it without getting punctured by double teams.

Safety is in great hands with Harvell-Peel and Sterling both back along with Tanner McCalister. Linebacker got Rodriguez back and Devin Harper will play with him, Harper is an inferior athlete to Ogbongbemiga (or Rodriguez) but he's a solid player who knows what to do. The Pokes should be able to control the middle of the field reasonably well, the only question is whether they can hold up anywhere near as well outside while they do so without the benefit of Ro's coverage.

Space force speed test: Offense

I definitely don't think the Cowboys will miss Chuba Hubbard, he looked slowed up from his 2020 season and exposed a little by the lack of clear running lanes such as he often had in 2019. Gundy has new star running backs ready to go, the 'Pokes tend to do really well there.

They also tend to do very well at receiver although I think replacing Tylan Wallace is a bit trickier. However, Braydon Johnson is a dangerous man in his own right, Brennan Pressley is an explosive weapon in the slot, and Wazzu transfer Tay Martin was starting to come alive at the end of 2020. I think they'll be able to stretch the field with Pressley and Johnson's speed and Martin offers them a better possession target to box out corners then they've had since Marcell Ateman graduated.

Sanders' arm strength paired with the speed of Pressley and Johnson, particularly when running double vertical patterns on the same side of the field, is going to be a major threat for opponents. If they can get some RPOs going, even better. Both the RPO and play-action game should be much more opened up this year with a more competent offensive line and consistent run game threat along with a more experienced quarterback. The speed is here, both of these guys have done some damage in the past.

Space force speed test: Defense

The Cowboys will be made significantly better if Trace Ford can make a leap this offseason in run defense. Brock Martin got a lot of snaps as the LEO end last season because he was a superior run defender over Ford, then Ford and Bundage would get more of the work in the passing downs package when they flooded the front with athletes.

Bundage actually lead the team with 7.5 sacks despite being a situational player, he's moving along now but whoever Knowles focuses as the tip of the spear in his pass-rush tends to put up pretty good numbers in this system. I think they'll be fine on passing downs. Whether or not they are consistently good on the edge on 1st and 10 when the other team decides to drop back and test them is another question.

Then outside at cornerback, we've already covered this topic. The Cowboys have some solid defensive backs but I don't think any of them can lock down a good outside receiver 1-on-1 without a lot of help. This isn't some terrible sin but it does take a lot of the oomph out of their 2020 formula.

In summation

I expect Oklahoma State to be strong on offense more in keeping with what you tend to find from a Mike Gundy offense. They've long been masters of the art of combining space, speed, and run/pass conflicts to torture opposing defenses and light up the scoreboard. It doesn't take a high level of infrastructure to execute such a vision, but you do need to be solid and dependable along the line and have a quarterback who understands how to distribute the ball. Sanders has seen the field early in his career because he's an elite athlete, better than most all of his predecessors, but the knowledge angle is actually more important. At least to a certain baseline.

Oklahoma State should be at the baseline now and then will hope Sanders' athleticism can be felt more by opponents.

Winning the Big 12 though requires either a remarkably overpowering offense or also a strong defense. I don't think this unit will be a totally overpowering offense so how far Oklahoma State can get using their recruiting strategies and the portal to find high level athletes on defense should set their ceiling.
These are really good. Will you be doing them for K-Steak and Baylor, too?