Don't sleep on Oklahoma State this offseason

Ian Boyd

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Everyone is going to have a favorite darkhorse Big 12 team next season, there’s a number of teams you can make a case for and I’ll get around to make the case for all of them over the course of the offseason.

Maybe I’m wrong but my sense is Oklahoma State isn’t a popular pick. 2020 was supposed to be their breakthrough season due to returning the insanely athletic trio of Spencer Sanders, Chuba Hubbard, and Tylan Wallace with an NFL tackle in Teven Jenkins to help blow holes off tackle into alleys left vacant by OSU’s perimeter pass options.

Instead, much of the rest of the Oklahoma State offensive line collapsed after they lost two likely starters from a roster already set back by an off recruiting year a few seasons prior. Spencer Sanders wasn’t able to grow substantially during the COVID-hampered offseason and Chuba Hubbard looked the worse for wear after getting 300+ touches in 2019. Now Hubbard, Jenkins, and Wallace are all gone, leaving Oklahoma State with Sanders, who needs to grow, and then a less well known supporting cast. The defense, which carried them in 2020 while the offense sputtered, returns fairly intact but loses a pair of essential NFL athletes in linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, and more importantly, lockdown cornerback Ro Williams.

I’ve written uncountable articles over the years repeating the same point, when Oklahoma State has an NFL draft pick at cornerback they play great defense and when they don’t, they don’t. Williams is gone and the odds of there being anyone else like him on the roster is pretty slim (I know, I know, I didn’t anticipate him being what he was last year).

All that to say, Oklahoma State isn’t an obvious favorite. I think making the case they’ll be stronger than Oklahoma or Iowa State is a bit difficult myself, but there’s also a good chance they have a lot more firepower in 2021 than they did in 2020 and offense can make all the difference in this league.

Oklahoma State’s formula

The Cowboys with Spencer Sanders at the helm are increasingly similar to an Art Briles’ style of offense. Meaning space, simplicity, and run/pass conflict creation are the major driving force of the offense.

Gundy and offensive coordinator Kasey Dunn had several designs last year drawn up to generate space for their star players and many of them did cause problems for opponents.

They had a couple of big flaws in the machine which hampered their execution of this strategy. One was the offensive line, which utilized at least a half-dozen different lineups and spent the year cycling through different 3-star underclassmen who weren’t expected to be key players until they were upperclassmen with multiple seasons of development. You can’t really overstate the extent to which this crushed the Oklahoma State machine. Without a sturdy enough offensive line to run the football consistently it was difficult to set up RPOs and play-action.

Another problem was the overlapping skill sets. Tylan Wallace is going to be a terrific pro wide receiver but he also played essentially the same position as up and comer Braydon Johnson. Oklahoma State isn’t likely to be better with Braydon Johnson replacing Wallace, but Johnson didn’t help the team as much in 2020 as you’d expect because they already had Wallace in his role. Landon Wolf and Dillon Stoner were both highly experienced and reliable slot receivers for the ‘Pokes and helped them win some games, and yet you’ll never see either of them do this:


This is Brennan Presley, who finally got some snaps for the ‘Pokes in their bowl game matchup with Miami and caught six balls for 118 yards and three touchdowns (this wasn’t even one of them! He’s just BARELY out of bounds). Obviously he’s explosive.

Pressley checks in at 5-8, 165 and ran an 11.08 in high school in the 100m. This isn’t elite but when it’s coming from a dude who’s only 5-8 it’s a big deal. Short guys have higher leg turnover and can change directions very easily, which is very useful in this game, but they also eat up less ground when they get going. If you’re still fast enough to run an 11.08 (4.6 type speed) with the quickness that comes from the high turnover (shorter legs), you’re really moving.

When Presley is paired regularly with Braydon Johnson, shown below…


...it’ll make for a very explosive receiver tandem. Neither of them are as good as Wallace (I don’t think), but together they are certainly a problem who can hold the attention of the defense both on the perimeter and down the field. If one of the Cowboys’ bigger receivers can do damage 1-on-1 opposite these two then you’re cooking with gasoline.

Additionally, while Spencer Sanders simply does not see the field cleanly or confident enough to make timely decisions, he is lethal throwing wide perimeter screens or throwing to spots down the field on play-action. I suspect his elite athleticism makes him overly prone to waiting for the play to break down so he can rely on his legs rather than trusting his vision and the system. The struggles of their offensive line played to his worst habits. We’ll see if he can break those habits after another offseason and some competition from Shane Illingworth.

This is another area where Oklahoma State could take a sizable leap this offseason which may not be properly appreciated yet. It could be Mike Gundy is old and washed up, has lost his touch or lost his ability to command the locker room, I’m sure we’ll see such articles this coming offseason. It’s at least equally possible the ‘Pokes simply didn’t have a developed enough prospect at quarterback in 2021 nor the offensive line to own the box after spacing out opponents with their spread tactics.

Here’s how the offensive line looks going into 2021:

OSU O-line heading into 2021.jpg

I’m guessing on their alignment and positions, although I’ve watched these guys (including Etienne, exempting Godlevske) so this isn’t a shot in the dark. Etienne is a bigger and better athlete than Springfield, whom I actually think is a solid player in his own right. They’re pretty big overall and Sills has shown he can also play tackle at a winning level. Between Sills, Springfield, Etienne, and then the younger guys they have a lot more options at tackle than in 2020 when Springfield’s emergence at left tackle was necessary to stabilize the entire unit.

The interior in particular is likely to be significantly improved over last season thanks to the addition of Godlevske and then a year’s growth from big, young guys like Cole Birmingham and Hunter Woodard who ideally wouldn’t have been asked to play such big roles until 2021 or 2022 but have now been blooded in important league games.

More ingredients in 2021

Oklahoma State will be better in the box in 2021 than they were in 2020, better in protection, and still solid at running back if the successes of L.D. Brown and Dominic Richardson backing up Chuba Hubbard are indicative of anything. Offensive line coach Charlie Dickey did wonders last season making it work with what they had, he’s very experienced at doing so after spending his previous 10 years helping build the Snyder-ball K-State Wildcats. These guys after another offseason with Dickey shouldn’t be overlooked.

They’ll also be necessarily better at quarterback either because Sanders takes a step forward and realizes more of his potential or because Shane Illingworth does so and takes his spot. Outside at receiver Gundy has more athletes waiting to go, they don’t struggle to find and develop great receivers in Stillwater.

The bubble screen shown above to Pressley, or any of the other plays involving the budding star, make plain Oklahoma State has weapons to execute their normal spacing/run-pass conflict strategy at a high level. You don’t want to deal with Pressley or Johnson in space, 1-on-1 and you may not love your chances against the run game either, particularly if Sanders is healthy enough to carry the ball 150x or so in the zone-option run game.

To my eyes, the 2021 Cowboys look like a normal 8-10 win Mike Gundy team. Dangerous and explosive on offense and disciplined but missing a few key pieces on defense. We’ve yet to see such a team in the Big 12 title game and I doubt 2021 is the exception but let’s not just bury the Cowboys either.
 

Ian Boyd

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They've got some big questions, like TCU. And I can't tell if Patterson is retiring on the job or if he just took a sabbatical ...

But both are proven coaches that can cobble together runs with an incomplete roster.
I think Patterson is trying to make one final good run so he can ride off into the sunset.
 
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stilesbbq

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7/8 team I think. I appreciate you making the bullish case for them this season but I doubt they are extremely competitive in a good year for the conference

Best case scenario is they play in a lot of tight and close games
 

Ian Boyd

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7/8 team I think. I appreciate you making the bullish case for them this season but I doubt they are extremely competitive in a good year for the conference

Best case scenario is they play in a lot of tight and close games
They just make a tough year tougher. Look around and the league and there’s not many teams who aren’t at least a little worried about dropping a shootout to the Pokes.
 

bowman93

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They just make a tough year tougher. Look around and the league and there’s not many teams who aren’t at least a little worried about dropping a shootout to the Pokes.
That’s my take away- there aren’t very many breaks in the schedule that you can say with confidence that “this should be a gimme”.

on another note, I’ve always enjoyed watching the good OkieState offenses operate- their receivers especially. I hope they get more out of Sanders this year in terms of developing as a QB, because if Gundy can trust him enough to really execute the offense, he could be a monster.