After three straight 10-win seasons, Oklahoma State finds itself practically starting over on both sides of the ball. On offense, Mike Gundy's top priority is determining his new starting quarterback. The good news is that whoever wins the job has the Big 12's leading rusher to lean on and plenty of receivers to throw to. The defense returns seven starters but will be installing a new system under a new coordinator. The Cowboys have some big shoes to fill on offense and need to take a step forward on defense if they want to maintain their status as one of their conference's top teams.
Previewing Oklahoma State Football's Offense for 2018
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Mike Gundy stood smiling on a temporary stage in Orlando last December, celebrating a win over Virginia Tech in the Camping World Bowl that completed Oklahoma State's third straight 10-win season. "Very proud of the seniors that are moving on," Gundy said of a group small in number, yet significant in accomplishment during the Cowboys' rise in the Big 12. "Now we've got to pass the torch."
The most challenging handoff takes place on offense, where quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington, the most prolific pass-and-catch duo in school history, must be replaced. And everyone is watching, particularly at quarterback, where as many as four candidates are in a competition that could extend into August, if not longer.
Senior Taylor Cornelius carried an edge over sophomore Keondre Wudtee in the spring. Two more serious contenders - Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown and prized recruit Spencer Sanders - were set to join the mix this summer. Brown offers experience that is otherwise lacking, while Sanders, a dynamic dual-threat option ranked by some as the top quarterback prospect in Texas, is considered the future at the position.
Whoever wins the job will have plenty of playmakers at his disposal. Versatile back Justice Hill returns off an All-Big 12 season that saw his 1,467 rushing yards lead the league. Jalen McCleskey, who has so far piled up 152 catches, 1,710 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns as a secondary option to Washington, is ready for the spotlight. And the receiver position is deep with proven and potential standouts.
The offensive line is solid, too, with the Cowboys counting eight players capable of starting, led by all-conference guard Marcus Keyes.
Previewing Oklahoma State Football's Defense for 2018
After ranking 53rd, 93rd, 100th, 92nd and, last season, 79th in total defense, Gundy made a change at coordinator, bringing in Jim Knowles to incorporate his 4-2-5 scheme. Knowles, successful in the same challenging position at Duke, inherits seven starters, including all-conference candidates in defensive end Jordan Brailford, linebackers Justin Phillips and Calvin Bundage and cornerbacks A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams.
Along with the new look, which should better fit in the spread-happy Big 12, there's an added emphasis on attacking and aggressiveness.
Depth is an issue at the tackle and corner spots, and the three safety positions all need to be filled, creating some concern.
Previewing Oklahoma State Football's Specialists for 2018
Matt Ammendola shook off a shaky start last season to become a reliable and long-range weapon on field goals. His 23 made field goals led the league and ranked fifth in the FBS. Elsewhere, the Oklahoma State kicking game needs attention. Punter Zach Sinor, after an outstanding 2016 season, slumped last fall.
Outside the program, all focus centers on replacing Rudolph and Washington, understandably. Inside, however, there's a quiet confidence, with 12 returning starters and plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
A quarterback must emerge, but Oklahoma State coaches are excited about their options. The schedule offers two comfortable games - Missouri State and South Alabama - to get the quarterback some confidence, before Boise State arrives in Stillwater for an intriguing non-conference clash. If all goes well early, it could signal business as usual for the Cowboys.