The top of the Big 12 seems set with Oklahoma and Iowa State leading the way in 2021, so spring practice is the first opportunity for Oklahoma State to work on both sides of the ball in an effort to make the program’s first appearance in the Big 12 title game. The Cowboys have posted 15 consecutive winning seasons overall and just two losing marks in conference play since ‘08. Oklahoma State has been a consistent winner under coach Mike Gundy and there’s little reason to believe this program will deviate from its recent track record in ’21.
Oklahoma State had aspirations of playing for the Big 12 title last season but fell short with an 8-3 mark. However, two of those defeats came by seven points or less, and the other loss came at the hands of Oklahoma (41-13). With 12 starters back, the Cowboys should be a top 25 team, but Gundy and his staff have several question marks to address in spring ball.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oklahoma State's Spring Practices
1. The Next Step for Spencer Sanders
The 2021 offseason is an important one for quarterback Spencer Sanders. As a freshman in 2019, he connected on 155 of 247 passes for 2,065 yards and 16 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. In a bit of a statistical oddity, Sanders matched his attempts and completions in ’20 and threw for 2,007 yards and 14 touchdowns to eight picks. The Texas native watched his yards per attempt decline from 8.4 in ’19 to 8.1 in ’20. Over the last two years, Sanders has rushed for 897 yards and added four more scores on the ground. However, all of Sanders’ statistics from last season come with a caveat, as he suffered an ankle injury in the opener against Tulsa and missed two games. For Oklahoma State to challenge for a trip to the Big 12 title game, Sanders needs to take the next step in his development and cut down on some of the mistakes (19 picks). Additionally, this spring is a good opportunity for backup Shane Illingworth to get comfortable in case Sanders is out due to injury or struggles with turnovers in 2021.
2. Reload at Receiver
Finding skill talent usually isn’t a problem in Stillwater, but there will be some new faces in the mix for time at running back and receiver this offseason. Last year’s leading rusher Chuba Hubbard is off to the NFL, leaving Dezmon Jackson, LD Brown and Dominic Richardson to handle the workload in the backfield. Considering those three players combined for 1,207 yards last season, there’s not much concern at running back. However, this spring is the first chance to figure out the pecking order at the position.
The outlook is less certain at receiver after Tylan Wallace (59 catches) and Dillon Stoner (42) departed following the Cheez-It Bowl win over Miami. The cupboard is hardly bare, however. Brennan Presley impressed against the Hurricanes with six catches for 118 yards and three touchdowns, Washington State transfer Tay Martin is poised for a bigger role after catching 15 passes last fall, and Braydon Johnson is back after grabbing 20 receptions in 2020. A couple of early enrollees could push for time this spring, while former four-star prospect Langston Anderson will also look to make an impression.
3. Find the Right Five Up Front
Injuries and roster attrition hit the offensive line hard in 2020. As a result, Oklahoma State’s front line was inconsistent, giving up 26 sacks while rushers averaged only 4.06 yards per carry – the program’s lowest mark since ’15. But the news isn’t all bad here for Gundy and coordinator Kasey Dunn. That experience could pay off in the form of an improved group, especially with a normal offseason to iron out some of the wrinkles. Replacing NFL-bound tackle Teven Jenkins isn’t going to be easy, though. The Cowboys bring back six players with starting experience last year, including guards Josh Sills and Hunter Woodard and tackle Jake Springfield. Additional help is on the way in the form of Miami (Ohio) transfer Danny Godlevske and junior college recruit Caleb Etienne.
4. Up Front on Defense
The overall performance of Oklahoma State’s defense has trended in the right direction over the last few seasons. After giving up 6.04 yards per play and 32.5 points a game in 2018, the Cowboys allowed 23.5 points a contest and just 5.3 yards a snap last fall. With seven starters back, the offseason to-do list isn’t too lengthy here, but coordinator Jim Knowles has plenty to work on. Up front, this unit needs to get better against the run after allowing 160.1 rushing yards a game in 2020. Tackle Cameron Murray is the only significant departure in the trenches, but the status of end Trace Ford is unclear after a season-ending knee injury. Tyler Lacy and Brock Martin are back at end, while Israel Antwine, Sione Asi and Arkansas transfer Collin Clay are set to anchor the interior. Knowles has to patch a void at linebacker with Amen Ogbongbemiga leaving, but Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper provide a strong foundation at the position.
5. Replacing Rodarius Williams
The biggest concern in the secondary rests at cornerback after Rodarius Williams – a second-team All-Big 12 selection – departed Stillwater. However, the foundation is still strong here, as the Cowboys boast a trio of experienced safeties – Tre Sterling, Kolby Harvell-Peel and Tanner McCalister, along with cornerbacks Jarrick Bernard-Converse, Thomas Harper and Christian Holmes. Using “concern” might be too strong of a word here with the experience returning. However, there’s still room to improve after giving up 12 plays of 40-plus yards last season and depth must emerge at cornerback.
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