Oklahoma State scuffled through 2018, needing an upset win over Missouri in the Liberty Bowl to avoid the program’s first losing season since Mike Gundy's head coaching debut in 2005.
And more questions than certainties accompanied the team into the offseason. Good news: The Cowboys are confident they have the necessary answers, at least in getting back close to the 10-win seasons that had become the norm before last year's 7–6 finish.
Much will depend on the new quarterback, almost certain to be touted redshirt freshman Spencer Sanders, as weapons are plentiful everywhere else. Defense in the Big 12 rarely runs reliable, yet Oklahoma State has playmakers on that side, too, especially among the back seven.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Offense for 2019
Sean Gleeson steps in as coordinator, replacing Mike Yurcich, who left for Ohio State. The Cowboys won't abandon the spread attack that’s defined their exciting brand, but Gleeson's imprint should be noticeable, featuring elements of the innovative schemes that fueled Princeton’s rise to the top of the FCS scoring chart.
Gleeson's concepts, along with the influence of new line coach Charlie Dickey, figure to involve more quarterback run option, a natural fit for Sanders. A dynamic dual-threat quarterback in high school, Sanders went 46–6 as a four-year starter. "He's got a fantastic arm and has the ability to make plays and run," Gundy says.
Sanders battled former Hawaii starter Dru Brown in the spring, and the competition is set to continue into August. Still, Sanders' versatility and enticing upside make him the man to beat.
The new quarterback will enjoy an array of proven playmakers, led by wideout Tylan Wallace. The fast and physical Wallace ranked second nationally in receiving with 1,491 yards, earning first-team All-America honors and finishing as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award. Dillon Stoner and Landon Wolf also return, and emerging threats are lined up to join the fun, including converted quarterback Jelani Woods at tight end.
Even after losing standout running back Justice Hill late last season, the ground game remained strong, with Chuba Hubbard averaging 106.3 yards per game against Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU and Missouri. Hubbard, a junior track star in Canada, adds vision and cut-back skills to his bursts. Competition for playing time is stiff behind Hubbard, with LD Brown, Dezmon Jackson, Jahmyl Jeter and incoming freshman Deondrick Glass, a four-star Texas prospect, all in the mix.
Dickey, the former architect of Kansas State's stellar offensive lines, inherits returning starters in Marcus Keyes, Johnny Wilson and Teven Jenkins, who form the core of a solid unit.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Defense for 2019
The recurring theme in Stillwater, if not across the Big 12, is whether respect can be gained on defense. One hope for the Cowboys is that Year 2 under coordinator Jim Knowles brings more continuity and consistency. There's plenty of room for improvement, after the Cowboys ranked No. 97 in scoring defense and No. 112 in total defense. It wasn’t all bad, as the defense averaged 3.0 sacks per game, good for 10th nationally.
In the secondary, Oklahoma State finds valuable strength. Corners A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams, with 52 combined career starts between them, are all-conference caliber and able to match up with the league’s elite receivers.
Forced to play three true freshmen at safety in 2018, the Cowboys should now benefit. And those rookie debuts weren't all bad, with Kolby Peel, Jarrick Bernard and Tanner McCalister showing promise. All three will play key roles again, along with Malcolm Rodriguez, the team’s leading returning tackler.
There's talent but little depth at linebacker. Calvin Bundage, in his third season as a starter, plays at a frenetic pace but must be more consistent. Devin Harper is expected to start opposite Bundage, but he missed the spring with an injury.
The big question rests up front, where six players — representing all four starters and two key backups — have moved on. The Cowboys got a boost in the offseason when Colorado transfer Israel Antwine, who started 11 games last year as a freshman, was ruled immediately eligible, and Bowling Green's Kyle Junior joined the program as a grad transfer. Those two ends will bring experience, fortifying an otherwise young group.
Previewing Oklahoma State's Specialists for 2019
Placekicker Matt Ammendola enters 2019 sixth on the NCAA's active scoring list. Gundy reached to Australia for his next punter in 29-year-old Tom Hutton, a veteran of the same ProKick Australia program that has produced three former Ray Guy Award winners. The Cowboys are looking to infuse life into their return game.
Oklahoma State probably should have been better than 7–6 a year ago, when it lost four games as a favorite, and it figures to push the wins mark up in 2019. But how high?
The schedule is favorable, with a light nonconference opening serving as a break-in opportunity for the new quarterback ahead of the Big 12 opener at Texas. And QB play will be critical, with all the other pieces in place on offense and a need to keep pushing the pedal and score.