Big 12 preview: Oklahoma State

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Built for speed, the Oklahoma State offense entered fall camp attempting to fine-tune its attack to go even faster.
That could spell trouble for opposing defenses considering the Cowboys were the media pick to capture the Big 12 title, a championship they won two years ago behind the dynamic duo of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. They are also ranked No. 13 in the preseason poll by Associated Press.
The tag of favorite was applied in spite of a question at quarterback as Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh entered camp bidding for the starting role. Each played last season, along with Wes Lunt, who left the program. Chelf finished the year with five straight starts, leading Oklahoma State past Purdue in the Heart of Dallas Bowl as the Cowboys finished 8-5 overall and 5-4 in the Big 12.
Now, they want to go on the attack. Not only on offense, but on defense.
"Our defensive line is much more aggressive in coming off the ball," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said early on in fall camp. "It makes it harder of our offense to make plays."
Once the offense becomes more comfortable, in all likelihood with Chelf as the appointed starter, it will look to play at an even higher tempo. Its 503-yard average ranked only fourth in the Big 12 a year ago, as did the 672 plays the Cowboys ran.
Part of the reason behind snapping the ball quicker is to make the Oklahoma State system even more appealing to recruits, though the Cowboys have made great strides already landing high-level prospects under Gundy.
"We think speed is an advantage on offense," Gundy said. "We also feel like young men who are in high school that have an opportunity to touch the football want to play in that (fast-paced) style. They look forward to it."
As much as the skill players get the bulk of the attention, Oklahoma State will rely heavily on three returning linemen who started last season, including standout guard Parker Graham. Josh Stewart enjoyed a breakout year leading the OSU receivers with 101 catches for 1,210 yards, though the stable is well-stocked with other veterans such as Blake Jackson, Charlie Moore and Tracy Moore. Jeremy Smith has contributed to the rushing attack as a backup behind all-conference pick Joseph Randle.
All the experience, including what Chelf provides as a senior familiar with the system, will help in the transition made by new coordinator Mike Yurcich, who was hired out of the Division II ranks to replace Todd Monken.
Defensively, the change of focus began by dumping Bill Young as the coordinator. The veteran coach was adept at teaching the Cowboys the art of generating turnovers, but they often had trouble making stops and getting off the field. Glenn Spencer was promoted into the sole role of coordinator and hopes that by the Cowboys becoming more aggressive, they can generate more stops.
Defensive tackle Calvin Barnett is a huge key to the defense after getting on in eight tackles for loss a year ago. With him to plug the middle, opportunities should be created for the linebackers, who are led by Shaun Lewis. Safety Daytawion Lowe is the top returning tackler, as well as a leader in the back end. The cornerbacks, led by Justin Gilbert, are expected to play more press coverage after playing loose in the past and waiting for interception opportunities.
Gundy was pleased with his team's attitude as it launched fall camp and prepared for a potentially gritty opener against an SEC opponent, Mississippi State. That game, on Aug. 31, will be played at a neutral site, Houston's Reliant Stadium.
"Our body language, our attitude, the team chemistry of these guys is really good," Gundy said.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Oklahoma State was criticized last season for scheduling a Championship Subdivision weakling, Savannah State, in its opener. The Cowboys corrected that unsightly flaw by drawing Mississippi State of the SEC for a neutral site matchup in Houston to begin the 2013 season. The Bulldogs have enjoyed three straight winning seasons and gone to three straight bowls under coach Dan Mullen. The opener should be a test the Cowboys pass before traveling to Texas-San Antonio and playing at home against Lamar. Oklahoma State opens Big 12 play at West Virginia on Sept. 29, leaving the Cowboys with the strong likelihood they can get through September undefeated.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: As much as the quarterback position is considered some kind of controversy, Oklahoma State moved the football successfully last season with three different players operating the offense. Whether Clint Chelf and J.W. Walsh directs the attack is probably immaterial considering the system Gundy has implemented. As long as the Cowboys click at high-tempo with smooth efficiency, they will stay in games by scoring points in bunches. WR Josh Stewart returns as a top playmaker, though the football will be spread to other receivers. RB Jeremy Smith is a proven talent who will share carries with other backs. The defense must manage enough stops to win scoring duels, and veteran talent such as DT Calvin Barnett, LB Shaun Lewis and FS Daytawion Lowe provide sufficient leadership.
AREAS OF CONCERN: As odd as it may sound for a team that is usually great at moving the chains and also finding the end zone, punting and place-kicking are two huge concerns following the loss of Quinn Sharp. He was superb handling both responsibilities, enabling the Cowboys to cash in on field goals in case the offense stalled, or pinning opponents deep with well-placed punts. Without him, the Cowboys' special teams will be a work in progress. The desire to become more aggressive on defense is a good move, though OSU made need some time to adjust coming out of its bend-but-don't-break system. Offensive veterans, including three starters among linemen, should make the transition to new coordinator Mike Yurcich fairly smooth, though there will be bumps.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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