The Oklahoma State offense looks to improve this year with the return of quarterback Mason Rudolph, receiver James Washington and one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Big 12.
Most of the question marks revolve around the Cowboy defense and the loss of All American defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah to the NFL. And even though OSU won 10 games last year, the running game was not up to normal standards under Coach Mike Gundy.
Cowboy fans will get a preview of that improvement at 1 p.m. April 16 at the OSU spring game.
With the return of Rudolph and Washington, OSU has back 75 percent of it rushing and receiving yards from last year.
All five starters are back from the offensive line for a group that was No. 22 in the nation in total offense and 14th in scoring. Nine of the Top 10 offensive linemen return.
Rudolph ranked second in the Big 12 last season and 17th nationally with 3,770 passing yards even though he split some time with J.W. Walsh (who graduated).
Rudolph, who lost his freshman redshirt year in the 11th game of the 2014 season, has a 12-3 record as a starter. He led the team to come-from-behind victories in six of those games in the second half.
ESPN Stats and Info reported that Rudolph threw 40 completions of 20 yards or longer – tying California’s Jared Goff for the national lead among Power Five conferences. He matched Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield with 13 touchdowns in those long passes.
“He’s always been a good leader,” Gundy said of Rudolph. “He’s a tough guy, and the players respect him for that reason. He just continues to develop.”
Rudolph’s 14.28 yards per pass completion in 2015 ranks No. 1 among returning quarterbacks who passed for a minimum of 2,500 yards last season.
“Coach Glass challenged some of us to bring it and to up the intensity,” Rudolph said. “He wants to make sure this team is growing and that we’re leading by example. I tried to improve in that area, but I also tried to up my game in all areas. I want to help my team get better.”
Redshirt freshman John Kolar is perhaps the top candidate as Rudolph’s backup. Other quarterbacks include third-year man Taylor Cornelius and redshirt freshman Gabe Neph.
Washington was a second-team All-Big 12 pick last year and he is arguably the best returning receiver in the league. He is the conference’s only returning 1,000-yard receiver and led all returning Big 12 wideouts in yards per game and touchdowns last season.
OSU also has Marcell Ateman and Jhajuan Seales, who both have more than 1,000 career receiving yards.
Ateman ranked third on the team a year ago with 45 receptions and 766 receiving yards and had five touchdown receptions. Seales made two receptions for 89 yards against Baylor and three catches for 59 yards and a touchdown against Oklahoma.
Jalen McCleskey and veterans Austin Hays and Chris Lacy round out the field of receivers.
Blake Jarwin was on the first team of the All-Big 12 team last year – as a fullback/tight end. He had 22 receptions and three touchdowns in his career.
Other tight ends are senior Zac Veatch, redshirt sophomore Jordan Frazier and Cole Neph, a redshirt sophomore walk-on who is moving from wide receiver.
Oklahoma State needs a standout running back to emerge.
“We all know that most offenses go as your quarterback goes,” Gundy said. “At some point, you have to be able to establish some running game and have the balance that allows you to be able to throw the ball. Defenses have made some strides in the last three years or so with spreading out offenses, so you need to have somebody who can run the ball and make a play. In most cases, if you look at our game, the guy running the ball has to run through somebody that’s a halfway player. There’s going to be some sort of contact at three to five yards, so he’s either going to have to run through him or make him miss. Most defenses aren’t going to play five-man boxes and allow you to just rush the football. Your schemes are certainly one part of it, but the second part of it is that you’ve got to have guys who can run through tackles and force defenses to play against the run.”
The leading candidates – Chris Carson (43.1 rush ypg), Raymond Taylor (27.0 rush ypg), Rennie Childs (23.4 rush ypg) and Jeff Carr (10.9 rush ypg) – didn’t stand out much last season.
The leaders of the offensive line are tackles Zach Crabtree and Victor Salako. Junior college transfer Larry Williams, who enrolled early, could contribute early.
“We’re going to work really hard at improving the running game, as we’ve talked about for the last couple of years,” Gundy said. “We’ve got a number of offensive linemen back that we feel good about. We’ll be more mature.”
The returning five offensive line players have combined for 97 career starts for OSU. Victor Salako’s has 23 starts from his time at UAB. Paul Lewis also has 19 career starts to his credit to bring the total of offensive line starts returning to 120, a total that leads the Big 12 by far. Next closest is West Virginia with 81.
On defense, Ogbah and first-team All-Big 12 cornerback Kevin Peterson are gone but 18 experience defensive players are back. OSU returns 70 percent of its tackles and 65 percent of its interceptions from 2015. Linebacker Justin Phillips and defensive lineman Vili Leveni played a lot in 2014, but missed 2015 to injury.
Safety Jordan Sterns and linebackers Jordan Burton and Chad Whitener will anchor the defense.
Junior defensive tackle Vincent Taylor had 48 tackles and 5.0 sacks in 2015 – the highest totals for any interior defensive lineman during the Mike Gundy era (2005-present).
“I’ve been trying to take it one day at a time in every way possible,” said Sterns. “But, I’ve been excited for spring ball ever since we took the pads off. I just wanted to put them back on. We were disappointed with those last three games, and this is where it starts. You have to go out and take advantage of every day, and every opportunity to be on the field.”
Senior Motekiai Maile, redshirt junior Vili Leveni and sophomore Darrion Daniels have improved. Leveni missed all of 2015 to injury.
The top candidates to replace Ogbah and Bean at defensive end are redshirt sophomores Jarrell Owens and Jordan Brailford.
Burton and junior Whitener are a pair of 2015 All-Big 12 linebackers. Burton ranked second on the team with 98 tackles, to go with nine tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. Whitener had 93 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and a fumble recovery a year ago. The Burton-Whitener duo combined for 191 tackles a year ago – which is the second-most among returning Big 12 linebacker duos.
Devante Averette had 30 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and defensive touchdown. Averette backed up Seth Jacobs at weakside linebacker a year ago, and with Jacobs now departed, Averette is a logical candidate to move into that spot.
Gyasi Akem, Kirk Tucker, Justin Phillips and Josh Mabin have all seen game action. Coming out of redshirt is Kevin Henry.
There are questions at cornerback.
Senior Ashton Lampkin and junior Ramon Richards have 21 career starts between them.
Lampkin broke up five passes last season and recorded an interception against Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl.
After starting nine games at cornerback as a true freshman in 2014 despite not playing corner in high school, Richards saw his role diminish last season when Lampkin returned to health after having missed most of 2014 to injury. Richards now returns to a first-team role.
Others in the mix include redshirt junior Darius Curry, early enrollee Malik Kearse and redshirt freshman Bryce Balous.
Senior free safety Jordan Sterns was on the first team All-Big 12 list last year. Sterns’ 224 career tackles are the most among all players returning in the Big 12 in 2016 and rank him fourth among all defensive backs from Power Five conferences.
Junior strong safety Tre Flowers has 19 career starts.
Senior Derrick Moncrief sat out last year per NCAA transfer rules after coming to Stillwater from Auburn. After being ranked as the top junior college safety in the nation, Moncrief recorded 27 tackles and a fumble recovery for the Tigers in 2014. He could challenge for a starting spot.
Others in the mix include veterans Jerel Morrow and Dylan Harding and rookies Kenneth Edison-McGruder and Za’Carrius Green.
In Ben Grogan and Zach Sinor, Oklahoma State returns its starting kicker and starting punter from a year ago. Grogan ranks fourth in school history with 316 points scored and second in PATs made and attempted.
Sinor was one of just seven freshmen in the country who made the list of candidates for the Ray Guy Award last year. Of his 75 punts, 31 were downed inside the 20 with only three touchbacks. He was a central figure in OSU allowing only 94 punt return yards on the season – a mark that ranks sixth in school history.
Gundy wants to improve the play of special teams.
“When we had good returners, we were great on special teams,” Gundy said. “We have to make a decision on how many starters we want to use on those teams based on the total number of reps they’re getting on offense and defense. We’ve had long discussions about that over the last couple of months. I think the conclusion was that we wanted to base our reps and our schemes on the availability we had with guys who can help us.
“If we had to use veteran players that are going to get 50 or more snaps on offense or defense, we’d have to be a little less broad with the plays we’re using on special teams. It certainly helps in the return game if you’ve got a guy who can make plays. We do have kickers back and we do have punters back, so that should help us as we start the season.”