STILLWATER — How to replace Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon was, understandably, a major question during Oklahoma State spring practice and something that will continue to be monitored in 2012.
But there are also three big holes to fill on the Cowboy offensive line left by Levy Adcock, Grant Garner and Nick Martinez.
Yet coach Mike Gundy has told reporters in recent weeks that this could be his best offensive line he's had at OSU.
To be fair, Gundy has been dropping that “best we've ever had here” line a lot, because the overall depth in the program is the best it's ever been. Still, that's high praise for an offensive line that has generally been regarded as one of the best in the nation after allowing only 22 sacks over the past two seasons and helping the Cowboys rank third in the nation in total offense in both 2010 and 2011.
It's almost simply become expected, though, that unit will be stout each season. Offensive line coach Joe Wickline's magic in 2010 is largely responsible for that.
Wickline took a line that lost four starters and mixed and matched and put guys in the right spot to help OSU average 174.38 rushing yards and 345.8 passing yards per game that season while allowing just 10 sacks. That success then carried over to 2011 with largely the same group, other than the addition of junior college transfer Michael Bowie.
Now OSU must make up for the loss of an All-American in Adcock and the Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year in Garner, but it's arguably more equipped to fill those voids.
“Everybody's getting better,” senior Lane Taylor said this spring. “We all have experience. We've been here long enough, and we really gel together and are doing a good job out here.”
Taylor will surely be the anchor of the group as the most experienced player on the entire OSU roster (36 starts). Bowie and Parker Graham were part-time starters last season. Jonathan Rush, who has 16 career starts, will return from his knee injury in the fall. And the injury that limited Rush during the spring gave junior Brandon Webb an opportunity to get the most reps of his career.
Center is, of course, still a big question. Senior Evan Epstein is a program veteran but has never snapped the ball during a game. Behind him are two youngsters in sophomore Jake Jenkins and redshirt freshman Travis Cross.
The Cowboys will need the line to be the backbone of the offense in 2012. True freshman quarterback Wes Lunt will likely need more time to throw that Weeden did. And OSU will almost certainly lean on the run game more in 2012, meaning holes need to be opened for Joseph Randle, Jeremy Smith and Co.
And with the way OSU reloaded on the line in 2010 and then sustained the strong play in 2011 with many of the players that are still on the roster, it's realistic to assume it will be.