From breaking in a freshman quarterback to relying on its defense — yes, defense — there are plenty of storylines and intriguing questions prior to the start of football season. Here is Gina Mizell's 5-minute guide to the 2012 football season:
How will Wes Lunt perform?
This is obvious. All eyes will be on the true freshman as he takes over the starting job. Lunt physically looks the part — he's bulked up to about 220 pounds and has the strong, accurate arm to run OSU's spread offense. He's picked the system up quickly. And he's displayed a composed demeanor during practice. But how will he respond in a game situation, like being harassed by Texas' defensive line? To a receiver dropping a pass on a critical third down? To his first rowdy road environment in Tucson in Week 2? No one knows at this point. There's no way of getting around it — Lunt's performance will greatly dictate the trajectory of OSU's season.
Who will be the Cowboys' No. 1 receiver?
OSU lost five of its top eight receivers, including two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon. That means a new top target must emerge. Tracy Moore, who has excelled in his transition from the inside to the outside, seems like the logical choice to take on that role. But there are other intriguing candidates, such as spring sensation Charlie Moore, sophomore Josh Stewart, junior college transfer Blake Jackson and a heap of freshmen like C.J. Curry and Blake Webb.
How good is this defense — really?
Coach Mike Gundy proclaims this to be the fastest and most athletic defense he's had since becoming the head coach at OSU. A glance at the depth and experience across the board appears to back up that statement, with eight starters returning on a unit that forced an NCAA-best 44 turnovers a season ago. But this is also a unit that ranked 107th in total defense, a number that may have soured voters who played a role in keeping the Cowboys out of the national title game. This defense should be improved this season, but will it be good enough to carry the Cowboys while Lunt and the offense find its footing?
Will special teams remain special?
Former longtime assistant Joe DeForest, who left during the offseason to become to defensive coordinator at West Virginia, built outstanding special teams units in Stillwater. Two of the key pieces from last season remain in punter/kicker Quinn Sharp and kick returner Justin Gilbert. But a large bulk of the special teams coordinator duties will fall on graduate assistant Ty Linder this season. And what about punt returns? Stewart struggled mightily to field the ball cleanly during the spring finale, and David Glidden has been limited in fall camp because of an ankle injury.
Which freshmen will make an immediate impact?
Receiver and defensive end seem like the likely spot for freshmen to get a shot. Multiple freshmen. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken half-joked that all five true freshman receivers — Curry, Webb, Brandon Sheperd, Austin Hays and Jhajuan Seales — could be thrown into the mix this season. Defensive coordinator Bill Young has been impressed with all four incoming defensive ends, especially Victor Irokansi. Injuries at backup cornerback have given Kevin Peterson and Ashton Lampkin valuable reps during fall camp, which could lead to playing time in the secondary.
5 IMPACT PLAYERS NOT NAMED WES LUNT
* Joseph Randle, junior running back: If it's possible to score 26 touchdowns and be overlooked, Randle was last season, with the star power of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon grabbing attention. Randle, a versatile threat as a runner and a pass-catcher out of the backfield, will likely be even more important to the Cowboy offense this season as Lunt adjusts to the college game.
* Justin Gilbert, junior cornerback/kick returner: Arguably the Cowboys' best overall football player, Gilbert is a freak athlete and an electric playmaker on both defense and special teams. He snagged five interceptions while continuing to grow as a cover corner last season, and scored two touchdowns on kick returns. If he continues to progress at the same rate, expect an All-Big 12-caliber season from Gilbert — and for him to bolt for the NFL when it's over.
* Alex Elkins, senior linebacker: Elkins was a starter for the Big 12 champs a season ago while mostly playing on instincts and pure athletic ability. A guy who didn't play organized football until an open tryout at Blinn Junior College, Elkins could develop into a scary-good player as he continues to learn the Cowboys' defensive system.
* Brodrick Brown, senior cornerback: A preseason All-Big 12 selection, Brown is a shutdown corner that can make the circus interception. And the 5-8 “Bulldog” consistently does it while being matched up against much taller receivers.