STILLWATER – As Oklahoma State opens preseason football practices Friday, there's an abundance of optimism and an absence of question marks.
Except on defense.
Same old, same old for a side that has surrendered yards and collected critics in recent years? Not necessarily, as the Cowboys don't come off as overly concerned, despite an apparent reliance on unproven players, even true freshmen, to help anchor the front seven.
Not yet, anyway.
OSU's record-setting offense returns nine starters from a year ago, including the dynamic pitch-and-catch tandem of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Scoring doesn't appear to be a problem, one reason the Cowboys opened at No. 8 in the preseason coaches poll Thursday.
Preventing points is another issue. And with the team's primary position battles all among the front seven – at defensive tackle and two linebacker spots – the questions marks are clearly focused.
“Right now, I think those questions are deserved,” senior safety Markelle Martin said of the defense. “But I think the seniors and the guys who have been around, we're going to make sure those young guys are ready.
“We want to be one of the best in the Big 12. We believe in it, and we're going to try to go out and do it.”
At defensive tackle, the Cowboys lost senior starters Chris Donaldson and Shane Jarka from a year ago. While neither was dominant, they were experienced and dependable.
Now, consider what OSU is looking at to fill the void: a cast of characters with a combined three career starts.
There's hope that junior Nigel Nicholas is ready for a breakout and that redshirt freshman Christian Littlehead has progressed and true freshmen James Castleman and Mike Mustafa are ready to contribute immediately, at least in supporting roles to a position of true no-names.
The good news is that Castleman and Mustafa aren't just being mentioned because of need. They've been pegged as potential future stars who can contribute now, with Castleman at 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds and Mustafa at 6-4, 270.
Are they ready?
“What you're seeing now is more players coming into our level physically ready to play,” said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy. “High school football has gotten so good. These guys are coming in ready to play more now than ever.
“If two of those guys could give us 12 plays a game, I'd be fired up. I don't know if they can do it. It's tough down in there.”
Unproven players are lined up to replace Orie Lemon and Justin Gent, too, after that pair played so well a year ago.
The leading candidates are sophomore Tyler Johnson, a former pro baseball player, and junior college transfer Alex Elkins, who has played a total of two years of football after switching from rugby.
Are they ready?
“I hope so,” Gundy said. “I know Tyler's gotten considerably better and made the transition, learned how to play at our level. We're going to find out about Alex really soon.
“They're mature and strong enough. But the mental aspect is so important these days, with the different offenses we see. They're physically ready to play.”
Caleb Lavey, Joe Mitchell and Kris Catlin are also in the mix at the linebacker spots.
The defensive backs are a strength, with Martin heading one of the league's best secondaries. So no questions there.
“It's just helping each other out, pushing things along and learning the defense,” Martin said. “Right now, they're very confident in what they're doing. And we'll continue to push them and work with them.”