STILLWATER — Under hot and humid conditions on the Boone Pickens Stadium turf Wednesday, the Oklahoma State Cowboys opened fall football practice in preparation for the Sept. 5 opener against Georgia.
The Cowboys enter the 2009 season with high expectations, both internally and externally. OSU coach Mike Gundy has stated a goal of winning a Big 12 title, which likely will require wins over Texas and Oklahoma. Several national analysts have the Cowboys among the top 15 teams in the country.
It's the beginning of a long journey, which could be rewarding — or disappointing. With the goal of insuring success, Gundy has five things he wants to accomplish in the next month of practices.
(1) Make sure the Cowboys remain in good physical condition, yet try to avoid burnout.
Breakdown: OSU is in a tough position. They open with a great opponent, great expectations and under the early September heat at Boone Pickens Stadium. Gundy wants to make sure his players can play a full 60 minutes without fatigue. At the same time, keeping the starters healthy with fresh legs heading into the season will be a challenge.
Quotable: "There's a real fine line in working them where they can go hard the first game, but you don't want to drain their body." — Gundy
Notable: OSU will need young, inexperienced players such as running back Kye Staley, receiver Justin Blackmon, defensive end Richetti Jones, safeties Markelle Martin and Victor Johnson to provide depth on both sides of the ball.
(2) Legit backup quarterback
Breakdown: This is one of the biggest question marks heading into fall camp. Brandon Weeden and Alex Cate have been battling for the backup quarterback job since last season, but neither has taken a stronghold. Gundy wants someone to step up during August practice.
Quotable: "At some point, we want to come up with a legitimate backup quarterback. And name that guy." — Gundy
Notable: Cate was a highly regarded recruit coming out of Cottonwood High in Salt Lake City. Entering his junior year, Cate has yet to live up to that hype. Weeden returned to college football after playing professional baseball, but he has yet to take the position and run with it.
(3) Get a great feel for the system that new defensive coordinator Bill Young has in place.
Breakdown: Young has brought in a system that focuses on making game-changing plays and forcing turnovers. The key to a system like that is the players understanding assignments and playing off instinct. Gundy wants to use the fall to eliminate the need for his defense to think so they can just react.
Quotable: "Coach Young believes in trying to keep it simple and let them play. You've recruited them and watched them play on Friday nights, let them make plays." — Cowboys cornerbacks coach Jason Jones.
Notable: Senior linebacker Andre Sexton is a leader both on and off the field. He will be counted on to make plays and help OSU's inexperienced safeties during non-conference play. Expect senior linebackers Patrick Levine and Orie Lemon to help ensure everyone is in the right place.
(4) Become better tacklers
Breakdown: Did you see the Oregon game? Quarterbacks should not be running defenders over one second, then making them miss the next. Gundy felt his team was not physical in the bowl game and is aiming to make sure that doesn't happen in 2009.
Quotable: "By practice 12, they are going to understand that we want to be a physical football team. That's very important to our coaching staff." — Gundy
Notable: Enter "The Punisher". Senior safety Lucien Antoine has worked hard to come back from a torn ACL in 2008. This year, he could be the key to setting a physical tone on defense. He didn't get the nickname "The Punisher" by pushing guys out of bounds.
(5) Take better care of the ball offensively
Breakdown: OSU finished with 20 turnovers (1.6 per game) in 2008, which tied for 34th in the nation. Oklahoma and Baylor tied for first in the nation and Big 12 with only 11 turnovers each. Gundy would probably be satisfied if OSU can cut that to 12 total turnovers or one turnover per game.
Quotable: "Offensively, we want to eliminate turnovers during camp." — Gundy
Notable: The Cowboys do a pretty good job of taking care of the ball. Robinson only threw 10 interceptions, but nonetheless, that's still nearly one interception per game. The Cowboys also had 10 fumbles in 2009.