STILLWATER — Joe Wickline insists he's “just a guy,” not a magician or mad scientist locked in his office while furiously scribbling various Oklahoma State offensive line combinations.
But the Cowboys' unit underwent its most dramatic makeover so far this season against TCU on Saturday. Parker Graham moved from left tackle to right guard, Daniel Koening from right tackle to left tackle and Chris Grisbhy from right guard to right tackle. That combo stuck for a grand total of one series, when Grisbhy left the game due to illness and Brandon Garrett stepped in that spot.
It was the latest Wickline experiment in a season where the offensive line — a position group that has so often been one of OSU's greatest strengths — has struggled to find consistency as part of a scuffling Cowboy offense that ranks 95th in the nation in rushing (136.5 yards per game) and has often sent J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf scrambling out of the pocket.
“It's been an adventure,” left guard Brandon Webb said. “Everybody's been moving around all season. Normally by this time, unless somebody gets hurt, everybody's pretty much settled in their spot. We're halfway through the season and everybody's still shuffled around.”
Wickline, who is regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in football, won't bite when asked if this has been his most challenging season at OSU. Actually, he says, this is just like every year. Players graduate. They get hurt. They get sick.
“I sure wouldn't want to try to suggest that I'm any different than any coach in the business,” Wickline said, “because we all have issues and we all have personnel problems. That's part of the business. It's our job to get it worked out.”
And in recent years, Wickline certainly had.
In 2010, he replaced four starters from the previous season and directed a line that helped the Cowboys rank in the top 5 in the nation in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense. Last season, OSU lost projected starting left tackle Michael Bowie, who's now starting in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks, just before fall camp and covered nicely.
But this season has been different.
OSU lost two starters from last season's squad in mainstay right guard Lane Taylor and center Evan Epstein. Cowboy coach Mike Gundy hinted in the spring that his squad could be thin on the line, when he suggested part of the reason for a vanilla offense in the spring finale was because the Cowboys didn't have enough game-ready players to field two complete lines.
Then, projected starting left tackle Devin Davis, who was considered perhaps the unit's best player, sustained a season-ending knee injury during fall camp. Koenig missed two games and about 20 days of practice due to injury. Others have made mistakes through six games.
That's all led to Graham starting at left tackle and right guard. And Grisbhy and Koenig at right guard and right tackle. In all, five players have taken the first snap at right guard. Only Webb and center Jake Jenkins have started every game at the same position.
And though the Cowboys have brought in nine offensive linemen in their last two recruiting classes, only Grisbhy, Garrett and Paul Lewis have been ready for meaningful snaps this season.
The combination we saw Saturday was first introduced in practice last Sunday or Tuesday, Webb said. And the results were uneven against a TCU defense widely regarded as the best in the Big 12.
Jeremy Smith gained just 14 yards on 12 carries, but true freshman Rennie Childs totaled 45 yards and a touchdown on just nine attempts. The Horned Frogs recorded two sacks.
So what led to the overhaul? Wickline wouldn't divulge details out of respect to the players who were moved and replaced, but kept to his philosophy that he'll take getting the best five players on the field over continuity.
Gundy classified the offensive line's performance Saturday as “very average.” Wickline also understands his group still has a long way to go.
But he was encouraged by Saturday's progress with the Cowboys' latest combination.
“We're not ready for the draft right now,” Wickline said. “We've got a little work to do, but I think there's a starting point as a group, both on the first team, on the second team, guards, tackles, centers.
“I really I think we're just starting to come together a little bit. I think there's a nice fit, there's a nice chemistry, so we'll see how it works.”