STILLWATER — One of the most popular questions facing Oklahoma State heading into the season was posed to coach Mike Gundy last week.
Who will be the Cowboys' leading receiver?
Without much of a flinch, Gundy had a bit of a surprising answer.
“I'd say Joe Randle,” the coach said.
Sure, having an established 1,200-yard rusher and touchdown machine in Randle, not to mention backfield mate Jeremy Smith, will be a huge help as true freshman quarterback Wes Lunt gets acclimated to college football. But Randle's versatility as a pass-catcher will be just as valuable.
He can catch the ball out of the backfield, or split out with the receivers. And he's got the speed and shimmy-shake moves to make a defender miss in space that can turn a short, easy pass for Lunt into a big play.
“He just can get the ball so many times,” Gundy said. “We throw that ball out there to him sideways, and then all the check down stuff is to a back.
“Now, Joe and Jeremy could be rotating, so (being the leading receiver) may not happen. But that position (running back) could get as many catches as anybody. Easy.”
Though Randle has always been lauded for his wide array of skills, it's possible he wasn't utilized as a receiver enough at times last season, where he tallied 43 catches for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
After catching nine balls for 99 yards in OSU's second game of the season against Arizona, Randle's best receiving performance the rest of the year came when he totaled five catches for 31 yards and a touchdown against Kansas State. Compare that to Randle's freshman season, when he tallied seven games with more than 31 receiving yards and finished the season with 427 yards on 37 catches.
Granted, Randle's role dramatically changed in 2011, going from Kendall Hunter's backup to the featured back. And the Cowboys still had plenty of reliable receiving options, led by two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper.
Still, Randle has shown he has the ability to play a significant role in the passing game.
What could also benefit Lunt and the Cowboys is Smith's apparent improvement as a receiver during the offseason. That was needed at times last season, most notably in the Iowa State game, when Smith dropped two passes on a key fourth-quarter drive.
“We'll see how that translates over,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said of Smith. “I think he's really worked at it and gotten a lot better at understanding catching the ball in space where the quarterback can find him.”
Yes, there will be a lot of new faces catching the football for the Cowboys this season. Yes, right now it's hard to pin down which one will be the leading receiver.
But the result will probably be positive for Lunt when a running back, especially Randle, is the intended target.