STILLWATER — It's difficult for Mike Gundy to properly evaluate the progress of Oklahoma State's special teams units at this point.
The Cowboy coaching staff has decided to cut back on special teams drills this spring, primarily because many true freshmen who will contribute there this fall have not yet arrived on campus, while many other players likely will switch their special teams role during fall camp.
Still, there is a lot of intrigue surrounding special teams heading into 2013. The Cowboys will need to replace kicking triple threat Quinn Sharp. It will also be the second season using graduate assistant Ty Linder as the primary organizer after longtime special teams coordinator Joe DeForest left for West Virginia following the 2011 season.
Here's a look at where the OSU special teams units currently stand.
This doesn't become a full-fledged position battle until incoming freshman Ben Grogan arrives in the fall. But Gundy noted he has gotten a good look at the kickers on extra-point and field-goal tries this spring.
And so far, the results have not been positive.
Bobby Stonebreaker, whose only game action of his career is five kickoffs against Savannah State last season, returns for his junior season. Transfer Kip Smith, who was the starting kicker at UCLA before a quadriceps injury ended his 2011 season, also is a junior.
“It's going to take a little bit of time, so I think patience is important,” Gundy said. “We have guys on our campus, and we have one that's coming in, that have the ability to be successful.
“But if I was to tell you it's been anything other than below average at this point, it would probably be untrue.”
Michael Reichenstein, who has punted once in his career, is the only true punter currently on the roster.
The Cowboys could not settle on Josh Cooper's replacement in this role last season — using Charlie Moore, David Glidden, Caleb Muncrief and Ashton Lampkin with marginal results.
Then Josh Stewart suddenly emerged in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, returning his first punt for 64 yards. Gundy said that was enough for Stewart to earn the job for now, and he has been working as the No. 1 punt returner this spring.
“I'm trying to add that to my game,” Stewart said. “I don't want to just be a receiver. … As of now, I'm the punt return guy, and I plan on keeping it that way.”
Justin Gilbert returns as one of the nation's most electrifying kick returners, already totaling a school-record five touchdowns. Jeremy Smith also returned kicks last season, but that could change with him likely to move into the starting running back role.
Reichenstein has taken over the holding duties after Wes Harlan was flawless in that role during his Cowboy career.
This is one of the special teams areas where the Cowboys have plenty of experience, as Connor Sinko returns to snap on field goals and extra points and Andrew Suter is back to snap on punts.
This is probably the toughest area to gauge right now because the true freshmen (except Naim Mustafaa) have not yet arrived. But this is an area where OSU must improve, as the Cowboys allowed three total return touchdowns last season and ranked 111th in the nation in kickoff return yards allowed (24.85 per return) and 114th in punt return yards allowed (12.31 per return).
Gundy said he is satisfied with the Cowboys' approach to special teams organization yet added the coaching could have been better in 2012. But he puts that on himself, not Linder. The Cowboys have tweaked some assistant coaching responsibilities — for instance, new receivers coach Jason Ray is handling punt returners — and Linder and Gundy have continued to work closely on overseeing all areas.
“It was new from me, because (DeForest) had been here for 100 years,” Gundy said. “So we went through some adjustments. … I think that we were as productive as we could have been in some areas. But we should be more productive in others (this season), just from an experience standpoint and Ty being here and understanding a little bit more about our assistant coaches and what their strengths (are) in those certain special teams.”