Proven difference makers are stacked up in Stillwater.
Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden, Markelle Martin et al. They stoke an intoxicating buzz among Cowboys fans and carry the banner for an elevated program into Monday's appearance at the Big 12 Media Days in Dallas.
But for the buzz to build into an all-out frenzy by December and beyond, Oklahoma State will need more; more guys – critical-to-the-cause guys – to make a difference.
The good news: the Cowboys have candidates.
Here's a look at six who could help stamp 2011 as a special season…
Tyler Johnson, So., LB. The former pro baseball player has moved from intriguing story to potential starter. Johnson and Caleb Lavey are locked in a tight competition for the No. 1 middle linebacker spot where Orie Lemon was so valuable a year ago. For now, Johnson's physicality might provide the edge.
While Johnson got on the field for some valuable snaps in 2010, last season was all about finding his way around the field again. The learning curve remains steep, and he'll have to prove he's plugged into what Bill Young needs out of his man in the middle.
Still, there's optimism Johnson can get it done.
Nigel Nicholas, Jr., DT. It's well documented that OSU's soft spot appears to be in the interior of the defense's front line.
That can be a fatal flaw for a would-be contender.
That's why Nicholas is such a key. One of the few experienced tackles in the program, Nicholas is needed to provide strong play and a veteran presence. He had a solid spring and has matured during his time at OSU. Still, he's a bit undersized and must work harder to succeed. Having seemingly arrived as a starter, Nicholas can't afford to relax now.
James Castleman, Fr., DT. Really, you could include any of the young defensive tackles here, with true freshman Mike Mustafa and redshirt freshman Christian Littlehead also appearing vital to the position. It's asking a lot to throw a true freshman into the mix in the trenches of the Big 12 Conference. But it's not just a dire situation that makes Castleman a candidate to be a major contributor. The belief among coaches is that he's got the goods.
Alex Elkins, Jr., LB. This late bloomer – Elkins didn't play high school football – is set to replace the underrated Justin Gent at the weakside linebacker spot. After quickly adapting his rugby skills to the gridiron at Blinn Junior College, Elkins proved to be a rugged tackler. The jump from one-year JC standout to Big 12 capable is large, yet the Cowboys are counting on Elkins to make it.
Justin Gilbert, So., CB. Gilbert is hardly an unknown to Cowboys fans. He developed into a dangerous and dazzling kick returner as a true freshman a year ago. And he can make a difference in just that role again.
Except that wouldn't even be scraping the potential of what he can become.
Coaches peg Gilbert as an eventual All-Big 12 cornerback. His speed is already elite. And his cover skills are developing nicely. Now it's about mastering the nuances and gaining full comprehension of the defense.
Gilbert welcomed the spring battles with Blackmon, even winning a decent share. His time is coming.
Kevin Johnson, Fr., WR. Early impressions of Johnson last year were so good the Cowboys considered firing him into the rotation at wide receiver.
Opportunity, however, never materialized, and Johnson instead was redshirted. Now, however, Johnson should push to get on the field.
The Cowboys aren't starving for pass catchers. Far from it. So he'll have to earn any snaps he gets. But he could emerge as an added weapon and help on special teams.