STILLWATER — The Oklahoma State football team will begin returning to Stillwater over the next few weeks. The Cowboys will start preparations for the 2011 season with the hopes of making a run at a Big 12 Championship — and possibly more.
The summer months will be when the foundation for this season's successes — or failures — begin to take root. With the coaching staff limited by NCAA guidelines, Cowboy veterans such as Brandon Weeden, Justin Blackmon and Markelle Martin will be counted on to make sure summer workouts are taken seriously.
Here are five things OSU is looking to accomplish this summer:
Remain healthy: While OSU will field one of its deeper teams in recent memory, injuries can change a season. Having a healthy roster when fall camp begins in August is critical.
The Pokes completed spring football relatively injury free. Receiver Michael Harrison, safety Markelle Martin and safety Lavocheya Cooper are among the Cowboys who missed the spring game due to injury. Coach Mike Gundy said he didn't expect any of the injuries to impact the roster this fall.
But keep in mind safety Daytawion Lowe was lost for the 2010 season during summer workouts last year. There's no guarantee everyone comes out of them unscathed.
Limit distractions: Off-the-field incidents have brought down plenty of title contenders over the years.
The Cowboys' roster features a majority of well-behaved athletes, particularly considering these are college students, but the off-the-field struggles of Jamie Blatnick and Victor Johnson marred the opening of fall camp in 2010. They provided a major distraction as nonconference play began with Gundy often answering questions about the availability of Blatnick early in the season.
If OSU players can stay out of major trouble, the focus will be on football as the season approaches.
An defensive leader emerge: Last summer, linebacker Orie Lemon was like a second coach. He took on a major leadership role with the Cowboys coaching staff since he was injured and unable to participate. With such a youthful defense, Lemon's summer contribution was a major factor in the Pokes' 2010 success.
This summer, Martin will likely fill that role. He's a player who demands respect and has already earned it with his play on the field. When Martin speaks, his teammates listen. The senior took a while to warm up to a leadership role, but heading into his final year, expect him to demand excellence from his defensive teammates while setting the tone with his own actions.
Get a feel for which freshmen can help immediately: Cowboy fans didn't start hearing about running back Joseph Randle and linebacker Shaun Lewis until fall camp last August, but the duo began turning heads during the summer.
In late July, Lemon was already speaking of Lewis' focus and determination before the 2010 Big 12 Co-Defensive Freshman of the Year had even put on the pads. And Randle had already impressed with his football knowledge, uncommon maturity for his age and desire to make an impact.
This summer, incoming freshman such as running backs Herschel Sims and Desmond Roland, defensive tackle James Castleman and receivers Josh Stewart and David Glidden, will get the opportunity to impress their veteran teammates immediately. They could fight for a playing role this fall.
Continued development of Brandon Weeden's relationship with his receivers: One of the biggest advantages of running the “Air Raid”-style offense is the ability to get quality repetitions during non-contact, 7-on-7 passing drills.
Weeden's ability to read what his receivers are going to do against certain defenses made OSU's offense explosive a year ago. The All-Big 12 quarterback understands — and trusts — what Blackmon and Josh Cooper, the Pokes' top two receivers, will do on certain plays.
Now, Weeden needs to develop similar relationships with Hubert Anyiam, Michael Harrison, Tracy Moore and the other receivers that are likely to emerge as threats opposite Blackmon and Cooper.
If he does, OSU's offense goes to another level.