STILLWATER — Oklahoma State’s 2014 season sniffs of transition.
The Cowboys must replace an impact class of 28 seniors and four more veterans — receiver Josh Stewart, centers Jake Jenkins and Travis Cross and safety Lyndell Johnson — who had eligibility remaining, yet won’t return for various reasons. Long-time offensive line coach Joe Wickline is gone, too.
Yet with six simple words Friday, Mike Gundy added an air of optimism to carry through the coming months.
“It was really a good spring,” Gundy said.
And it needed to be, considering this was perhaps the most important spring of the Gundy era.
The Cowboys entered with many major questions and a need for fast-developing answers, with the urgency of a season-opening date with defending national champion Florida State hanging over the program.
The 15 allowed spring workouts revealed some positives, but also issues left lingering …
What was learned
Walsh is No. 1. Another spring promised another quarterback competition at OSU. This race, however, wasn’t in doubt for long, as junior-to-be J.W. Walsh seized control of the position early in workouts, creating space between himself and challengers Daxx Garman and Mason Rudolph.
Walsh shouldn’t feel too comfortable, as he’s started at various points of the last two seasons, but finished neither atop the depth chart. Still, he showed an improved consistency in the passing game to go with his already strong intangibles as a leader and competitor.
It’s Walsh’s job to lose. And it’s up to him not to lose it.
Playmakers aplenty. One thing working in Walsh’s favor: he has help. Abundant help.
At receiver and running back, OSU boasts layers of talent. Mostly young talent, perhaps, yet a cast brimming with enough potential to push Gundy to quite a claim:
“I think we’ll be better at wideout next year than we were this year.”
And the Cowboys lose their top two producers, Josh Stewart and Tracy Moore, along with the dependable Charlie Moore.
That’s how much coaches believe in Jhajuan Seales, Marcel Ateman, Brandon Sheperd, C.J. Curry, Blake Webb, Austin Hays, Ra’Shaad Samples and more.
At running back, Desmond Roland and Rennie Childs return.
And there’s the tantalizing versatility of junior college addition Tyreek Hill, likely the fastest player in the Big 12.
Corner comfort. The Cowboys are rebuilding in the secondary, where three of the four starters must be replaced. But the two spots that matter most — the cornerback posts — seem to be in good hands.
Kevin Peterson is the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield and could be OSU’s next star corner. Ashton Lampkin confirmed himself as Justin Gilbert’s replacement with a strong spring.
“Do we need more gains before we line up? Yes, yes we do,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer. “They need every practice we can get. But I was impressed with what they did.”
Deep DL. Gundy’s excitement for the receiving corps is matched by his strong feeling about the defensive line.
“I like our defensive line,” he said. “I think that we could potentially be better on the defensive line than we were last year. We’ve got some speed and some strength and some maturity.”
And, yes, the Cowboys lose All-Big 12 First Team tackle Calvin Barnett.
But the return of tackle James Castleman, his replacement Ofa Hautau and a wave of youngsters coming up, along with a stack of ends led by Jimmy Bean, Sam Wren, Emmanuel Ogbah, Trace Clark and more reveals the best depth of the Gundy era.
Tempo. Namely, it’s back.
OSU slowed down on offense a year ago, remaining a spread Air Raid offense, yet mostly in name only due to injuries and personnel. By season’s end, there was no resemblance to the fast-paced attacks of Dana Holgorsen or Todd Monken.
The Cowboys picked up the pace this spring. And want to play faster.
Most importantly, they have the pieces to do it.
Defensive replacements. OSU’s massive losses on defense have been much addressed. Seven senior starters and several valuable contributors must be replaced.
That doesn’t happen overnight.
Or through 15 practices.
Many new faces have been identified: Hautau up front, Kris Catlin, Seth Jacobs and Devante Averette at linebacker, Deric Robertson and Jordan Sterns at safety and Lampkin at corner. Still, growth and development are needed. And depth is a concern.
The term “exposed” was frequently attached to the defense following scrimmages. Going against a more seasoned offense, some of that was to be expected.
“We got a lot done,” said defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer. “I’m still not happy, but we got a lot done.”
Offensive line. Much of the unit’s fall personality hinges on the return to health of Devin Davis and Brandon Garrett — the projected starting tackles.
Daniel Koenig returns as a key piece and there were some good developments the past few weeks, including the rapid progression of redshirt freshman Zach Crabtree.
Overall, experience is lacking and depth is a worry.
QB depth. While Walsh appears entrenched today, questions still hover over him.
Like can he hold up physically as a dual-threat quarterback over the course of 12 games?
And has his arm improved enough to utilize all those weapons on the outside?
The Cowboys have needed multiple quarterbacks the past two seasons, getting productive relief each season from Clint Chelf. But Chelf is gone.
And neither Garman nor Rudolph has thrown a collegiate pass.
The good news: each did good things throughout the spring and should benefit from the months ahead.
Kicking game. The usual reliability associated with OSU’s kicking game never materialized last fall.
Specialist Ben Grogan and punter Kip Smith ran hot and cold, failing to instill faith in coaches or fans.
Can they be better?
New return men must also be identified, although Hill offers exciting possibilities.
Who’s next? There may be a need for help from players not yet on campus, especially on the defensive side.
Michigan transfer Josh Furman, a senior safety, is an obvious candidate. At linebacker, junior college transfer D’Nerius Antoine and incoming freshmen linebackers Gyasi Akem and Josh Mabin could provide depth.
Tre Roberts and Kirk Tucker could help at safety.
“It’s kind of whatever’s out there,” Spencer said. “If it’s the guys that are here now, we’ll get it done with them, if we get some extra help that would be great too.”