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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 24. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Mason Rudolph
24. Oklahoma State Cowboys

2014-2015 Record: 7-6 (4-5 Big 12)
Coach: Mike Gundy, 11th year (84-44 overall)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: DE James Castleman, RB Tyreek Hill
Heisman Hopeful: QB Mason Rudolph
Breakout Player: QB Mason Rudolph

The Cowboys began 2014 with all inclination it would be a rebuilding season. Despite coming off a 10-3 season, the 'Pokes had losses in a number of key areas and faced a tough test early against the defending national champion, the Florida State Seminoles. Although they gave FSU a pretty good test actually, the bulk of 2014 was pretty much a disaster in Stillwater. Due to injuries to quarterback and other key positions, the Cowboys would lose five straight in the middle part of the season. But, even through all that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Quarterback Mason Rudolph tossed aside his redshirt and started the last couple games for the Cowboys, leading them first to an exciting win against archrival Oklahoma and then a Cactus Bowl victory over Washington to finish off 7-6. While it was one of Mike Gundy's worst seasons at Oklahoma State (which speaks to how much he was built up the program), the ending of things and the returning of key pieces has the Cowboys ready to leap back into contention in the Big 12 and national stage, and possibly even be a dark horse College Football Playoff squad.

Backfield: Despite being the Cowboys' top recruit entering last season, Gundy never had plans to play Rudolph. He already had two veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, in J.W. Walsh and Daxx Garman, both juniors with experience. But, injuries and poor play forced Gundy's hand, and while throwing a true freshman into Big 12 play was certainly bold, Rudolph performed wonderfully. After a tough debut against Baylor, Rudolph led the Cowboys to a huge victory over Oklahoma, just the second victory against the Sooners in Gundy's tenure. And, his bowl performance against Washington was masterful, giving real hope to the future of the Cowboys' offense, which is predicated around throwing the ball quite often. Rudolph has a massive arm, perfect for Oklahoma State's spread offense and for such a young quarterback, he possesses a great feel of the game and strong pocket presence. There are certain to be growing pains for Rudolph this year, as he is not a veteran and will still be squaring off against some strong defenses but the way Oklahoma State's schedule opens up is perfect for him. Getting Central Michigan and Central Arkansas their first two games of the year is definitely going to help Rudolph's comfortability in the offense and get him prepared for conference play later on. If Rudolph struggles, Gundy does have an option in senior J.W. Walsh, who began the season as the starter last year for the Cowboys before injury took down his season. The Cowboys have questions about running back after the graduation of Desmond Roland and the departure of speedster Tyreek Hill. Hill was a pretty big name JUCO signee by Gundy and while he was fun to watch he never really produced in Stillwater and has kicked off the team. He recently announced his intentions to play for the Akron Zips this upcoming season. That leaves the running back position almost solely in the hands of junior Rennie Childs, who was solid as the third-stringer a season ago, appearing in 10 games and starting against Missouri State, where he had two scores. In all, Childs would finish with 294 yards on 78 carries and three touchdowns. Childs isn't the fastest player on the field or the strongest but he is a solid ball-carrier who won't fumble or make many mistakes and will be helped by a veteran offensive line. Gundy and the offense will also be leaning on another junior college transfer this season, Chris Carson. A product from Butler CC in Georgia, Carson originally announced his intentions to transfer to the Bulldogs, but flipped days later to Ok. State. Carson is a pretty powerful back who is also a solid blocker that will be sure to contribute, and hopefully work out a little better than the Cowboys' last JUCO find.

Receivers: He certainly is no Dez Bryant nor is he Justin Blackmon, but David Glidden is the 'Pokes top returning receiver in 2015. Glidden led the team with 42 receptions a season ago, while also picking up 598 yards. He isn't a deep threat, the senior tends to spend more of his time on the inside, working in more of a slot role. Standing at just 5'8", it works well for him, as he is able to relatively sneak into holes in coverage and make plays. Glidden will serve as Rudolph's security blanket underneath most likely, and the deep threats this team possesses will most likely open holes underneath for him to operate. Also returning in the receiver corps will be sophomore speedster James Washington along with junior Jhajuan Seales. Seales had a productive year in 2014, but is looking to step up in a bigger way. Seales hauled in 18 passes for 278 yards along with three scores, and proving he was a major playmaker along the way. Pretty tall at 6'2", Seales is also very quick, a definitely hard combination to defend against. Despite being young, Washington was wonderful a year ago and will have the look of Oklahoma State's top deep threat. For an offense that loves to stretch the field by throwing a lot of deep routes, that is an extremely fun and productive job to have. Washington recorded 451 yards on the season and also caught six touchdown passes. Washington is also very speedy but is a great route runner as well. For a guy that was very young last season, that is important and he should only build on that. Expect other contributors to step up as well in an offense that uses as many receivers as they please. Marcell Ateman is a very dynamic weapon eager to impress entering his junior campaign, while senior Brandon Sheperd adds even more experience and explosive playmaking to the unit. The tight end position isn't a key part of the Cowboys' offense but having talent and experience back still would be a major help. The 'Pokes will have both coming back, with junior Blake Jarwin and senior Jeremy Seaton back in Stillwater. Jarwin is a long, physical 6'5" end who still is working on pass-catching and consistency, while Seaton is a more versatile player who will also see time at fullback most likely, and also has pretty good speed.

Offensive Line: The development of Rudolph will certainly be helped by a solid offensive line that has a number of sturdy veterans returning. The interior of the unit should be the strongest with the a ton of depth there. Center is in good hands, whether it be sophomore Brad Lundblade holding down the position or redshirt junior Paul Lewis. Lundblade is a physical, 300-pound linemen who is somewhat inexperienced but has the tools to be very successful. Him and Rudolph will have to work together quickly to establish strong communication, especially in a shotgun-orientated offense. Junior Michael Wilson is a versatile linemen who could see snaps at a variety of different spots. Wilson's size and strength suggest a tackle but he also has pretty decent athleticism, meaning he could see time at guard as well. The right tackle position will most likely be manned by sophomore Zachary Crabtree, a rising linemen. Crabtree is massive, standing at 6'7", 305 pounds and is a natural tackle. He is still improving his mobility and footwork and he will be tested often by some great Big 12 pass rushers. Left tackle is a question mark, which certainly isn't a good thing for a team with a young quarterback. Junior Victor Salako is the top candidate to take over the position that was left vacant by Daniel Koenig, who exhausted his eligibility. Salako was a welcome pickup, a transfer from UAB, who shut down their program for six months, allowing all transfers to be eligible immediately.  Though, perhaps Crabtree or Wilson could possibly see time over there, or one of the newcomers. Offensive tackle Johnny Wilson was a great pickup for Gundy and staff. The four-star recruit isn't an overwhelming athlete, but works hard and has good size already, and he should only grow in his time in Stillwater. Guard Vaimoe Sekona was a gem from California and is a three-star prospect. Though, with some solid returning talent at both guard spots, Sekona is most likely a depth guy, at least for this season.

Emmanuel Ogbah
Defensive Line: Few returning pass rushers in the entire nation will strike as much fear into opponents as Emmanuel Ogbah. A player with little expected of him heading into last season, Ogbah was wonderful. He put together 49 tackles, 17 tackles for loss and 11 sacks on the year, and brought home the Big 12's Defensive Linemen of the Year award. Ogbah isn't the biggest guy on the field, but he has an explosive first step along with a high motor, a lethal combo. He also has exceptional athleticism, which he uses to track down ball carriers and bat down balls at the line of scrimmage (he had five pass deflections last season). His return gives Oklahoma State a star in the unit and the team as a whole, and offensive linemen's focus on him will open up other opportunities for his teammates. While superb defensive tackle James Castleman is gone, the Cowboys will be helped by the return of Jimmy Bean, a senior. The end opposite of Ogbah, Bean isn't as elite of a pass rusher, but is solid and will find ways to make an impact. The vet had 3.5 sacks and offers huge upside as a run defender. Joining Ogbah and Bean upfront will be sophomore Vincent Taylor, a rapidly improving defensive tackle. Taylor was pretty quiet a season ago, recording just 13 tackles, one for a loss. But, the big bulldozer has solid athleticism and looked very good in the spring. The other tackle position is a bigger question mark, though another sophomore, Vili Leveni looks to be the starter there. Leveni doesn't have quite the physical tools of Taylor or other linemen, but is a hard-working tackle who plays bigger than he is. Depth also doesn't appear to be a problem for the Cowboys' defensive line, as a number of vets return and a number of impact freshman arrive. Senior Trace Clark, a defensive end, is sure to search for snaps behind Ogbah and Bean. Clark is a pretty big help in run support and brings relentless stamina. Four-star Darrion Daniels was a pretty big get for Oklahoma State, and he will find ways to make an impact right away at defensive tackle. Daniels possesses great size at 6'4", 290, but must continue to put on weight. He is already a gifted athlete who is a fantastic pass rusher in the interior. His speed and explosiveness will surprise opposing linemen, who generally are not as good of pass blockers in the heart of the O-Line.

Linebackers: The 'Pokes also have a ton of returning talent in their linebacker corps, and it could possibly be the strength of the team. The Cowboys have not been known as a great defensive team under Gundy, but with the stingy front seven they possess, they could be one of the conference's best run defense teams. That will certainly be helped by the return of senior Ryan Simmons, who is considered by many the heart and soul of the Oklahoma State defense. Simmons showcased amazing range and incredible instincts en route to a season in which he recorded 96 tackles (good enough for second on the team) and 11.5 tackles for loss. While the Cowboys do have talent in the middle of their defensive line it is unproven talent, and having Simmons as a security option in run support is obviously a major advantage. Joining Simmons will be junior Seth Jacobs, who was superb in the team's bowl victory. In fact, Jacobs was so good in that game he was named the Defensive MVP of the Cactus Bowl. Jacobs is also a tackling machine like Simmons; he hauled in 92 tackles, and picked up two interceptions. Jacobs is more of a coverage linebacker, but has excellent versatility and he will find a variety of ways to impact the game. Jacobs mans one outside linebacker position, the other one is likely to be given to sophomore Justin Phillips, though there are a number of other contributors for the spot. Phillips is an unproven commodity, but there is no denying his talent. Phillips is a wonderful athlete who can lay big hits at any time, but he is still growing in his IQ and understanding of the game. Junior Jordan Burton will certainly push him, along with the versatile Gyasi Akem. Burton is almost certain to get snaps; defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer will be sure to use the experienced 'backer with soft hands. Akem is more of a natural on the inside, but he has the versatility to play on the outside as well. Again, Spencer will like to utilize him often, as he has a ton of talent. But, much like Phillips, he is still growing.

Secondary: The theme continues into Oklahoma State's secondary; while their are some losses, their is at least one proven stud back and a ton of experience returning. The stud of this unit? Look no further than junior Jordan Sterns. The free safety is truly a special player, using his aggressive mentality to pick up 103 tackles, leading the team. He tended to pick up tackles in bunches, like when he had 20 against West Virginia in the team's tough loss. Sterns is not just a free ranging defensive back, he has the athleticism and ferocity to make plays in opponent's backfields early and often, picking up 6 TFL last season. Sterns is joined by three other defensive backs who saw significant playing time in 2014-2015. That includes two superb cornerbacks, in Ramon Richards, a sophomore, and senior Kevin Peterson. Peterson was terrific as the Cowboys' No. 1 cornerback last year, constantly going up against some of the Big 12's premier pass catchers and having success. He picked up 59 tackles in '14-'15, 47 of those solo, showing his discipline and great tackling technique in the open field. Peterson also showcased his polished coverage skills, by recording an impressive 11 pass deflections. Richards was also very good a year ago, despite being very young.  He is a ball hawking corner, bringing in three interceptions, one back for a score. Richards is still young and he could be prone to mistakes, but he also is a player who is always ready to make a big play. Joining Sterns at in back will be strong safety Tre Flowers. Another sophomore, Flowers also will make mistakes but he has some wonderful physical tools. Exceptionally big at 6'3", Flowers can use his big frame to make plays on tough balls thrown or contribute by blitzing and getting in the quarterbacks' face. Along with the four returning starters, Oklahoma State also brings back junior Ashton Lampkin. The cornerback also has strong experience and fantastic speed. The Cowboys' recruiting class is stocked with safeties and other defensive backs. It is not rare to see Ok. State go aggressively after defensive backs in the recruiting cycle, considering how pass-happy the Big 12 as a conference is. The big names that Gundy and his staff brought in this year are guys like Kevin Henry and three-star Kenneth McGruder. Henry is a wonderful prospect who was a major pickup into SEC territory from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He will be a big name in the future for Oklahoma State but with how strong the secondary is this year, will be in a reserved role or heading to a redshirt.

Special Teams: Not only was Tyreek Hill a good back and slot receiver, he also was a special teams playmaker, a guy who was always a threat to bring it to the house. He recorded two kick returns last season. His absence really hurts the Cowboys' special teams. Kicker Ben Grogran returns after a rollercoaster of a 2014-2015. He wasn't terrible and he was 41/41 on extra points, but there is still room to improve.

Despite being among the youngest teams in the nation last year, Oklahoma State showed plenty of promise finishing up 7-6. Mason Rudolph will certainly have some great moments and some poor ones this year but he isn't the only weapon Oklahoma State possesses this year. Someone is sure to step up in the backfield and this could be one of Oklahoma State's best defenses in recent memory. Plus, the Cowboys schedule sets up nearly perfectly this season. The avoid any major non-conference game, and get TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma all at Stillwater this year. While Baylor and TCU are certainly the teams to beat in the Big 12, Ok. State is extremely dangerous. If Rudolph leads the way, Oklahoma State might just have a shot at winning the conference for the first time since 2011, under Brandon Weeden.

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