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College Football Preview 2016-2017: 18. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Marcell Ateman
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys

Conference: Big 12
Location: Stillwater, Oklahoma
2015-2016 Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big 12)
Bowl Result: Loss in Sugar Bowl
Breakout Player: DT Vincent Taylor
Heisman Hopeful: QB Mason Rudolph
X-Factor: OT Victor Salako
Recruiting Rundown (via Rivals)

One year after a disappointing 7-6 mark, Oklahoma State was eager to show they had improved entering 2015. They proved they had a in a big way, starting off the year 10-0, with a victory over TCU to boot. They were sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings, and looked poise to win a Big 12 title, but faced a daunting slate to finish the year. Losses to Baylor and Oklahoma knocked them out of conference title contention and a loss in the Sugar Bowl to Ole Miss showed the Cowboys still have work to do. While the end to 2015-2016 was disappointing, 10 victories should still be considered a major success, and there is plenty of talent back in Stillwater entering this season. Led by junior QB Mason Rudolph, a deep backfield and plenty of talent defensively, OSU has enough to be a more serious Playoff contender this year.

Backfield: Head coach Mike Gundy used a two-quarterback system a year ago, and it worked to perfection. J.W. Walsh, the established veteran, came in near the goal line and in short yardage situations, where his running ability could be utilized. That left rising Mason Rudolph to handle most of the other duties, and he did not disappoint. Rudolph recorded 3,770 yards and 21 touchdowns in Oklahoma State's up-tempo attack. He cut down on turnovers from a year prior, limiting to nine this year (which should continue to come down) and looked like a star. Walsh has graduated, leaving things all to Rudolph. His huge arm is a perfect fit for the spread system that Gundy and fourth-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich favor, and he has decent mobility as well. Rudolph tossed for 290 yards a game last year but didn't get a lot of touchdowns because Walsh got crucial snaps in the red zone. The touchdowns and total stats should skyrocket and if everything goes to plan, Rudolph could be a sneaky and overlooked Heisman candidate. Helping out the junior quarterback will be a very deep and experienced running back position. Oklahoma State has been pretty thin at back since Joseph Randle graduated a few years ago, but senior Chris Carson showed he could be something special with a strong showing in 2015. He picked up 517 yards and four scores last season, but missed some time with injuries and splitting carries. He should be looked at as the Cowboys' feature back entering this year, but there is enough talent to compete with him. Fellow senior Rennie Childs also played pretty well a year ago, with 276 yards and two touchdowns. Carson and Childs weren't bad by any means in 2015, but they averaged just 3.9 and 3.8 yards per carry, respectively. That leaves a lot of room to be desired and expect them to get pushed by the Cowboys' biggest newcomer: Barry Sanders Jr. Yes, the son of Oklahoma State legend Barry Sanders decided to play his final year of collegiate ball in Stillwater, transferring away from Stanford. Sanders Jr. showed plenty of promise with Stanford but Christian McCaffrey leapfrogged him for the starting gig and Sanders wasn't going to see much action behind the Heisman candidate. He still rushed for 630 yards the past two years with the Cardinal, and should bring immediate playmaking potential. Sanders Jr. may not have the talent of his father, but he still can wow you with his speed and quick cuts. His big-play ability should fit in very well with the Cowboys dynamic offense.

Receivers: Oklahoma State's offense spawns great receivers, evidenced by Justin Blackmon and Dez Bryant over the past few years. It appears they have found their next great wide out in junior James Washington, who quietly put up huge numbers in '15. Washington earned All-Big 12 honors after compiling 1,087 yards and 10 touchdowns off of 53 receptions. His numbers were impressive on their own last year but they become even more impressive when you consider he was just a sophomore. He became just the fourth OSU underclassmen to finish off with 1,000 receiving yards. That list includes Bryant, Blackmon and Rashaun Woods. Joining Washington will be senior Marcell Ateman, who doesn't have Washington's big-play ability, but put together a strong 2015. Ateman had 45 catches for 766 yards and five touchdowns, and proved to be extremely reliable. Washington is dangerous because of his speed, while Ateman has success because of his size and ability to position himself. At 6'4", 215 pounds, Ateman will tower over Big 12 defensive backs and he will certainly use that to his advantage. Along with the two veterans, sophomore Jalen McCleskey has the chance to have a special season. He isn't as proven or as experienced as either Ateman or Washington, but the Louisiana product had 29 receptions, 253 yards and three touchdowns. McCleskey averaged just 8.7 yards per reception a season (Washington had 20.5, Ateman 17 by comparison) but he proved that when he did get some space, he could make plays. He is lightning quick, and the Cowboys will experiment with different ways to get him the ball. Senior Jhajuan Seales is also returning for his final year on campus and offers plenty of playmaking ability, with 321 yards a season ago. Gundy and Yurcich will also be gifted with stability at tight end, where senior Blake Jarwin returns. Jarwin will play OSU's "Cowboy Back" position again this season. The "Cowboy Back" is a hybrid tight end/fullback role where the Cowboys rely heavily on Jarwin's blocking ability. Jarwin isn't a great pass-catcher, but he did have 17 receptions for 200 yards last year. One of the big gems of Oklahoma State's recruiting class was three-star prospect Tyrell Alexander. Alexander will be hard-pressed for snaps this year, but he has the long, athletic frame that Gundy loves.

Offensive Line: Despite good stability throughout the unit and not much injuries, Oklahoma State's offensive line struggled last season. Over the course of two years, Oklahoma State has allowed 72 sacks, among the highest in the Big 12. The good news is that nearly all of the line remains intact, headed by two strong tackles, Victor Salako and Zachary Crabtree. Salako is a former UAB castoff that played okay last season. Now a senior, Salako will play a pivotal role at left tackle; if he can be a brick wall, it will really help Rudolph succeed. Crabtree enters his junior year after a productive year and brings wonderful size to the right side, at 6'7", 315 pounds. The interior of the unit was also decent last year, but didn't really help create too many holes for Carson or Childs. Expect senior Michael Wilson to play a big role in his senior season. Wilson can contribute at either guard spot and should lead the charge for the rushing attack. Center should be in pretty good hands, thanks to the return of junior Brad Lundblade, who had a solid showing last year. The big newcomer for the unit is four-star prospect Tramonda Moore. While Oklahoma State has become a school that can land elite talents, Moore was their only four-star pickup this year, so coaches are going to be expecting big things. Moore is natural at left tackle, and should learn from Salako and maybe even push him, but can play a variety of roles. Also arriving are two three-star guys in Shane Richards from Mexico and Matt Kegel from Chaska, Minnesota. Both offer plenty of upside in the near future for the Cowboys. Overall, the unit returns plenty of talent and experience. But, it has to prove itself after a rough few years. Guys like Salako and Crabtree should help the unit succeed.

Defensive Line: No unit on Oklahoma State's roster was hit as hard this offseason as the defensive line. The Cowboys lose one of the Big 12's best defenders and one of the best pass rushers in the entire land. Defensive linemen Emmanuel Ogbah could play a number of different positions, and star at each. He picked up 12.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss with OSU before declaring for the NFL. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the second round. However, Ogbah is not the only big loss form the unit. Jimmy Bean graduated, leaving a big gap at defensive end. Bean had 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss himself a season ago and was a great complement to Ogbah. That means a few young faces are going to have to step up to the spotlight. Sophomores Jarrell Owens and Trey Carter are the favorite to take over as Oklahoma State's top pass rushers. Owens was a force last year despite limited action, recording three sacks. He showed plenty of power and was a natural disruptive presence at end. He should see his number rise, and the little used Carter offers plenty of upside. The losses on the line could help junior Vincent Taylor put together a big 2016. Taylor had a decent year last season, with 48 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He proved he had the versatility to be a dangerous pass rusher or become a run stopper. He'll have a big role for Oklahoma State this season, but he may expect more double teams or other blockers. Joining Taylor up front is going to be senior Motekiai Maile, who showed promise a year ago. Maile had 21 tackles a year ago, with two of them going for a loss. Expect contributions from sophomore Darrion Daniels as well in the interior, as he showed great ability in the spring. Despite their losses, Gundy and staff didn't grab a lot of talent at defensive line in this year's recruiting class, which puts more pressure on the veterans. However, three-star Cameron Murray was a nice grab out of Arkansas. Murray is a beast in the middle who is more athletic than Maile.

Linebackers: The Cowboys have not been viewed as a defensive team for much of Gundy's 12 years with the team. Yet, it is a group that has improved, and will look to take big strides in 2016. For that to happen, they need a talented linebackers group to set the tone. Much like the defensive line, the linebackers do lose plenty of talent, but have a ton back and are deep. The big loss for the unit is Ryan Simmons, who made 31 starts at the position and was an impact player before a knee injury ended his senior season prematurely. Simmons was a great leader and playmaker, so that will need to be replaced. Big things are expected of senior Jordan Burton, and for good reason. Burton finished off second on the team in tackles a year ago, with 98. He had also had nine tackles for loss and picked off a pass. Burton proved to be a versatile athlete that had a wide range and could help in coverage. Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer will look to Burton to do much the same this season, and he can deliver. Senior DeVante Averette was a great linebacker last season as well and look forward to an even better season. Averette picked up 30 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions and will be looked at as a playmaker off the edge. Expect Spencer to cut the veteran loose in various blitz packages. The other likely starter to the unit is junior Chad Whitener, who was great last year. Whitener had 93 tackles and also showed his ability to be a major help in coverage. With him and Burton, Oklahoma State has so much versatility to work with. Another likely key contributor will be Gyasi Akem. Akem saw action in eight games last year and proved he could make plays when called upon, finishing with nine tackles. He'll have to adjust like a lot of new pieces, which makes an opener with Southeastern Louisiana favorable. Redshirt freshman Kevin Henry is yet another guy looking to play a bigger role and he has seen big improvements after his redshirt. Incoming freshman Calvin Bundrage has the chance to be very, very good. Bundrage is a three-star prospect, and a guy that make some plays at outside linebacker.

Jordan Sterns
Secondary: Oklahoma State's secondary has had some issues (like the rest of a pass-happy, little defense Big 12), but they have produced some nice talents. Cornerback Justin Gilbert has struggled in the NFL but was a first-round pick, while others have also gone on. The next big stud in the defensive backfield is none other than safety Jordan Sterns. Sterns proved just how good he was last year, finishing off with 108 total tackles. He proved he had great range and was a great tackler in space, an important trait in today's college football, with 71 solo tackles. Sterns is slated in at the strong safety spot, and will be looked at as a guy that can help in a variety of ways. He also had two picks and three pass deflections last year, though coverage isn't his strength. Cornerback should be an interesting position to watch this year for the Cowboys. Senior Ashton Lampkin has to be looked at as OSU's No. 1 coverage guy. He was solid a year ago, but was prone to mistakes at times. He'll have to continue to improve this year, as he'll face plenty of talented wide receivers in the Big 12. Junior Ramon Richards is the likely starter opposite him, and proved he was a guy that could wow you. Richards also suffered mind lapses and mistakes, but will continue to show consistency this year. He also picked off two passes last year, bringing one all the way back. Last but not least is junior Tre Flowers, who returns at free safety. Flowers had 83 tackles last year, and also batted down seven balls. While Sterns is a hard-hitter that can do so many different things, Flowers' importance to this defense should not be overlooked, he is a major piece. Junior Jerel Morrow is likely the backup to Flowers, but Morrow offers great upside and should look for snaps. There are a couple of pieces in this year's recruiting class that could offer some help, in the long term and now. Three-star pickups like Madre Harper and A.J. Green should offer assistance. Green arrives from DeSoto, Texas, which produces some great talent all around.

Special Teams: Stability at both kicker and punter will be key this year for Oklahoma State. Senior kicker Ben Grogan is back after a solid 2015, while punter Zach Sinor was great as a young freshman. The return game is unsettled, but plenty of talent exists in it.

Mike Gundy has proven that he has taken this Oklahoma State to new heights on countless occasions. Yet, this 2016 Oklahoma State edition may be Gundy's most talented and well-rounded group he has since 2011. That year, OSU went 12-1 and was within a crazy upset at the hands of Iowa State away from a National Championship Game berth. QB Mason Rudolph could do some crazy things, with Washington and Ateman helping him, while the defense will still be rock-solid,even without Ogbah and Bean. The schedule will once more be an interesting factor. The Big 12 is amazingly backloaded, and OSU will have to finish the year at both TCU and Oklahoma. While that may be daunting, this team has the chance to be very, very dangerous. Oklahoma is everybody's pick in the Big 12 after their Playoff berth last year, but their instate rival could be just as scary, and sneak their way into the Playoff this time around.

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