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OSU Big 12 Media Days: 5 takeaways

The big things we learned from Arlington

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Gundy selected quarterback Spencer Sanders and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez to accompany him to Arlington, Texas, for Big 12 media days on Thursday. All three met with the media to discuss the upcoming season; here are three takeaways from what each had to say.

Takeaway No. 1: The spring is really important!!!

Most of 2020 spring practices were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and summer workouts were different at best as teams across the country adjusted to masks and distancing protocols during workouts, all while wondering if the 2020 season would even happen. Fast forward one year and spring practices paid dividends for a number of players — most notably Spencer Sanders — according to Gundy.

A full and normal spring and summer has helped Sanders and his offensive line, which will be discussed at length below. Obviously it’s tough to know how much players have improved without seeing it in person, but a normal offseason could be the boost Oklahoma State needed from an injury-riddled 2020 season to a hopeful 2021 season.

Takeaway No. 2: The offensive line will be better

This time last year, the offensive line looked like one of the biggest strengths for Oklahoma State entering the 2020 season. Then, experienced starters Bryce Bray and Jacob Farrell transferred shortly before the start of the season after each were dismissed for a violation of team rules. That bad news was compounded by injuries to Cole Birmingham and Hunter Anthony early in the season that kept each out for several weeks. Tevin Jenkins — a second round NFL draft pick — also struggled with injuries throughout the year. What started off as a promising young offensive line turned into a line just trying to survive the year.

Those injuries greatly impacted the success of the Oklahoma State offense last season. The injuries and loss of depth forced some young players with little to no experience into action, which is a positive for the 2021 version of the Pokes’ offensive line. Jenkins will be a tough talent to replace, but Gundy stated he expects the line to be “considerably better.” That could pay dividends for the growth of quarterback Spencer Sanders, who will need to improve on a season in which he threw 14 touchdowns against eight interceptions, which leads to the next takeaway.

Takeaway No. 3: OSU will go as far as Spencer Sanders takes them

Somehow, despite playing two fewer games in 2020 (9) than he did in 2019 (11), Spencer Sanders finished the 2020 season with the exact same passing numbers as he did in 2019: 155 completions on exactly 247 attempts in each season.

The touchdown-to-interception ratio got marginally better; 14 TD’s to 8 INT’s last season compared to 16:11 as a redshirt freshman, but turnovers remained a problem. Sanders could be cut some reasonable slack after such a rough season along the offensive line. If that gets corrected in 2021 and the line can stay healthy, Sanders could be poised for a breakout season. Gundy stated he believes Sanders improved more this spring than he did in his first two seasons in Stillwater combined.

Sanders’ dynamic playmaking as a passer and rusher coupled with cutting down the turnover numbers could mean OSU will be in contention for a Big 12 title game appearance. Of course, coaches occasionally tend to overstate things at media day. We likely won’t know how much Sanders has really improved until the Pokes travel to Boise State on September 18 after home tilts against Missouri State and Tulsa to start the season. The same goes for the offensive line.

Gundy put a lot on Sanders’ shoulders during his interview with ESPN’s Dusty Dvoracek, saying “you somewhat come and go as your QB plays. It is extremely difficult to play at a high level if your QB isn’t effective. Hate to put that pressure on him but it is what it is.” If Sanders has improved as much as Gundy indicates he has, and if the offensive line can give him some good protection this season, Oklahoma State is primed to be competing at the top of the conference.

Takeaway No. 4: Who replaces Tylan Wallace and Chuba Hubbard?

While Sanders and the offensive line are primed to improve in 2021, there are two All-American (and some might say fringe-Heisman) holes to fill on the offense. We’ll start with the no. 8 finisher in the 2019 Heisman race in running back Chuba Hubbard.

Hubbard had a fantastic 2019 season, but his 2020 season was hampered by injuries — really the story of the 2020 Cowboys. The good news from that is we got a good look at who could replace Hubbard in 2021, and there are no shortage of options. Gundy said OSU will likely use four or five running backs this season and hasn’t yet named a starter.

Some of those running back options include Dezmon Jackson, LD Brown and Dominic Richardson. Figuring out classifications is a bit tough considering last year didn’t count eligibility-wise, but Jackson is in his second year at OSU after JUCO, LD Brown is a super senior and Richardson was a freshman in 2020.

Jackson ran for 547 yards and four touchdowns on 100 attempts last season. Brown posted similar numbers with 437 yards and two scores on 82 carries. Richardson didn’t see the field until near the end of the year and ran for 223 yards and three TD’s on 44 carries. All three had 100-yard games last season and figure to be the top three options next season. Utah State transfer Jaylen Warren will also get touches.

As for replacing Tylan Wallace, the Pokes don’t return as many developed, solid options at wide receiver. Gundy said OSU is missing the “marquee guy” the team is used to having for this season. Brennan Presley broke out in the bowl game, going for 118 yards and three scores on six catches. He had one catch for seven yards in the entire 2020 regular season, but will get the most hype as OSU’s top option out wide entering 2021.

Other than Presley, the Pokes also return Washington State transfer Tay Martin. Gundy said at media days that Martin struggled to get in shape throughout much of the regular season after contracting COVID-19 early in the season and that he’s been in great shape throughout spring practices. Martin is another solid option after catching 15 balls for 149 yards last year.

Oklahoma State’s leading returning receivers are Braydon Johnson Landon Wolf, who finished 2020 with 248 and 229 yards respectively; each had one touchdown as well. OSU could try a platoon approach with Johnson, Wolf, Presley, Martin and some of the incoming freshmen to find a solid rotation. Gundy likes incoming freshmen Bryson and Blaine Green, who could help on the outside, as well as John Paul Richardson, who will help out on the inside.

Takeaway No. 5: With unknowns across the offense, stability on defense is welcomed

One of the top things to be excited about next season is a defense that returns nine of its 11 starters. Oklahoma State will have to replace cornerback Rodarius Williams and linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga — as well as edge rusher Calvin Bundage, who wasn’t a starter but was an impact player in his time in Stillwater.

Williams and Ogbongbemiga are tough losses, but the returning talent — including stars Malcolm Rodriguez and Kolby Harvell-Peel — will be more than enough for the Cowboys' defense to be solid once again. Gundy said at media days that the defense “is the fastest unit” he’s had in some time and is excited for the group that is returning.

Rodriguez said at media days that he doesn’t have any goals for the upcoming season and is looking forward to making memories with his teammates. That’s the sign of a close group that has played together for quite a while, and that defensive continuity will be one of the best strengths of the entire team this season.

OSU was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 in the preseason poll. Oklahoma locked up the top spot with 386 points and will likely continue to do so until someone else can win the conference. Iowa State came in second with 351 total points in the poll for a clear-cut top two.

Then, a trio of teams are expected to fight for third. Texas was voted as the third-place finisher in the conference with 273 points, followed by Oklahoma State (266) and TCU (255). That is followed by a steep drop-off to sixth-place West Virginia with 185 points. Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas round out the preseason poll.

OSU has the talent to compete for third place in the Big 12 and will be expected to do so this season. If everything breaks right — Sanders cutting down on turnovers; solid and healthy line play; guys step up at running back and receiver; defense continues to play well — then OSU could compete for a spot in the Big 12 title game. That is the picture Gundy painted at media days, but the fight for third-place is more likely considering OSU travels to preseason no. 2 Iowa State and no. 3 Texas.

Getting Oklahoma at home may not matter considering the Pokes haven’t beaten their Bedlam rivals since 2014 and OU will have another Heisman candidate at quarterback. The most realistic expectation is competing for third in the conference, and it will be exciting to see how the team comes together this season.