It’s time for the sounds of whistles, pump-up music and coaches’ yells to fill the Sherman E. Smith Training Center.
Fall camp has arrived at Oklahoma State.
In a month, the Cowboys will open their football season against Central Michigan – yes, the team that infamously defeated OSU with a Hail Mary on an untimed down in 2016 – at Boone Pickens Stadium. Until then, the Pokes are focused on preparation, aiming to keep up the momentum that propelled them into the Big 12 Championship game and the Fiesta Bowl during the past season.
The Cowboys have evolved. Key players have left for the NFL, a highly touted recruiting class has set foot on campus and a new coordinator is leading the defense. Still, many facets of the team’s identity hold steady as veterans including Spencer Sanders, Tyler Lacy and Brock Martin anchor the squad.
What do we hope to learn from fall camp? Here are five questions Mike Gundy will likely hear when he speaks to reporters Wednesday.
1. How healthy is the offensive line?
In the spring, Gundy had an optimistic vision for the offensive line, but the picture hadn’t taken shape.
An injury-riddled O-line kept OSU from playing a true game at the Spring Football Finale. While only nine offensive linemen suited up, Gundy said he anticipated the Cowboys would have 25 in August.
How does reality compare to Gundy’s expectation? Fall camp can show us how the O-line has healed. The return of offensive guard Hunter Woodard, who was dealing with a torn labrum in the spring, should provide a major boost. Preston Wilson, who was limited to non-contact drills at the Spring Football Finale, should also play an instrumental role, shifting from right tackle to center to replace graduate transfer Danny Godlevske.
Newcomers will need to provide support, too. One player to watch is Tyrone Webber, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, who gained early experience at OSU in the spring while some of his teammates were recuperating.
This group has potential to be one of OSU’s strongest O-lines in recent years, but it can happen only if the men in the trenches are healthy enough to provide much-needed depth. With temperatures expected to rise above 100 degrees during fall camp, not only avoiding injuries, but also preventing heat exhaustion will be vital to keep everyone fresh.
2. Who is Spencer Sanders’ backup?
The starting quarterback spot is no mystery.
Entering his redshirt senior season, Spencer Sanders has established himself as the Cowboys’ QB1 for the fourth year, returning after a stellar Fiesta Bowl appearance.
A question mark surrounds the second-string role.
Although protecting Sanders is a priority, history indicates the Cowboys need a solid backup plan. In 2019, Sanders missed the end of the season with a thumb injury while Dru Brown stepped in. Last year, Shane Illingworth started in the season opener when Sanders couldn’t play because of COVID protocols.
With Illingworth transferring to Nevada, who will rise to the QB2 spot? OSU has three options: Gunnar Gundy, Garret Rangel and Gavynn Parker. Since Parker is a freshman walk-on, the competition likely comes down to Gundy and Rangel. Each has advantages over the other. Gundy has briefly appeared in a game for the Cowboys, but Rangel arrived as a four-star recruit and early enrollee out of Lone Star High in Texas.
It will come as no surprise if Gundy doesn’t publicly name a backup during fall camp, especially with his son as a candidate, but the question is worth asking.
3. How has the defense progressed under Derek Mason?
Derek Mason talked about deconstruction in the spring.
His hobbies – revamping classic vehicles and being a DJ – connect to his approach on the field. The record-spinning defensive coordinator is putting his creative twist on former coordinator Jim Knowles’ system.
“It’s not about ego, man,” Mason said. “It’s about the end product. It’s not about being right. It’s about getting it right.”
His philosophy works well with a defense that, after a standout season, needs more stability than change. Soon after his arrival, he garnered compliments from Gundy and the team – even if a few players groaned at the mention of the grueling bear crawls Mason introduced to practice.
How will progress continue in fall camp since Mason has had time to analyze schemes and grow comfortable at OSU? Someone will likely ask Gundy about Mason, but observing him in practice can also answer this question.
In the spring, Mason led with vocal encouragement and mingled among position groups, taking an active role but letting assistant coaches handle their responsibilities. The deconstruction process was underway as Mason learned about the intricacies of the defense.
Now, it’s time for Mason to reassemble the defensive vehicle and make sure it’s sturdy enough to roll through the season.
4. Who will help Dominic Richardson?
During the past season, the Cowboys averaged about 44 carries per game.
That’s not a job for one running back.
Without Jaylen Warren, OSU is relying on Dominic Richardson to carry most of the rushing load, but his teammates will need to pitch in. Although Sanders can scramble and gain some yards, it’s probably best to limit the starting quarterback’s carries, too.
Who else will fuel the game on the ground? Last year, Warren proved how someone can suddenly emerge and have a breakout season, so a young rusher could take inspiration from him and follow.
Redshirt freshman Jaden Nixon and redshirt sophomore Zach Middleton have shown promise. At 6-foot-1 and 211 pounds, freshman Ollie Gordon brings size to the position, but his ability to make an impact depends on his health – he had a “mild” shoulder injury, per Gundy, in the spring finale.
5. Which newcomers will stand out at camp?
Last season, Collin Oliver burst onto the college football scene as a freshman edge rusher.Two years earlier, his former Edmond Santa Fe teammate Trace Ford did the same. The Cowboys aren’t afraid to give freshmen chances, and this has often worked in their favor.
Which newcomers might become impact players this season? The Edmond Santa Fe trend could continue with Talyn and Tabry Shettron. Braylin Presley could make an appearance on special teams.
Although he isn’t a freshman, linebacker Xavier Benson might also make the leap to breakout newcomer status.
As a transfer from Tyler Junior College, Benson brings experience to a linebacker corps facing the challenge of growing without Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper.
Extra point: What can we expect from the player pressers?
Learning about the personalities on the Cowboy football team is always interesting, and some are especially inclined to provide golden quotes every time they’re in front of a microphone.
Wide receiver Brennan Presley has been known to eagerly discuss bowling, candy and Christmas wish list items. Defensive end Brock Martin’s answers are often trademarked with his blunt sense of humor. Last season, safeties Kolby Harvell-Peel and Jason Taylor II fielded questions together, Harvell-Peel’s talkative nature complementing Taylor’s straight-faced wit.
This year, a new group of Cowboys will take part in postgame interviews, and their unique storytelling styles will surface. We never know what to expect — several years ago, defensive tackle Darrion Daniels even showed his musical talent, singing at Big 12 Media Days.
The unpredictability of those genuine, random moments makes the job fun.
Sports reporter Hallie Hart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.