Team preview: Oklahoma State

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college football season, exclusively on Insider.

Originally Published: July 28, 2004
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Oklahoma State Cowboys
LOCATION Stillwater, Okla.
CONFERENCE Big 12 (South)
LAST SEASON 9-4 (.692)
CONFERENCE RECORD 5-3 (3rd)
OFF. STARTERS RETURNING 9
DEF. STARTERS RETURNING 9
NICKNAME Cowboys
COLORS Orange & Black
HOME FIELD Boone Pickens Stadium (48,500)
COACH Les Miles (Michigan '76)
RECORD AT SCHOOL 21-16 (3 years)
CAREER RECORD 21-16 (3 years)
ASSISTANTS •  Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State '90),
Assistant Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator
•  Bill Clay (Arkansas '63),
Defensive Coordinator
•  Joe DeForest (Southwestern Louisiana '87),
Special Teams Coordinator/Cornerbacks
•  Todd Monken (Knox College '89),
Wide Receivers/Passing Game Coordinator
•  Chuck Moller (Minnesota-Morris '83),
Offensive Line
•  Josh Henson (Oklahoma State '98),
Tight Ends
•  Larry Porter (Memphis '96),
Running Backs
•  Doug Mallory (Michigan '88),
Defensive Secondary
•  Carey Bailey (Tennessee '92),
Defensive Line
TEAM WINS (last five yrs.) 5-3-4-8-9
FINAL RANK (last five yrs.) 66-86-87-46-32
2003 FINISH Lost to Mississippi in Cotton Bowl.
2004 Schedule | 2003 Results | 2003 Statistics

COACH AND PROGRAM

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To say that Les Miles has made an impact at Oklahoma State would be quite an understatement.

The program was mired in quicksand when Miles took over for Bob Simmons before to the 2001 season. Just one winning season had been celebrated in Stillwater the previous 12 years, and campus spirit was at an all-time low.

The Cowboys were saddled with playing at aging Lewis Field and its capacity of less than 50,000-the second-smallest stadium in the Big 12-and worse, attendance had dwindled to less than 40,000 per home game during Simmons' final season.

But Miles jumped at the chance to kick-start the school he had come to know and love. He was OSU's offensive coordinator in 1997, the only winning season of the dubious dozen years before him, and didn't think twice about leaving his job as an assistant on the staff of the Dallas Cowboys.

In short, Miles hit the ground running, and he hasn't slowed one bit since. His first squad struggled early but won its final two games on the road, including a shocking 16-13 upset of archrival Oklahoma in the season finale that ended the Sooners' bid to repeat as national champions.

Oklahoma State hasn't been the same since.

The Cowboys followed with an 8-5 record in 2002, defeating Southern Mississippi, 33-22, in the Houston Bowl. It was the school's first trip to a bowl game since that 1997 squad lost to Purdue, 30-22, in the Alamo Bowl.

Improvement came yet again last season, when the Cowboys went 9-4 and played in a New Year's Day bowl game for the first time in more than half a century. Despite falling to Ole Miss, 31-28, Miles had plenty to smile about when he looked back on the season:

•  The nine wins and back-to-back bowl appearances were the first time that's happened in Stillwater since Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders led Cowboys to a 10-2 season that was punctuated by a 62-14 win over Wyoming in the 1988 Holiday Bowl.

•  Senior receiver Rashaun Woods, who set Cotton Bowl records with 11 catches for 223 yards, became OSU's first All-American since tight end Alonzo Mayes in 1997.

•  After dropping a 17-7 decision at Nebraska in the opener, the Cowboys responded with seven consecutive victories to vault to No. 14 in the polls. That was the highest national ranking for OSU since 1997, when the school climbed as high as No. 12.

•  Home attendance surged to an average of 44,872, the highest at the school since the NCAA began keeping record in 1997.

•  Oil and gas entrepreneur Boone Pickens, who graduated from OSU in 1951, pledged a whopping $75 million to refurbish Lewis Field. The single largest gift in the history of the school led OSU officials to the obvious re-naming of the football facility, now known as Boone Pickens Stadium.

Phase one of the three-year construction plan, which calls for a total renovation of the south side of the stadium along with a new press box, luxury suites, and club-level seating, is expected to be completed in time for the 2004 home opener against in-state rival Tulsa on September 11.

Phase two will focus on adding new amenities, including club and luxury suite levels, to the north side, while phase three will bowl in the west end zone.

With 16 returning starters, another solid recruiting class, and an improved stadium that's already filling the horizon, Miles' smile continues to widen.

"Now there's expectations and a little more speed in Stillwater," Miles told the Daily Oklahoman. "Both work toward the same outcome."

"The goals of the program remain unchanged. Win the South [division]. Win the [Big 12] championship. Win our last game [bowl]. It's safe to say with raised expectations comes opportunities to do more."

Opportunities that didn't exist in 2000, but thanks to Miles and company, do in 2004.

QUARTERBACKS

With senior Josh Fields (6-1, 210) expected to give up football for a professional baseball career, Miles spent the spring looking for a new signal-caller.

A couple of rookie prospects, red-shirt freshman Donovan Woods (6-2, 205) and true freshman Bobby Reid (6-4, 220), took the bulk of the snaps in spring practice and emerged as the front-runners for the position.

Both young guns played well in the spring game, which seemingly assured more competition in the fall. Reid completed 7-of-13 passes for 128 yards and three touchdowns, while Woods countered with a 7-of-10 effort for 89 yards and two scores.

However, Reid took a big hit from linebacker Roderick Johnson late in the scrimmage and aggravated an old shoulder injury that originally surfaced in high school.

At first, it was thought that it was a minor injury that would be fine by August. But in early June, the Tulsa World and the Daily Oklahoman reported that Reid underwent surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right throwing shoulder. The injury is expected to keep him out of action for four to six months, which means Reid will likely red-shirt this fall.

That leaves Woods, the younger brother of former Cowboy All-American Rashaun and teammate D'Juan, as the likely quarterback for the season-opener at UCLA.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, as Donovan could be the best athlete in his family. He was arguably the top recruit in the state of Oklahoma in 2002, leading Millwood High School to three straight Class 2A state championships while throwing for 5,617 yards and 80 touchdowns and rushing for 2,339 yards and 28 scores in his prep career. The first-team All-State selection was chosen the Oklahoma Offensive Player of the Year by the Daily Oklahoman and was also the state champion in the 110-meter high hurdles.

Reid, who graduated from North Shore High School in Galena Park, Texas last December and enrolled at OSU in January, arrived in Stillwater with just as much promise. The Houston Touchdown Club Offensive Player of the Year was widely considered one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation, as well as the highest profile quarterback signee in OSU history. But now, it looks as if he will have to wait until 2005 to make his debut.

With Reid out of the picture, red-shirt freshman Al Pena (6-2, 210), a transfer from Georgia Tech, and sophomore holdover Jamie Beeghley (6-2, 200) will be competing for the No. 2 spot in August.

Beeghley didn't see much action this spring because the coaching staff wanted to take a close look at the newcomers. But he did take the majority of snaps in spring practice two years ago, when Fields was playing baseball for the Cowboys. He went on to serve as Fields' backup last season, playing in six games and completing 54.5 percent (6-of-11) of his passes for 66 yards with an interception.

Of course, all of the speculation on who will be OSU's starting quarterback would end if Fields decided to continue his collegiate football career.

He is coming off a solid season that ended with one of the best performances of his career. Fields completed 21-of-33 passes for a Cotton Bowl record 307 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Ole Miss, holding his own against the Rebels' Eli Manning. Fields' 17-yard touchdown pass to Rashaun Woods gave him 55 in his career, breaking the school record set by Gundy, who played at OSU from 1986-89. Overall, Fields passed for 2,494 yards and 21 touchdowns and earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors as a junior.

But returning to Stillwater for another year is highly unlikely, considering that the Chicago White Sox made the third baseman their first-round pick (No. 18 overall) in June's Major League Baseball draft. He's expected to receive a signing bonus of over $1 million.

"I don't think being drafted in the first round they'd be too up for me coming back and playing football," Fields admitted to the Daily Oklahoman.

Fields was considered by some to be the best power hitter in the draft. "He's got a chance to be an impact guy," White Sox scouting director Duane Shaffer told the Chicago Tribune. "I really like the way he plays the game, and he's got leadership abilities."

RUNNING BACKS

Losing a back like Tatum Bell would be devastating for most teams, but not necessarily at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have already been through this routine before, as the second-leading rusher in the Big 12 (116.9 yards per game; 1,286 yards, 16 touchdowns) missed the final two regular-season games of his senior year because of injury.

Junior Vernand Morency (5-11, 210), who averaged 6.8 yards per carry last year, is expected to flourish in a full-time role after filling in admirably during Bell's absence. The third-team All-Big 12 coaches pick galloped for a career-high 269 yards on 25 carries and scored three times in a 44-21 win over Kansas, and followed with 227 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries in a 38-21 win over Baylor in the regular-season finale. The yardage total compiled against the Jayhawks was the eighth-best single-game total in school history, while his back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances were the school's first since David Thompson did it in 1996.

Even with a healthy Bell back in the line-up for the Cotton Bowl, Morency still led the Cowboys in rushing with a 15-carry, 59-yard, two-touchdown performance in the loss to Ole Miss. He finished the season with 918 yards on 135 carries, an average of 70.6 yards per game that ranked 12th in the Big 12, and also scored eight touchdowns.

"Mo has plenty of talent. I think he had the talent even a year ago to play more than he played," Miles told the Tulsa World. "When he is healthy and in the game, he's as good a tailback as we've had."

However, Morency was slowed during spring drills by a groin pull and enters the fall listed as the No. 3 tailback. Whether that was a motivational tactic employed by the Cowboy coaching staff remains to be seen, but seniors Greg Jones (5-9, 200) and Seymore Shaw (6-0, 225) are certainly capable of taking over the starter's role.

Jones, who had eight carries for a team-high 49 yards in the spring game, enters the fall listed as the No. 1 tailback on the depth chart. Last season, he rushed just 13 times for 68 yards while playing all 13 contests in a reserve role. His best game was against Texas, when he carried seven times for 36 yards.

Shaw, the No. 2 running back on the post-spring depth chart, will see plenty of action if he can stay healthy. One of the top running back prospects in the nation coming out of Shawnee (Okla.) High School, he has battled injuries throughout his career. Last year he finished third on the team in rushing with 363 yards on 58 carries and scored two touchdowns. He showed glimpses of his talent on several occasions, such as a career-high 107-yard effort in a win over I-AA Southwest Missouri State, a 53-yard touchdown run against Texas Tech and a team-leading 63-yard performance on 14 carries versus Texas. However, he missed the final three games of the season after suffering a thigh injury and spent the spring battling an ankle injury.

Sophomore Greg Gold (5-10, 190), a former Top 100 Texas recruit, waits for his chance after seeing limited action as a red-shirt freshman. OSU also moved athletic red-shirt freshman Calvin Roberts (6-1, 185) to tailback in the spring. He was a highly recruited quarterback out of Memorial High School in Port Arthur, Texas, receiving interest from the likes of Nebraska, Houston, LSU and Kansas.

At fullback, junior Shawn Willis (6-1, 245) provides a load. A defensive end as a freshman, Willis was converted into a crushing lead blocker and a solid short-yardage back last season. He had career-highs of eight carries and 47 yards against Baylor, scoring two touchdowns against the Bears. He also contributed two touchdown runs in the win over Wyoming and finished the season with 31 carries for 149 yards and five touchdowns. Willis also proved to be an effective receiver out of the backfield, ending the season tied for fifth in receptions with nine, for 64 yards.

Willis will be backed up by red-shirt freshman Julius Crosslin (5-11, 215).

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

If losing its top running back and its quarterback weren't enough, OSU must also find a way to replace All-American Rashaun Woods, who caught 77 passes for 1,367 yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior.

The 6-2 wide out was clearly the best downfield threat for the Cowboys, and arguably the NCAA, last year. He broke nearly every school single-season receiving record, and led the league with 105.2 receiving yards per game. Overall, the first round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers also finished his career with a Big 12 record 293 receptions for 4,414 yards, ranking him in the top six of NCAA history.

Need more proof of Woods' dominance? Just ask the defensive backs at SMU, who are still trying to defend Woods after his NCAA-record-setting 13-catch, 232-yard, seven-touchdown performance in OSU's 52-6 win last September.

With Woods now playing on Sundays, sophomore D'Juan Woods (6-2, 200) could be poised to step out of his elder brother's shadow and cast one of his own.

"Knowing the expectations of the family and knowing the kind of athletes who have come out of the Woods family, that probably benefits D'Juan," Miles told the Tulsa World. "He looks toward the mark that his older brother made and I'm certain he wants to compete with it and beat it. It allows him to pursue being the best receiver he can be with the guy who just left. We think he has ability. He will provide us with a very fine receiver. He is still young and is growing into the position. He has enough natural ability to provide problems for defenses."

Part of that natural ability-great hands and blazing speed-were displayed with a 51-yard catch-and-run against Kansas late last year that tied for the team's longest pass play of the season.

Woods ended his red-shirt freshman season second on the team in receptions (31), receiving yards (479) and yards per catch (15.5), while also providing one score. Outside of Woods, OSU has little proven talent returning at receiver.

Sophomore flanker Tommy Devereaux (6-1, 160) and junior receiver Kenny Williams (6-4, 210) are the second and third leading returnees from a statistical standpoint, but they combined to catch just seven passes for 62 yards a year ago.

Miles wants to get the ball into Devereaux's hands more often this season. Last year, he played behind senior Gabe Lindsay and rarely got an opportunity to showcase his blazing speed (4.45 in the 40) as a receiver, catching only four passes for 22 yards. However, he scored on a 14-yard reverse against Texas Tech and had seven rushing attempts as a true freshman.

With the loss of Chay Nesse, who will miss his senior year because of injury, the only other returning veteran is back-up junior flanker Luke Frazier (6-0, 195).

Therefore, OSU must get help from a cast of newcomers that include red-shirt freshmen Chijuan (pronounced Shy-WON) Mack (6-2, 185) and Eric Allen (6-3, 185).

Mack, with a year in the program, is expected to make an impact with his 4.5 speed and ended the spring as a starter, opposite Woods. Allen was impressive in the spring game, catching three passes for 56 yards and a touchdown.

The Cowboys return quality experience at tight end. Senior Billy Bajema (6-5, 255) caught12 passes (second among all returnees) for 129 yards and a pair of scores on way to earning second-team All-Big 12 honors last season. A dependable (25 career starts) target, he also excels in the classroom, where he carries a 3.727 GPA in pre-medicine/business.

Bajema will be pushed by big junior Charlie Johnson (6-4, 290), who had four starts and saw action in all 13 games a year ago. He finished with seven receptions for 67 yards and two touchdowns, scoring both in a two-catch, 20-yard performance against Texas Tech.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Four starters return off a unit that paved the way for Bell's rushing and did a nice job of protecting Fields (ranked second in the Big 12 with just 19 sacks allowed).

Three of the returning starters are seniors: Chris Akin (6-2, 300), Ben Buie (6-2, 315) and Sam Mayes (6-3, 350). The other is sophomore Corey Hilliard (6-5, 300), who made a major impact at right tackle as a freshman. He was moved to left tackle during the spring to shore up the loss of senior Matt Hardison.

Akin is the Cowboys' most versatile lineman, making eight starts at left guard, four at center and another at right guard last season. In the spring, he worked at center while incumbent starter Buie continued to recover from a leg injury that caused him to miss the final two games of last season. With Buie, a member of the Rimington Award Watch List much of last year, expected to be back at full speed, Akin will probably return to left guard for the fall.

Red-shirt freshman David Koenig (6-4, 260), whose older brother Doug saw time in the starting line-up as a senior last year, filled in for Akin at left guard during the spring.

Mayes is an outstanding returnee at right guard, earning honors on several All-Big 12 lists in 2003. His size, strength and footwork are key reasons he is again considered one of the best in the nation.

Junior Kellen Davis (6-5, 290) will get the first opportunity to replace Hilliard at right tackle. He started the first four games there last season, and also logged a start against Baylor. He will be challenged by classmate Adam Gourley (6-6, 265), who was a red-shirt last season after transferring from Butler County (Kansas) Community College.

Junior Corey Curtis (6-4, 285), another versatile prospect who saw time as a back-up guard last season, competes with Hilliard at left tackle, Adding depth to the line is sophomore center Kurt Seifried (6-4, 305), sophomore guard Doug Bond (6-2, 310) and red-shirt freshman guard Phil Friess (6-5, 260).

KICKERS

While the losses of Fields, Bell and Woods get the most coverage, the graduation of place-kicker Luke Phillips was equally taxing.

The second-team All-Big 12 selection missed just one PAT in 56 tries and led the conference in field goal percentage (88.9) as a senior, connecting on 16-of-18 attempts. One that he missed, a 42-yard attempt in the first quarter of the Cotton Bowl, proved to be costly as the Cowboys fell to Ole Miss, 31-28.

Red-shirt freshman Luke Roberts (5-10, 180) ended the spring as the odds-on favorite to win the job in 2004. But if he struggles, don't be surprised to see senior punter Cole Farden (5-11, 200) or true freshman Jason Ricks (6-1, 182) take a swing or two.

Farden has handled the kickoffs for most of his OSU career, with 55 of his 75 going for touchbacks last season.

Ricks made 13-of-15 field goals, with a long of 49 yards, and didn't miss an extra point as a senior at Westwood High School in Round Rock, Texas.

DEFENSIVE LINE

This unit was hit hard by the losses of senior ends Greg Richmond, Antonio Smith and Khreem Smith, a trio that combined for 20.5 sacks and 37 tackles for loss last season.

Richmond, in particular, will be difficult to replace at right end. The team's co-captain and consensus All-Big 12 selection was a three-year starter, but saved his best season for last. He had 72 total tackles, finished second in the Big 12 with 12.5 sacks (3.5 more than he had in his entire career entering the campaign), and ranked third in the Big 12 with a team-leading 20 tackles for loss.

While Richmond went undrafted (he later signed as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles), OSU teammate Antonio Smith was snatched up in the fifth round by the Arizona Cardinals after posting 29 tackles, five sacks and seven tackles for loss last season. Khreem Smith, who alternated with Antonio at left defensive end, added 10 stops behind the line and three sacks.

Now the Cowboys must get solid contributions from a cast of largely unproven ends that includes a pair of talented true freshmen in Nathan Peterson (6-2, 240) and Maurice Cummings (6-4, 240). Both graduated from their respective high schools last December and enrolled at OSU in time for spring practice.

With junior Jerry Don Bray (6-5, 255) and sophomore Marque Fountain (6-1, 255) also turning in solid efforts in the spring, Miles feels better about the situation entering the fall.

"There was concern going into the spring. There is a little less now," Miles told the Tulsa World. "They're obviously green and have a lot of football to play out in the Big 12, but I think we're talented there. They understand the position a little more than some of the guys who have gone on before them."

Bray saw action in nine games off the bench, turning in 10 tackles and half a sack last year. Fountain, who like Bray ended the spring as a starter on the depth chart, contributed 18 total tackles with four for loss and two sacks a year ago. Competition could also come from sophomore Trumain Carroll (6-3, 245) and junior Darrell Franklin (6-3, 240).

The good news up front is that the interior of the Cowboy's four-man line returns intact. Veteran nose guard Clay Coe (6-2, 285) and talented tackles Brad Girtman (6-3, 300) and Efe Mowarin (6-2, 285) give the team experience and stability.

Coe, a senior, started all 13 games last season and had 34 tackles, two for negative yardage, and a sack.

Girtman, a sophomore, added 27 tackles and three hurries while playing all 13 games. He became a starter for two games at mid-season (Texas A&M and Oklahoma), out-playing fellow true freshman and highly rated recruit Xavier Lawson-Kennedy (6-1, 320) along the way.

Lawson-Kennedy, or "XLK" as he is known around Stillwater, was somewhat of an enigma last season. A first-team USA Today All-American as a senior at Duncanville (Texas) High School, he was expected to make an immediate impact on the line. But knee surgery after his final prep season set him back, and 12 college games and just 11 tackles later, he enters his sophomore campaign with a lot to prove. He's going about things the right way though, dropping 25 pounds from his listed weight over the off-season.

Miles moved XLK from tackle to nose guard (behind Coe) in the spring, possibly to give sophomore Darnell Smith (6-0, 245) and Mowarin more repetitions at tackle.

Mowarin, a senior, started the final four games and played in all but one after transferring from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. He contributed 18 tackles, including three for loss.

LINEBACKERS

With an abundance of talent at this position, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cowboys abandon their 4-2-5 defensive scheme for a more traditional 4-3 set when the opportunity presents itself.

Any combination of juniors Paul Duren (6-1, 240), Lawrence Pinson (6-1, 240) and Pagitte McGee (6-1, 230), as well as up-and-coming sophomore Victor DeGrate (6-3, 235), would give the Cowboys more playmakers near the line of scrimmage, where opposing teams could try to take advantage of a youthful defensive line.

Until then, this talented quartet will continue to battle for the two starting spots, just as they did in the spring.

"It's fun to watch the guy who is backing the starter up, but trying to make him a second-teamer," OSU defensive coordinator Bill Clay told the Daily Oklahoman last spring. "And then the first-teamer knowing that if he doesn't really bust his tail, he could be a second-teamer."

Duren is perhaps the only lock to start the season opener at UCLA. An honorable mention All-Big 12 choice by the Associated Press, he led the team in tackles (97) for the second consecutive year.

"Because of Paul Duren's knowledge of our scheme and his ability, he's probably my best linebacker right now," added Clay. "Paul's not a spectacular guy, but he's very intelligent. He's a very good football player. A guy who understands football and knows how to play it."

A freshman All-American, Duren enters the season with 21 career starts and 181 tackles, the latter a number that puts him on track to finish his collegiate career near the top of the school record charts. That would be quite an honor, considering he plays at the school that produced the likes of NFL stars Jason Gildon and Leslie O'Neal.

Duren was slowed by injury entering last season, and had his streak of 13 straight starts snapped in the opener against Nebraska. However, he still recorded nine tackles and blocked a field goal attempt against the Cornhuskers. He went on to regain his position in the starting lineup in week five against Louisiana-Lafayette, and turned in three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three pass breakups and five quarterback hurries.

Duren's return as a starter marked the end of the season for Pinson, who was leading the team with an impressive 35 tackles until suffering a leg injury against the Ragin' Cajuns. He was limited to mostly non-contact drills during the spring but is expected to be the starter come fall. The Cowboys certainly hope that he has as much success against UCLA as he had in last season's opener, when he notched 12 tackles against Nebraska.

Another slowed by injury late last season was McGee, who otherwise turned into one of the best young players on the Cowboy defense. He started eight games, including the Cotton Bowl, and finished with 46 tackles, including five for loss and two sacks.

Like McGee, DeGrate enters the fall listed as a second-teamer on the depth chart. However, he should see plenty of playing time after proving himself worthy as a true freshman. He led the team in tackles each of the final four regular season games, making his only starts in the final three. He ended the year ranked third on the squad with 75 tackles, including a career-high 15 against Kansas.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Four of five starters return in the secondary, with senior cornerback Darrent Williams (5-9, 175) ready to challenge for All-America honors.

Pound for pound, Williams is surely one of the toughest defensive backs in the league and possibly the country. He was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award last year and has a conference record five interception returns for touchdowns in a career that has consisted of 28 staring assignments.

A second-team All-Big 12 selection last season, Williams ranked seventh on the team with 66 tackles and seventh nationally with 0.56 interceptions per game despite missing contests against Kansas and Baylor because of injury. The left corner returned two of his team-leading six picks for scores (a Big 12 best), going 63 yards to pay dirt against Kansas State and adding an 11-yard touchdown return against arch-rival Oklahoma. He also added an impressive 23 pass breakups, and enters his senior campaign with 41 career deflections.

Robert Jones (5-11, 185), also a senior, is the incumbent starter at right corner. He's coming off a solid first year in the program, as the speedster (4.3 in the 40) started all 13 games after transferring from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.

Jones finished with two more tackles than Williams and ranked second on the team with three interceptions and eight pass breakups.

Junior strong safety Vernon Grant (5-9, 180) posted a team-leading 57 solo stops and finished second on the team with 89 total tackles a year ago. The engineering major-who earned a spot on the CoSIDA District VI Academic Team by sporting a 3.25 GPA last fall-has 16 career starts, including nine last season.

Like Jones, senior Jon Holland (5-11, 160) used his speed and instincts to make an immediate impact last season after transferring from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Holland started all 13 games at free safety, earning his first career interception and posting a team-leading 13 tackles in the opener against Nebraska. He went on to finish fifth on the team with 69 tackles, added three interceptions (one off Eli Manning in the Cotton Bowl), and two pass breakups.

Despite those numbers, Holland found himself battling for his starting job during the spring. Junior Thomas Wright (6-0, 185), who had 26 tackles and an interception last season, played well enough to earn the No. 1 spot on the depth chart heading into the fall.

The Cowboys' starting nickel package includes weak safeties Jeremy Nethon (5-9, 190) and Jamar Ransom (5-10, 220), who were locked in a tight competition in the spring for the right to take over for the departed Elbert Craig.

Others, such as junior Dan McLemore (5-7, 180) and seniors Ricky Coxeff (5-11, 170) and Jamie Thompson (6-0, 185), will challenge for playing time after gaining experience at their respective positions last season. McLemore and Coxeff enter the fall as backups to starting corners Williams and Jones, while Thompson ran with the second-team at strong safety in the spring.

PUNTERS

Farden returns after earning second-team All-Big 12 honors by the Associated Press. Entering his third season as the team's starter, Farden has a career 42.22 average in 37 games played. He ended 2003 ranked 22nd nationally and second in the Big 12 with a 43.17 average on 52 punts.

Farden recorded the second-longest punt in school history with an 80-yard boot in the regular season finale against Baylor, pinning the Bears on their own three-yard line. That was one of 11 punts that he dropped inside the 20 as a junior. He also had six touchbacks and one blocked attempt.

Sky Rylant (6-0, 205), a fifth-year senior, is a proven backup despite not attempting a punt last season. He punted 11 times in 2002, averaging 42 yards with a long of 53 against Louisiana Tech.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Miles won't have to look far to replace punt return specialist Gabe Lindsay, who averaged a league-leading 15.1 yards per return (a mark that also ranked fourth nationally) and scored a touchdown as a senior. That's because the Cowboys could still have one of the league's best returners in Darrent Williams.

Williams saw spot duty fielding punts and kicks as a junior, and had considerable success. He had a school-record two punt return touchdowns (78, 59) against Louisiana-Lafayette and ended the season with a 17.8 yard average on 13 returns. That average would have ranked second in the nation if he wouldn't have been three returns shy of qualifying for the rankings. The cornerback also averaged 20.8 yards on four kickoff returns.

Robert Jones, a fellow cornerback, is also back after leading the team and ranking 10th in the Big 12 with a 19.7 average on 17 kickoff returns. Morency also has experience returning kicks, averaging 22.4 yards on 10 attempts last season, but will likely hand responsibility over to McLemore if he becomes the starting tailback as expected.

OSU returns deep snapper Jacob Dressen (6-4, 285), a senior offensive lineman, but needs a new holder. Rylant, who held the first six games of 2002, could return to that role.

The Cowboys ranked second in the Big 12 in kickoff coverage last season, limiting opponents to an average 18.3 yards per return.

RECRUITING

OSU's 2004 recruiting class consisted of 19 signees, all high school seniors, and doesn't rank among the nation's elite (No. 38 by Rivals.com). Still, Miles believes that it, coupled with a solid 2003 class, will help the Cowboys stay near the top of the Big 12 in the future.

"I'm certain these classes over the last two years have been the style of classes that will allow us to compete with advantage in the Big 12 Conference," Miles said. "The more success you have, the more success you are going to have. That's true on the football field with victories, and it's true in recruiting."

Success on the Cowboys' recruiting trail came early, as six signees graduated last December and enrolled at OSU in January. Those who participated in spring practice included: quarterback Reid and defensive ends Peterson and Cummings, as well as linebacker Roderick Johnson (6-3, 220) of Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, strong safety Stephen James (5-11, 185) of Galena Park, Texas and North Shore High School, and wide receiver Phillip Jones (5-11, 170) of Ryan High School in Denton, Texas.

Reid is considered to be the jewel of the class. A big quarterback with a strong arm, his 4.5 speed and dazzling athleticism were perhaps the key reasons North Shore notched an undefeated Class 5A State Championship season. He totaled a combined 2,650 yards and 38 touchdowns (22 passing, 16 rushing) as a senior, earning a trip to the prestigious Elite 11 Quarterback Camp in California and winning numerous postseason accolades along the way.

Desperately in need of playmakers on offense, the Cowboys also signed running back Mike Hamilton (6-1, 220) of Melbourne (Fla.) High School, receiver Seth Newton (6-3, 170) of Girard (Kan.) High School, tight end Brandon Pettigrew (6-5, 225) of Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, and multi-purpose athlete Prentiss Eliott (6-0, 175) of the Tulsa School of Science and Technology.

Hamilton, who was lured away from Florida and Florida State, was rated as the nation's No. 45 prep running back by Rivals.com and rushed for 1,591 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior. A big back with tremendous speed (4.4 in the 40), he galloped for 332 yards in his final game and ended his career with a school-record 4,627 yards and 53 touchdowns. He could be the next great back at a school that has produced the likes of Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas.

"He could be a 230- or 240-pound guy that is an elusive big man," said Miles of Hamilton. "He'll take time to develop like the rest of our class, but his potential is very great."

Newton and Pettigrew bring bright futures to the passing game. Newton was one of the top receiver prospects in Kansas, earning all-state honors and catching 92 passes for 1,820 yards and 24 touchdowns over his career. Pettigrew was a late-bloomer who eventually became one of the top tight end prospects in Texas.

Eliott though, could be the biggest threat of all if he can stay out of trouble. A versatile athlete with dynamic speed (4.5 in the 40) and power, he led the state of Oklahoma with 2,515 rushing yards and scored 29 touchdowns as a senior. He can play running back, receiver, defensive back, and return punts. But he has had numerous difficulties off the field, including two school suspensions and a felony assault and battery charge.

Among much debate, Miles researched the situation and decided to take a chance on Elliott, giving him another in the process.

"I found & he was a good person with a good heart who worked hard and went to class and did the things in the classroom and was a 'Yes ma'am-no ma'am guy," Miles told the Tulsa World. "They [teachers, coaches, principals and counselors] said that this man deserves a chance and, in fact, every person I talked to was an advocate of his."

A trio of offensive line signees, Jeray Chatham (6-4, 260) of Westfield High School in Houston, Texas, David Washington (6-4, 265) of Guthrie (Okla.) High School, and massive Chris Simon (6-5, 330) of Waller (Texas) High School, could be blocking for Elliott in the future.

OSU claimed its share of talent on the defensive side of the ball too, starting up front with Peterson, Cummings and big defensive tackle Walter Thomas (6-5, 330) of Ball High School in Galveston, Texas.

Peterson prepped for one of the nation's best high school programs at nearby Tulsa Union, where he was widely considered the top prospect in Oklahoma. As a senior he helped the Redskins to a berth in the Class 6A semifinals, while he posted 122 tackles for the state champions as a junior. He has an outstanding combination of size, strength and speed (4.65 in the 40), as well as a terrific work ethic that helped him earn a spot on the Cowboys' depth chart at No. 3 right end heading into the fall.

Cummings, who starred at Lott High School in Rosebud, Texas, was a Class 2A All-State selection. He had 107 tackles as a senior and brings great physical tools to Stillwater.

Thomas, rated as the nation's No. 17 defensive tackle by Rivals.com, is big and strong (he bench presses more than 400 pounds). He originally committed to OSU, then changed his mind and decided on Texas A&M before going back to his initial decision.

Only two players were signed to help an already crowed secondary, James and cornerback Martel Van Zant (6-2, 200) of Lee High School in Tyler, Texas. Van Zant is hearing impaired, but didn't let that stop him from becoming one of the best defensive backs in the Lone Star State. He ended his career with 21 interceptions.

QUESTIONS

Is the third Woods the charm? Quarterback Donovan Woods, the latest in the line of the three talented Woods brothers to play football at OSU, could be the best of the bunch. He's not a great passer (yet), but he's very athletic and could make his share of plays as a red-shirt freshman.

Who are the playmakers? The Cowboys must replace their leading rusher (Tatum Bell) and leading receiver (Rashaun Woods), who are now playing in the NFL.

D-Line dilemma? Three of the top four defensive ends from 2003 are gone.

Kicking game? Replacing Luke Phillips could be the most difficult task of all.

ANSWERS

Running Game! The Cowboys will run, run, run until their opponent takes their T-Birds (Morency, Shaw and Donovan Woods) away.

Darrent Williams! The Big 12's best returning corner is also one of the nation's best return men.

Linebackers! Paul Duren leads a talented quartet of linebackers.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

OFFENSE: C; SPECIAL TEAMS: B-; DEFENSE: B+; INTANGIBLES: B

If Oklahoma State is to sustain the momentum built by two straight winning seasons and make its third consecutive bowl appearance for the first time since 1985, a large cast of young players must produce on a high level.

Of the 24 expected starters (including the kicking specialists), only seven are seniors. The defensive line has just one senior among its top nine players and first-year starters, including three red-shirt freshmen, dominate the skill positions on offense.

However, Miles doesn't expect a drop-off in success, despite having to plug holes left by the likes of Tatum Bell, Rashaun Woods, Greg Richmond and possibly, Josh Fields.

"Each year is different. There's a different set of leaders, playmakers, and every team has a different personality," Miles told the Tulsa World.

The coach has a point, and it's not as though the roster is devoid of talent. The Cowboys have a solid offensive line and a good group of running backs in the stable, as well as a top-notch linebacker corps. The secondary is loaded with blazing speed, prompting Miles to suggest that his group of corners could make a strong 4x100 relay team.

Still, the schedule presents its share of challenges for such a youthful squad, with road trips to UCLA, Colorado, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech. The home schedule won't be easy either, with the Cowboys hosting arch-rival Oklahoma and a much-improved Tulsa squad, among others.

"I think this team has experienced winning and knows the price they have to pay," Miles said. "The goal is to win a championship. That's where we're headed."

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 117 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college football, Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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