By ALEX ABRAMS
STILLWATER, Okla. – Mike Gundy thinks it’s a bit unfair to compare Oklahoma State’s wide receivers this season to former first-round NFL Draft picks Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon.
What the Cowboys lack in proven top talent, though, they might just make up for in depth.
It’s been a few years since Bryant and Blackmon starred at Oklahoma State, where they blitzed Big 12 Conference defenders with their rare combination of size, speed and ability to beat defenses. This season, the Oklahoma State coach said the Cowboys, who take on Mississippi State Aug. 31 in Houston, have as many as a dozen wide receivers on the roster who are capable of starting, and he has a proven commodity in junior Josh Stewart.
“We may be as good at that position as we ever have been without having maybe a potential first-round guy that would be in the senior class,” Gundy said.
Oklahoma State’s receivers have the chance this season to be a collective unit instead of a one-man show. The Cowboys – who open their season Aug. 31 against Mississippi State in Houston– return their top four from last season, and Stewart could do something that Blackmon accomplished twice during his time in Stillwater.
Stewart and Oklahoma State senior Tracy Moore were named to the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation’s top receiver. Blackmon won the award in 2010 and 2011, and Bryant was a runner-up for it in 2008.
“Coming in last season, all I wanted to do is . whatever I had to do when I had the ball to help my team out and that’s the mindset I had,” Stewart said. “It seemed like a small thing, but it turned out big.
“Look where I’m at now. I’m not going to change that mindset because there’s no need to change it.”
Stewart breaking out
The Cowboys’ high-powered offense has a way of producing 1,000-yard receivers regardless of who’s taking snaps at quarterback. That was evident during Stewart’s breakout sophomore season in 2012.
He emerged as one of the nation’s leading receivers with 101 catches for 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns, doing so despite having three different quarterbacks throw passes to him last year.
Stewart’s 1,210 yards were the third-most by a sophomore in Oklahoma State history, trailing only Blackmon’s school-record 1,782 yards in 2010 and Bryant’s 1,480 yards in 2008.
“The inside guys are really talented. You have Josh Stewart and (sophomore) David Glidden,” Oklahoma State wide receivers coach Jason Ray said. “We flop those guys around and have gotten away from the inside and outside receiver thing to make them interchangeable.
“Overall, the group is a pretty strong, focused group.”
Stewart said he spent the summer taking part in offseason workouts in Stillwater instead of returning to his hometown of Denton, Texas. And he expects his productivity to continue with whichever quarterback Gundy names the starter.
Oklahoma State senior Clint Chelf and sophomore J.W. Walsh are competing in practice to start the Aug. 31 season opener against Mississippi State in Houston. Stewart has said it doesn’t matter to him which quarterback gets the starting job since both showed last year that they can make plays.
Stewart, who’s smaller in stature than Bryant and Blackmon at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, has kept his focus on becoming a more complete receiver.
“Of course I’ve got to work on a few things. I’m not perfect,” Stewart said. “I’ve got a lot to work on, but other than that I’m going to keep the same mindset, play hard like I always do and do what’s the best I can for the team.”
Stewart and Moore were on pace to be one of the nation’s top receiving tandems last season before Moore suffered an ankle injury in a 20-14 win over Kansas on Oct. 13.
The Tulsa native was suspended for last year’s season opener against Savannah State, but he returned to catch eight passes for 106 yards and four touchdowns against Arizona.
Gundy has said that, aside from running back Joseph Randle, Moore was “our best player on offense” prior to his ankle injury. And Moore is back for a fifth year at Oklahoma State, though he doesn’t feel saddled with pressure to perform.
“I would rather be underrated than overrated,” Moore said.
Five things to watch
1. NAME THE STARTER: Gundy has been tight-lipped about his quarterback situation this fall, and he has kept the two candidates for the starting job from speaking to reporters. It’s created plenty of intrigue as opener approaches. Senior Clint Chelf is considered the favorite to start over sophomore J.W. Walsh, though both quarterbacks started at least three games last season. “We all know how important quality quarterback play is to winning games,” Gundy said.
2. NEW FACES: Oklahoma State’s players should have worn name tags in the spring to make things easier for all the new assistant coaches on Gundy’s staff. Gundy had to hire four new assistants, including both of his coordinators. Gundy caught many by surprise when he hired Mike Yurcich from Division II Shippensburg to run his high-powered offense. Yurcich had proven that he could generate points and his stock will rise even more if Oklahoma State can again lead the Big 12 in scoring offense. “I think he’s very comfortable with our system now, and I see him being much more aggressive in practice and it seems to be going very well at this time,” Gundy said.
3. KEEP RUNNING: Oklahoma State has produced a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2007, and Jeremy Smith could be next on the list. The fifth-year senior has shown he’s capable of breaking long runs when he’s healthy, evident by his career average of 6.2 yards per carry. Smith has never been the featured back at Oklahoma State, but he’ll get his chance after Joseph Randle decided to leave after his junior season to enter the NFL draft. Smith has insisted that the Cowboys will again lead the Big 12 in rushing. “It’s going to be a big year this year, and I can’t wait,” Smith said. “There’s not going to be any drop-off.”
4. KICKING IT: Quarterback isn’t the only position battle that has gained plenty of attention this fall. The Cowboys are looking for a strong leg to replace the versatile Quinn Sharp, who handled both the kicking and punting duties last season. He made 28 of 34 field goal attempts as a senior to finish as the most accurate kicker in Oklahoma State history with an 84.7 field-goal percentage. That’s not easy to replace, but Gundy hopes to come close with freshman Ben Grogan, who was named the starting kicker following a scrimmage last week. “Everybody around here that’s watched Oklahoma State football has been spoiled with Quinn, and he brought so much to the table,” Gundy said. “But we’ll have new guys in there, and it creates uncertainty.”
5. ON THE DEFENSIVE: The Big 12 doesn’t have a reputation for being a defensive-minded conference, but Oklahoma State must do a better job at slowing down opposing offenses. The Cowboys allowed an average of 47.2 points in their five losses last season, including 59 points to Arizona and 51 to Oklahoma in a wild Bedlam game. New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer, who was promoted after serving as Oklahoma State’s linebackers coach, gets the task of fixing the problem. “It’s a process,” Spencer said. “And now is the time in camp when a lot people are floating around, and we just keep pressing on the guys that yesterday is over and to win tomorrow.”