The State of Oklahoma: The Oxen That Make the Wagon Move, Part II

Yesterday, I took a look at Oklahoma's offensive line and the new faces that we will see this season.  While talented, OU's O-line lacks starting experience and overall depth, which is a concern with Sam Bradford being easily affected by pressure.  There is justification in pointing out OU's possible weakness in this area that could possibly derail their national title goals.

For Oklahoma State, the situation is, according to hype, the exact opposite, returning an experienced O-line that is supposed to be the key for a big 2009 run.  Oklahoma State, after fielding a very good team last season, is on virtually everybody's Top 10 list as a "dark horse," if the term has any meaning for them anymore (don't "dark horses" sneak up on people and not get a lot of preseason hype?).  In any case, Oklahoma State is looking to have the success Tech did last season minus the late season meltdown.

2008:  Riding high early and falling with the sunset

To the mild surprise of many, OSU started the year off strong.  Few expected them to defeat Missouri on the road, but they hounded Chase Daniel into throwing three picks and road behind Kendall Hunter's 154 yards rushing to a 28-23 victory.  The loss dropped Missouri from #2 to #11 in the AP poll (yes, Missouri was once ranked #2) and catapulted OSU from #17 to #8.  That would be the last Missouri would be in the Top 10; a whipping at the hands of Texas the following week ended them for good, and Oklahoma State would eventually rise to #7 in the BCS standings.  However, that was as high as they got.

Facing their three South Division rivals--Texas, OU, and Tech--in a short span, Oklahoma State went 0-3 and was on the outside looking in when the whole tiebreaker fiasco happened.  Needless to say, despite the 9-win season, OSU still has a lot to prove that it can do more than beat the teams they are supposed to beat.  The win against Missouri was impressive, but Missouri turned out to be a bit worse than people thought, and outside of that, Oklahoma State had no big win to speak of, also dropping their bowl game to Oregon after a good start.

Still, Oklahoma State had a good team and return a lot of good pieces to an offense that boasted a bit more balance than other teams in the Big 12.  With many offensive linemen returning, the odds are with the Cowboys to continue that success.

OSU's offensive line after the jump

2009 Offensive Line

Last season, OSU suffered no major injuries and their top five guys played virtually every meaningful snap on the O-line.  This helped contribute to their overall rushing success (#8 in the country) and helped Zac Robinson have a very productive year, a year in which he was sacked only 16 times.  They averaged almost 45 points a game and will look to their experienced offensive line this year to enable them to replicate those type of numbers.

In 2008, there allegedly was a correlation between the number of starts an offensive line was bringing into the season and the season's results.  You can interpret that as you wish, but OSU definitely should be feeling good about the experience they bring in.  In the Big 12, they are only behind Texas in total O-line starts going into 2009 with 86, and with Kendall Hunter to return and Dez Bryant on the outside, this is an offense that Cowboy fans are hoping can post 200+ yards on the ground and 300+yards in the air, perhaps even in the same game.  Heck, the hype is so high that CFN has the Cowboys ranked as their #1 offense in the entire country going into the season.  That is going... a little overboard, but it's reasonable to assume OSU is going to field a dangerous offense in 2009.  One thing, however, is worth mentioning:  The experience is centered around the tackle positions and at center.  Both guards will be new, which may make things interesting.  Keep that in mind as we look at their projected starters.

LT - Russell Okung, Sr.

Okung is probably getting more hype than Trent Williams for the 2010 NFL draft.  At 6'5, 300 lbs, he's a bit lighter than Williams but moves very well for player of his size and could have entered the draft last year, although the competition was stiff.  He was on the first team All-Big 12 team last season and has started since his true freshman year.  In 2007, he was commended for holding Indiana's Greg Middleton, the nation's sack leader, without a sack for the bowl game, and he has been on a line that has led OSU to three straight Big 12 rushing titles.  While OSU did give up five sacks to Texas, you can make the argument that Orakpo "only" had one and the main problems were elsewhere, with Melton picking up two and Houston, Miller, and Kindle each notching one sack.

Okung will have to have a big year, not only for his own draft stock but for OSU to sniff the Big 12 title.  He will be facing a stout OU D-line and a talented Texas one, and he will get his shot against Kindle.  He may be well-suited for the task; he did a fair job against Orakpo (as much as you could expect) and he may have the mobility to handle an athlete like Kindle better than even Trent Williams.  While there is arguably less pressure on Okung than Williams this season, since Robinson is much more mobile than Bradford and there is more experienced help along the line, he may hold almost as large a responsibility for their offensive success as Zac Robinson himself.

His backup is sophomore Casey LaBrue, who should not see the field for any meaningful snap unless OSU wants to lose.

LG - Jonathan Rush, So.  Replaces:  Andrew Lewis, moved to center

Rush is currently in the lead for the LG spot.  He was a three star recruit according to Rivals and a Texas top 100 player, but he has no significant game experience.  He redshirted in 2007 and he played sparingly against a few cupcakes such as Baylor, Iowa State, and Washington State last season.  He has good size, listed as 6'4 and 314 pounds, but he does have big shoes to fill as three year starter Andrew Lewis changes positions.

Rush will be backed up by sophomore Nick Martinez, and he will be pushed by top JUCO transfer Anthony Morgan as well for the starting position.

C - Andrew Lewis, Sr.  Replaces:  David Washington, UFA

After an injury to the Washington early in 2007, Lewis successfully switched from guard to center for the remainder of that year, helping OSU remain solid up front.  Last season, he started at left guard while Washington retook the center duties.  Now with Washington gone, Lewis is back to center, perhaps feeling a bit like Chris Hall.

While Lewis is "new" to the position in the sense that he didn't play it last year, the Cowboys don't expect any drop off.  He played the position his sophomore year and as a three year starter with 26 consecutive starts, he's got the head knowledge to handle the center responsibilities without a hitch.  His versatility and football IQ have been lauded by his coaches, and he has come from being an unheralded high school recruit to a potential late round NFL draft pick.  He may not be the most physically imposing or gifted player, but he has good mobility for his size (6'5, 290) and he's has the brains, which a coach definitely wants from a center.

He'll be backed up by redshirt sophomore Grant Garner, who has no real experience to speak of and received three stars from Rivals.

RG - Noah Franklin, Sr.  Replaces:  Steve Denning, undrafted

Franklin also has no career starts and has had limited playing time overall.  He redshirted his first year and has played sparingly in a reserve role.  He was a three star recruit according to rivals and sports decent size, standing at 6'4 and weighting 314 pounds.  Other than that, there's not much to say about him other than the fact that you might argue it's impressive he's currently listed ahead of Anthony Morgan, although that might change.

As noted, he will be backed up by four star JUCO transfer Anthony Morgan, who has the Cowboy fanbase excited.  He was the most decorated JUCO offensive line target, with two years of starting and a first team All-American JUCO selection under his belt.  However, it's worth mentioning that he has absolutely no Division I experience, joining the Cowboys just last January.  Nonetheless, sporting great size at 6'5, 320 pounds and some real talent, don't be surprised if Morgan overtakes either Franklin or Rush for a starting guard position.

RT - Brady Bond, Sr.

Bond has 31 career starts, beginning in his redshirt freshman season when he began the season starting at left tackle.  Since that year, he has started every game at right tackle and sports as much experience as Okung. 

He really came from nowhere; although he did get three stars from Rivals, the guy came from 8-man high school football in some small Oklahoma town and originally played tight end since there are technically no tackles in 8-man football.  His size rivals that of Okung, standing at 6'6 and 300 pounds himself, and he is expected to be just as solid, if not as impressive, as Okung on the opposite side.  He will need to be; while Okung will most likely take on every team's best pass rusher, Bond will still face talented guys himself.  Melton notching two sacks on him was perhaps not his best performance.

Behind him will be senior Andrew Mitchell, another decorated JUCO transfer.  In 2007, he earned JUCO All-American honors.  He has good size and apparently decent mobility, starting out as a tight end in junior college, and he saw limited time last year in a reserve role.  If he has gotten the hang of things at his new position and his new environment, he can provide quality depth at an already strong tackle position.

Uneven experience

With three senior lineman returning to the starting lineup who have a wealth of experience, it is obvious to see why OSU fans, and many media members, are high on the Cowboys.  Okung is projected to be a first round selection and Lewis and Bond will provide great stability at center and right tackle.  The two most important pieces on the line are usually considered to be left tackle (if your QB is a righty) and center, and OSU seems not only strong there but very strong there.  The problem, though, is that all 86 starts reside with these three players.  Not only do the new guards have no starting experience, at least at the Div. 1 level, they arguably have no meaningful experience even in a reserve role.  Having a talent like Anthony Morgan come to town helps a lot, but he will have to quickly adjust to the much greater competition than what he saw at the JUCO level.  While JUCO is not intramurals, it isn't exactly Div. 1 football either (cue Dan Hawkins).

Still, OSU fans are betting that their overall line strength will help the newcomers ease on in with little pressure to shine immediately.  If an opposing team sports two capable defensive tackles that can disrupt plays, that might cause a bit of trouble since Lewis can only help out on one, but otherwise, pass protection in particular should be pretty stout.  They have decent depth, but that too is mostly inexperienced, and injuries to either Okung or Lewis could derail a promising season in a hurry.  Many eyes are on Anthony Morgan, whose quick emergence could make an already strong offensive line into one of the best in the country, if they're not already there.  With Kendall Hunter, Toston, and a mobile Zac Robinson in the backfield, that would be very undesirable for their opponents to see, especially with a guy like Dez Bryant on the outside who would discourage loading the box.

When October 31st rolls around, it would be very nice for Texas to have a DT emerge.  With that inexperience at the guard positions, if somebody like Ben Alexander can gobble up double teams and leave Houston one-on-one against one of them, that would be matchup Horns fans would love.  Also, while the inevitable battle between Kindle and Okung will be heavily scrutinized, it may be more interesting to see how Bond handles whatever end he faces.  He seemed to have struggled against Melton and it would be nice for Jones, Acho, or Okafor to emulate that.

Compared to Oklahoma, OSU's 86 returning stars clearly trumps Oklahoma's mere 26, which is dead last in the Big 12.  However, you could make the argument that Oklahoma has more talent across the board and also has a little more experience beyond their starting five.  When it comes to the O-line, however, having that experience with your starters means a lot, and so you can't blame the preseason pundits for listing Oklahoma's O-line as a potential weakness while OSU's is being lauded as one of their strengths.

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