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2012 College Football Team Previews

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Now that Oklahoma State must rely on something less spectacular on offense following the loss of quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon, the Cowboys are willing to turn anywhere to find strengths.

Why, things have become so loony, they are actually pointing to the defense as a potential strength.

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Yes, the same unit that ranked 107th nationally last season when Oklahoma State sailed to the Big 12 title and eventually finished 12-1 by beating Stanford in the Fiesta Bowl.

Yet during that run, coach Mike Gundy insisted his defense was unfairly maligned. He implored anyone, everyone, to note that the Cowboys ranked first nationally with 44 takeaways. And that those turnovers played into a 25.4-point allowance, which actually led the Big 12.

Still, misperceptions about the Oklahoma State defense may have played into the ratings, which in the end barely left the Cowboys out of the national championship game. But Oklahoma State can still believe in its defense from within and use it as a building block to overcome the loss of its two most explosive offensive threats.

Besides, those turnovers enabled that high-powered offense to thrive.

"If you get us the ball back, we can score more," reasoned running back Joseph Randle, who figures to be a key figure too in the Cowboys' title defense. "They led the country in that, so we scored a lot of points. The offense got a lot of shine, but you can't take away from them the fact that they took the ball away a lot and got us the ball. They did their part last year. And I think they'll do that again this year."

Eight returning starters provide continuity within the defense, which is led by the veteran linebacker corps of Alex Elkins, Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey. Tackling leader Daytawion Lowe returns at safety and will be flanked by the best cornerback tandem in the Big 12, Brodrick Brown and Justin Gilbert.

A true freshman, Wes Lunt, was named the starting quarterback at the close of spring practice. So essentially, the Cowboys will trade a 28-year-old engineer (Weeden) for a fresh rookie.

Still, enough good veterans exist to smooth the transition. Not only does Randle return after rushing for 1,216 yards and also posing a threat as a receiver, but Jeremy Smith will also get carries after gaining 646 yards. Tracy Moore is the top returning receiver, though Lunt will need everyone in that group to comprehend the system quickly and provide assistance.

Do not forget, either, that Oklahoma State has the best dual kicking specialist in the country. Quinn Sharp began handling kicks and punts last season and proved deadly. Gilbert is also a dangerous return man who scored two touchdowns last year.

HEAD COACH: Mike Gundy, eighth year at Oklahoma State, 59-30 as a head coach and at Oklahoma State.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Joseph Randle -- For the Cowboys to overcome the loss of their two key offensive threats from the past two seasons, QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon, a consistent performer must emerge. Randle should be that guy after rushing for 1,216 yards last season and also snagging 43 receptions. His star power provides QB Wes Lunt a consistent go-to guy in the attack and removes pressure off the freshman to deliver himself. Randle also can be spelled by another proven contributor, RB Jeremy Smith.

BREAKOUT STAR: QB Wes Lunt -- There must be a reason a true freshman can distinguish himself during spring camp to the extent he is named the starting quarterback. Lunt has all the tools to emerge as another dynamic threat in a fast-paced attack that yielded incredible passing numbers for Weeden. Lunt proved he not only was sharp throwing the ball, but also gained quick command of the OSU system. The player he beat out, QB J.W. Walsh, could also fit into the Cowboys' plans as they devise a package to also capitalize on his skills.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: IR Blake Jackson -- A tight end in junior college, Jackson is versatile enough to boost the Cowboys from a variety of positions. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, he is also difficult to bring down. A first-team NJCAA All-American at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, Jackson had 62 receptions for 934 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.

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KEYS TO SUCCESS: Gradually bringing Lunt around as he learns the offense requires that the Cowboys somehow minimize mistakes. This is best accomplished by relying more heavily on the run game, where RB Joseph Randle and RB Jeremy Smith are capable veterans. Three starters, however, must be replaced within the offensive line, though OG Lane Taylor is among the Big 12's best blockers. Defensively, Oklahoma State must be solid, and should be with eight returnees. Expect that group to not only cause turnovers, but also produce stops on a more consistent basis. The pass defense, always a concern in the Big 12, will be steadied by the presence of a veteran secondary led by CB Brodrick Brown and CB Justin Gilbert. On special teams, Sharp can influence field position with his leg.

AREAS OF CONCERN: The biggest issue is the transition Lunt makes from high school to college. He is gifted, or else Gundy would not have tabbed him the starting quarterback after a brief spring audition. Still, quarterbacking at a championship level as a freshman is difficult, especially in the Cowboys' breakneck offense. Removing some of the difficulty with a concerted ground attack will open seams for the receivers to exploit downfield. The defense, as good as it is, must also be alarmed by the 457 yards it allowed on average last season, and vow to greatly reduce that mark, which ranked 107th nationally.

Notes

-- CB Devin Hedgepeth (Achilles' tendon) and CB Andrae May (knee) each missed spring workouts, but are expected to be available to practice by mid-August. Each could be thrust into second-team roles as long as they properly recover.

-- OG Jonathan Rush is expected to be fully ready for fall camp after a knee injury kept him out of some spring workouts.

-- SS Lavocheya Cooper is the lone first-team player in the secondary who did not start a year ago. He will return after missing much of last season with a knee injury.

 
 
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