At Oklahoma State, the student became the teacher this spring
STILLWATER, Okla. -- The crash course was essential. Several nights a week they met to study the new system, trying to get up to speed in the dwindling days before spring practice began.
Todd Monken, who took over as Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator in early February, said the learning curve was fairly steep, but progress was rapid and the adjustment has been smooth. Which is why he's grateful for the tutorials provided by a senior quarterback.
Let's be clear: "It's not 'Football 101 With Brandon Weeden,'" said Weeden, the senior quarterback.
But it wasn't far off. According to Cowboys coach Mike Gundy, the 27-year-old quarterback knows the offense as well as any of the coaches, so who better to help out the new guy? Still, everyone including Monken admits the entire situation this spring has been "a little odd."
The Cowboys bring back the bulk of a talented, very explosive offense from 2010, including one of the nation's best quarterback-receiver combinations in Weeden and Justin Blackmon. The trouble will be bringing back the actual offense after Dana Holgorsen moved on to West Virginia to become the head coach-in-waiting. How to replicate the attack without the architect?
"We're kind of piecing it together," Monken said, and it's easy to see why they would try.
Oklahoma State ranked third nationally last season in total yardage (520.2) and scoring (44.2). The production was surprising, considering most had the Cowboys pegged for a rebuilding season. No one really knew what they had at quarterback or receiver, or whether the new offense would catch on. But Weeden, a former minor league baseball player in his first year as a starter, set school records in passing (4,277 yards) and touchdowns (34). Blackmon emerged to lead the nation in receiving (1,782 yards, 20 touchdowns) and won the Biletnikoff Award. The Cowboys went 11-2 -- and fell just short of their goal when rival Oklahoma won a three-way tiebreaker over Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in the Big 12 South.
"We're really not satisfied," Weeden said. "We feel like the Big 12 championship was left on the table."
And despite the loss of All-America running back Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State seems primed for a run at the school's first conference title since 1976. The offense fits the Cowboys' considerable strengths -- or at least, it did when Holgorsen was running it.
Hiring his replacement was a little tricky. Monken, a Jacksonville Jaguars assistant for the last four years, has a diverse background. Gundy knew him well from a previous stint as Oklahoma State's receivers coach. But Monken had never worked specifically with Mike Leach's version of the spread, or Holgorsen's more run-friendly derivative.
"He was willing to come in and work within our system," Gundy said, "which allowed us to make one guy adjust instead of making 60 people adjust. That's why he was a good fit."
Gundy found help making the determination from an unlikely source. This time a year ago, Weeden was an unproven commodity. A second-round draft pick by the Yankees in 2002, he played five seasons in the minors before turning to football. His first three years in Stillwater were undistinguished; Gundy said he'd shown "zero to ever make us think he could perform well." That changed during a relief appearance in a win over Colorado late in the 2009 season. When Gundy hired Holgorsen and committed to the spread, Weeden flourished.
"Me and Dana got to the point," Weeden said, "where we were really on the same page."
So when Holgorsen left, Weeden asked Gundy for input on the replacement. Gundy's first thought was exactly what you'd think he'd think: "I'm the coach, he's the player."
But as he considered the request, Gundy recognized the unique situation. It wasn't just that he wanted to keep the system intact, with only a few minor tweaks (somehow, he hopes to get better in short-yardage situations). He also had a star quarterback whose maturity and relationship with the coaches had grown quickly into something more commonly found in the NFL than in college. When else would that happen? Gundy realized Weeden had a point.
"He's gonna be involved in the teaching process," Gundy thought, "because he knows more about it than anybody in this building."
Gundy kept Weeden briefed on the search. After narrowing it to Monken, he put them on the phone together. During a conversation that lasted maybe a half-hour, player and prospective coach hit it off. If Weeden hadn't felt comfortable, Gundy might have turned to another candidate, but it wasn't necessary. Weeden liked what he heard. And when Monken arrived in Stillwater a few days later -- about three weeks before spring practice began -- their relationship deepened by necessity.
Monken spent days in meetings with the other offensive coaches, watching film, learning the offense's structure. In the evenings, he had a standing appointment for cram sessions with the quarterback. When Weeden would arrive sometime after dinner, Monken usually had a list of questions. Why did the Cowboys do this? Who was Weeden looking for on that? What was Holgorsen thinking there?
"Just a number of things from signaling, to concepts, to reads, to practice, to tempo," Monken said. "We'd go through every little nuance, and why, because you're really just trying to piece together: 'OK, why the success?' And then, 'What is it that makes that?'"
There are questions that cannot be answered just yet. Monken is a smart guy, and he can learn the X's and O's, and even perhaps figure out the hows and whys of what went into Holgorsen's success. But Holgorsen's real knack might have been calling plays.
"He had a real feel for it," Weeden said.
Will Monken? Who knows, but he's got plenty to work with, starting with Weeden and Blackmon. Hunter's departure is significant; for all the passing, the Doak Walker finalist was essential to the Cowboys' success. They'll try to replace his 1,548 yards and 16 touchdowns with a pair of solid running backs. Joseph Randle was Hunter's backup last season; Gundy said he was "as good a freshman as I've ever been around, physically and mentally." Third-year sophomore Jeremy Smith also emerged this spring.
Perhaps more important, the Cowboys return all five offensive linemen and a pervasive confidence after winning 11 games for the first time in school history.
"Offensively speaking, we've got a chance to be pretty special," Weeden said.
All of the above fuels optimism around Stillwater, and especially inside the fantastic, still-new football facilities. There's a sense of growing momentum. After years of building, the Cowboys and their fans think they might be ready to break through.
Gundy cautions, however, that they've felt this way before. Two years ago, Oklahoma State was tabbed as a team to watch; the Cowboys made
Now, with expectations as high as they've been in years, Gundy finds it necessary to keep reminding the Cowboys what happened in 2009. But he also believes the program has grown since then. Using an analogy his quarterback can probably appreciate, he says the key is to keep swinging away.
"We've hit a bunch of doubles the last three or four years," Gundy said. "We hit a triple last year. But we haven't knocked the ball over the fence. But if you continue to get in the box and you continue to take cuts at it, you're eventually gonna hit a home run."
Not necessarily. Some of it depends on who's pitching. Oklahoma and Texas annually loom as giant obstacles (though in the reconfigured, pared-down league, it sure doesn't hurt that Nebraska's no longer around). Oklahoma State beat the Longhorns in Austin last season, but Gundy expects Texas to rebound from its down year.
The biggest challenge is the Bedlam rivalry. For all the progress made since Gundy took over six years ago for Les Miles, the Cowboys haven't beaten the Sooners. Next fall, Oklahoma will be a chic pick to make another run at the BCS championship.
"We have to find a way to beat those guys down South," Monken said. "How do we find a way to beat them?"
Because of the Big 12's scheduling adjustments, the Oklahoma game will be played in Stillwater for the second straight season. This year, it's been moved from Thanksgiving weekend to Dec. 3, where it replaces the defunct conference championship game. Could Bedlam serve as the de facto championship game?
Everything hangs on whether the Cowboys find a way to replicate their 2010 offensive success. Much depends on how they fare in Football 201 Without Dana Holgorsen.