Two Key Areas Will Decide How Good it Gets for Pokes According to Steele
STILLWATER -- One of the callers, a regular caller on my radio show out of Triple Play Sports Radio called on July 29 and lamented that Phil Steele, the hyper college football expert that annually publishes the most complete preview of the sport ever, real or even imagined; never gives his Cowboys enough credit. Honestly, I can remember a year that Phil Steele had the Cowboys winning the Big 12 and they didn't. The year the Pokes did win the Big 12 under Mike Gundy, I think they were picked third or fourth. Hey, they are picks and Steele has two Oklahoma State players (Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace) as first-team All-Americans. He has six Pokes on his first-team All-Big 12 selections. He picks the Cowboys third behind Oklahoma and Texas and believes the spot opposite OU in the Big 12 Championship Game will come down to the Black Friday game between the Cowboys and Longhorns in Stillwater.
"I have Texas and Oklahoma State at second and third," Steele confirmed. "I think the battle to see who goes to play Oklahoma will come down to their game."
So, what would it take for Oklahoma State to win that game, to finish first or second in the Big 12, and be in Arlington playing whoever else makes it there for the Big 12 Championship?
Steele does not point to Heisman Trophy candidate and college football's returning leading rusher in Chuba Hubbard or in elite wide receiver and 2018 All-American Tylan Wallace. He points to the player that will hand Hubbard the ball or throw it to Wallace and to the 11 guys on the other side of the ball that will play defense for the Pokes.
"I think it (defense) is going to be key to this season because you look at what's there on offense and it's pretty much guaranteed that Oklahoma State is going to be explosive. You knew that when Chuba and Tylan both turned down the NFL and Sanders is returning as well," Steele explained. "Defense is returning a lot too. I think the biggest difference I see is up front because last year they were extremely inexperienced. Now you look at the players they have coming back and plenty of experience."
Steele is talking about the likes of defensive ends Tyler Lacy, Trace Ford, Brock Martin, and big Jayden Jernigan, who splits time playing some end and inside at tackle. Speaking of tackle there is fith-year senior and now two-year starter Cameron Murry with Israel Antwine, Brendon Evers, Samuela Tuihalamaka, Jernigan, and Sione Asi all back. There is also the addition of Arkansas transfer Collin Clay. That still doesn't count red-shirt freshmen like Isreal Isuman-Hundley, Kody Walterschied, Xavier Ross, and new junior college transfer Tyren Irby. Lots of defensive linemen wanting to play and be involved.
"Last year the defense went (from allowing) 4.6-yards per carry to 4.3 and I think they are even better this year," Steele added. "They have solid linebackers and the defensive backs are up there. I rate all three units in my top units in the front of the magazine, maybe not in the top 25, but I definitely see the potential."
Now the other improvement factor for the Cowboys in Steele's eyes is at quarterback with Sanders.
"He definitely has the talent to get there," Steele said of Sanders. "When you have a freshman starting at quarterback for the first time, generally there is a learning curve and there was that for Spencer Sanders last year. In some games I thought he was great and other games he struggled a little bit. You know last season he finished with 16 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, not a great ratio. What I've seen, Robert, is what I expect with a freshman quarterback moving into his second year is a better ratio (touchdowns to interceptions) and better decisions. And maybe the coach will loosen up the reins a little bit and let the quarterback make some plays. Usually an offense will jump in the second year for a starting quarterback."
Yes, all good signs and I think having Tim Rattay in to tutor Sanders on the finer points of quarterbacking will make a huge difference. Someone that I really respect told me the other day that Rattay may be the secret weapon to this season. If he is then Sanders' name will become a household word along with Hubbard and Wallace.