I know some media sources pointed out several surprises in the pre-spring depth chart but to those paying close attention, like yours truly, there was just one real surprise and that was at defensive end, and it makes a lot of sense.
Defensive coordinator Bill Young, who also handles coaching the defensive line, decided to split his two veteran defensive ends. Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick traded off last season, even alternated starting based on who played the best the previous game, at the defensive end position.
Seniors Ugo Chinasa (starter) and Darius Hart (backup) manned the "Leo" end position. As recently as earlier this week, Jones and Blatnick were still at the defensive end position and new junior college transfer Ryan Robinson was listed on top at "Leo."
Young decided to split Jones and Blatnick as Jones reports he is now weighing a trim 245 and can really move. My thought is that Young is going to use both ends in ways the "Leo" end has played over the last three seasons.
Both ends could drop into coverage for a zone blitz and along with the "star" linebacker -- the athleticism at the weakside linebacker with the likes of LeRon Furr, Chris Dinkins, and Kris Catlin -- allow for combination stunts and schemes with the defensive end just like the "Leo" and "star" perform on the strong side. This will make the Oklahoma State defense more explosive and less predicitable for the offense.
2. Triangle Is My Biggest Concern
While Young has a nice situation developing with the ends and the outside linebackers the biggest concern for the defense, and really I think the entire team, is the middle of the defense. You know how they say in baseball you are only as good as your defense up the middle with catcher, shortstop, second base, and centerfield?
In football it is that inverted triangle of the two defensive tackles and the middle linebacker. A year ago the Cowboys played three seniors –- tackles Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson, and middle backer Orie Lemon.
If the Cowboys played today that trio would be Christian Littlehead (redshirt freshman) and Nigel Nicholas (junior) at the tackles and Caleb Lavey (sophomore) at middle linebacker. Of the eight players listed on the depth chart at those three positions only one has started a game, and that is Nicholas with three starts. Three players did not play last season, either redshirting or not being here. It is a very young group.
3. Wickline Has Himself a 2-Deep
Every year I have asked Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Wickline if he has a complete two-deep on the offensive line and his response has been that no yet, but he's working on it. Wickline has one now.
A year ago he took four players that were not starters and mixed them with lone returning starter Lane Taylor and formed the best offensive line in the Big 12. Looking at all five of those players returning, Wickline doesn't have to do it but with junior college transfer Michael Bowie at left tackle, sophomore and former All-Stater Brandon Webb at left guard, walk-on Casey LaBrue at center, junior Patrick Hoog at right guard, and talented sophomore Parker Graham at right tackle, I believe that Wickline could train those four and get them in a strong competitive form for next season. The good news is that they just have to be backups.
4. "Turn to Stone" Is Not Just a Song
I'm dating myself, but the old Electric Light Orchestra song, "Turn to Stone" has new meaning in Stillwater now that Lou Groza Award-winner Dan Bailey has moved on. The Cowboys need a kicker.
Okay, the depth chart shows that Quinn Sharp is listed as punter and kicker. Sharp should have his academics in order and be set to go for his junior season on punts and kickoffs. Sharp can do it all but associate head coach and special teams coordinator Joe DeForest likes to split it up and keep one player from doing all three.
It has worked well in the past and that is why he will "Turn to Stone" as in walk-on Bobby Stonebreaker, out of Tuttle, Okla. The former All-State kicker was sensational in high school. The untold story is that Bailey was struggling last August in preseason camp before righting his form to go on to a career season.
In the last scrimmage in August, Stonebreaker gave DeForest some confidence when he hit a pair of 52-yard field goals under pressure. It is that promise that has me thinking that Stonebreaker will handle field goals and PATs this upcoming season.
5. QB Battle Royal
Pretty simple here, Brandon Weeden is not only the old man and a two-sport athlete playing golf now but he is the unquestioned starting quarterback for the powerful Cowboys offense. The battle royale for next begins this spring.
All the players involved are on campus with sophomore Clint Chelf, sophomore Johnny Deaton, and now new freshman J.W. Walsh. One time candidate Nathan Sorenson is now listed as a wide receiver. It will be one of that trio that earns the backup quarterback job, and while the issue won't be decided this spring, you can bet that offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken and head coach Mike Gundy will begin keeping score this spring with the scoreboard open for the next 14 months.
I predict a depth chart and starter for season opener 2012 will be decided by April of 2012. Keep an eye on Johnny Deaton as he looks really good following his first offseason with Rob Glass in the weight room. Before anybody thinks I have a rooting interest here, I do not. The comment on Deaton is because he has physically changed and you can see it from last season.
Chelf made massive improvement from freshman to sophomore season. Walsh is brand new, but this is not a sprint, it is a marathon that won't be decided for at least a year, maybe more.