Honestly, I think it is surprise players that make the difference in a good season or a great season. Then again, surprises can be good and bad, and if you have too many in the bad category a season can go from good to rotten in a hurry.
We brought on former Oklahoma State special teams captain and linebacker/safety Deion Imade a few weeks ago to answer five questions about fall camp. It was fantastic. If anything, I used it as a barometer to see if I was losing my perspective or if I was in line with a more recent former player and his observations and opinions. It is amazing that Deion and I agreed on so many answers, but had slightly different reasons for our conclusions. That is positive and healthy.
I will admit that I have a little bit of an advantage on this project on the top five surprise players for 2016. Let's start with the definition that Deion and I agreed on as the definition of a surprise player. The definition of a surprise player is one that did not start or have a dominating presence last season or in any previous season.
A good question, could Vili Leveni be a surprise player coming off being a back up the year before? My answer would be no, because he was a prominent reserve in the 2014 season and a projected starter for 2015 before his season missing injury in July. My advantage over Deion is that I've seen all the practices up until now and Deion, who will again work alongside former quarterback Clint Chelf on the Cowboy Radio Network as special analysts, has been busy working his day job in the energy business in Tulsa.
Okay, here goes, our picks for the top five surprise players for Oklahoma State in 2016. By the way these are in no particular order, so I went alphabetically on each of our lists.
Deion Imade: Most people forget about the kicker until the time comes where you really need him, so you know for sure they forget about the backup kicker. Well, his name is Matt Ammendola (aka Rocky, or the Italian Stallion, and for coach Gundy, Philly). During the spring game this year our backup kicker showed me something, probably the most important thing a kicker can show you, he has a hell of a leg. I think he will be a surprise some way, some how this year hopefully it's during kickoffs when he's booming kicks in the back of the end zone and giving our defense great field position to defend. Wherever he is helping the Cowboys this year just know this, with Matt, here at OSU the rich tradition of exceptional specialists is in good hands.
Robert Allen: Going into the season there is a concern from fans about the cornerback position. Heck, even Deion expressed concerns in our first exercise working together on fall camp. Ashton Lampkin is coming off a spring injury and surgery, Ramon Richards is coming off a sophomore season where he took more of a backseat after being pressed into starting duty as a freshman, and the depth is either new, young, or unproven. I think Ashton and Ramon will do really well but the graduate transfer Lenzy Pipkins of ULM will be a big assists similar to Michael Hunter and Tyler Patmon in the past. Is Pipkins my surprise player? No, my surprise is a guy that has been around awhile and is 6-1, 205 pounds. He's a big corner and I believe has become a huge asset as a specialist on covering the big, post-up-style receivers you can often see in college football. He can press a big guy and has also become as good as anybody on the team at covering the often dangerous fade route. He proved that quite well on Marcell Ateman in the spring game, but I've seen him do it time and again in practice. I think Darius Curry will make some big plays this season that we will all remember.
Deion: There's always that one player on the kickoff team that you love to see run down the field full speed and make a play. Then when they get their opportunity to show you something in their normal position they follow that up with something that makes you say "we have a player here," and last year that was number 40, Devante Averette (pictured above). Just the speed and the physical nature that he plays with should have OSU fans impressed this season. As long as he fully grasp this defense, he should make a major impact this season, because it doesn’t matter how fast you're running if you're running in the wrong direction.
Robert: Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer has a problem. It was a problem coming out of spring and he is on his way to making this pleasant problem a solution to depth questions on the defense. In the spring, Spencer, knowing he was losing senior "star" linebacker Jordan Burton after this next season and knowing Burton would be missing in the spring recovering from offseason surgery, moved hard-hitting sophomore safety Kenneth Edison-McGruder to that spot. Edison-McGruder was good, really good, but so was redshirt freshman Kevin Henry. The two were so good that they woke up junior Kirk Tucker. All of those guys were flying around and making plays. Now Edison-McGruder, who could easily be my surprise player here, has moved backed to safety to back up standout senior Jordan Sterns. That has allowed Auburn transfer Derrick Moncrief, another excellent candidate, to move to strong safety with Tre Flowers. My candidate is the guy that started all of this chain reaction – Kevin Henry. He really shouldn't be a surprise as he de-committed from LSU to come to Oklahoma State. He has all the skills to play that hybrid spot and with Rob Glass and "body by Glass" he has solidified his 6-0, 225-pound frame. He is going to be a big asset on special teams and as a backup on defense.
Deion: The Cowboys have a number of big play receivers that can go for six at any point in the game. What every great team has though is a good, sure-handed, possession receiver that you can count on when you really need a play. You know the situations, crucial third downs, or even when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter. This year I believe that will be Austin Hays, a veteran who has been on this team for five years now and knows what it takes to get it done. He also has the ability to play multiple wide receiver positions with his 6-2, 195-pound frame and his knowledge of the OSU offense. So when it is third-and-6 and OSU is down by seven, don’t be surprised if Mason Rudolph looks to Austin Hays to get eight yards and keep the chains moving.
Robert: This surprise is the cat that is out of the bag and it's a big cat. I saw in the spring exactly what head coach Mike Gundy and offensive line coach Greg Adkins saw and that is Marcus Keyes is special. The redshirt freshman out of the Louisiana coast, Port Allen to be exact, is ready to play. He jumped his weight from 280 pounds on arrival to just over 300, but in the process did not lose any of his initial burst at the snap or his side to side or back and forward foot mobility. He is thick in the upper body and while I can't say he is mean on the field, honestly, I like a mean streak in an offensive lineman. Mean, like defense, protective-like offensive line is the way I want my o-linemen operating mentally. Keyes has all the protective and sacrificial instincts. He also has an NFL pedigree, where his father played six years on the defensive line for the Chicago Bears. He loves red beans and rice, and so do I. Next time in New Orleans, I plan on going with him to enjoy some. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy his run blocking and pass protecting for the Cowboys.
Deion: On the defense it's always good to have players that are very versatile and can play multiple positions. For this defense, one of those unsung players is Jerel Morrow. He has been one player you could count on in different spots at different times in his career. He has played corner, safety, even star linebacker in those special speed packages. Not to mention, his stellar performance on special teams. I think J-Mo will find a way to help this defense when they need it the most this season, and continue with his success on the special teams side of things.
Robert: I love Morrow too. He is a player that reminds me of Deion, only more athletic. Just kidding Deion. My next surprise has been around awhile and maybe the surprise here will be that all the news we hear this season on Jhajuan Seales will be from on the field. Seales has had his knucklehead moments as an Oklahoma State Cowboy, but it is undeniable that he is one of the fastest, most physically explosive, and gifted athletes on the team. I asked him in the spring if he understood what was on the line this season. He is a senior, he has ability, but is he ready to show he is focused and that he has a future beyond Oklahoma State in football? Sometimes, fate and opportunity meet up with each other. Seales has all the tools. His career average for yards per catch is an impressive 15.6 yards a grab. He is a big-play guy almost whenever he wants to be. Marcell Ateman starts the season on the sidelines with an injury. Ateman would have started ahead of Seales and made a lot of catches that Seales could have made. Now the opportunity is in Seales' hands. No off-the-field dumb moves, no temptations for foolishness, just football and making plays and Seales might not be a surprise when his name is called next April in the NFL Draft.
Deion: With the uncertainty of our offense line going into the season, I feel Zac Veatch can help a lot with that Cowboy back roll mainly as a blocker. After a year of experience, he should have a lot more confidence in what he is doing, although he is not the most athletic Cowboy back that Oklahoma State has, as a former offensive lineman I think he can be put in spots that will assist us on blocking assignments. He can really assist in helping run the ball this season. Hey, you never know the coach may give him some opportunities to get the ball in his hands as well.
Robert: I did go a little out of alphabetical order because I wanted the emphasis on this guy last. He was supposed to be at Baylor and ohhhh the Bears are going to regret not having him. In junior college at Kilgore, he was the Southwest Junior College Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year and an NJCAA All-American. DeQuinton Osborne (known as D.Q.) had 61 tackles his last season there with 17 tackles for losses, 6 sacks, and an interception. His freshman year for the Kilgore Rangers he had 66 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, and an interception. So far at Oklahoma State he has shown exceptional quickness for a 320-pound athlete. He is tough to block and fun to watch. At a position where there are players like Vincent Taylor, Motekiai Maile, Vili Leveni, Eric Davis, and Darrion Daniels, having Osborne added to the list makes it a real strength for the Cowboys. The defensive tackles as a group are no surprise, but Osborne will qualify as one until the first game.