The anticipation of the release of the first depth chart for the opening game of the football season can reach anxiety levels for fans. It is a product of all the cloak and dagger of closed practices and secrecy in the fall camp workouts.
In the NFL, the training camp practices are open to the public so fans and media see the two-deep from day one and any adjustments as they take place. The college ranks are different and very few practices are open. Mike Gundy has opened some of his practices to his Extreme Campers as they see two or three early practices, but from that point on the practices are closed to all those except a few that are sworn to stay quiet about all but what the head coach and his coordinators release in the way of news.
Now, I've been following Oklahoma State football for some 44 years. I've been covering the program as a professional in the media for 32 years. I point that out because there are several oddities in the just released Cowboys depth chart that in all my years I have never seen.
I point out four areas of the depth chart for those firsts in my time.
We'll start with running backs. I know that many of you have not believed or at least have been weary of my analysis that the position has stayed wide open. The depth chart lists senior Chris Carson on top and then the word "or" with senior Rennie Childs' name below Carson. The word "or" is there again and below Childs is senior transfer Barry J. Sanders. Again another "or" is listed above the name of freshman Justice Hill.
Okay, four guys even up at running back? No, wait as Gundy was asked about sophomore returning letterman and speedster Jeff Carr. Gundy looks down at his notes and said Carr should be there and that he is in the mix as well. As a witness, I can testify that Gundy is being totally forthright there and that Carr has taken a lot of number one offensive reps as recently as Wednesday in practice. There should have been another "or" with Carr's name under Hill.
Five running backs are all in the mix. I personally have seen all five run at least a few plays with the first team offense this week. My opinion is right now I would start the freshman, but I'm not a coach and there is always some concern with starting a freshman at any position.
There is some safety with experience, but Justice Hill has been impressive and he is very strong as he became just the fifth freshman since Rob Glass came in with Mike Gundy to be in charge of the strength, speed, and conditioning for Gundy's football program to top 1,000 pounds in a combined three lifts in the summer before his first season. He joins names like Kendall Hunter and Dez Bryant in that Iron Cowboy club.
Speaking of iron, Chris Carson is as built as any back seen on this campus since David Thompson. Childs is determined, as is Sanders looking for satisfaction after three years of less than desired opportunities at Stanford. Carr has worked hard to get bigger and has been really good in the preseason. Tailback U most often refers to performance, but it might be in numbers on the depth chart this season.
"I would say we would need to use fewer backs at certain positions," Gundy said of the numbers at running back. "We have guys that can do certain things for our offense. Some of them, a couple of them will be in two-back sets and some of them won't be in two-back sets. There is more flexibility with them."
"We'll see what happens, obviously we will start out that way (running back by committee) and then as the season goes on we'll try to reign it in," offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich added.
By the way, behind Hill, my depth chart would have Sanders and Carr.
Offensive line is a position those backs are dependent on. The depth chart is not surprising with four of the five returning starters listed on top and redshirt freshman Marcus Keyes moved to left guard. Victor Salako and Zach Crabtree at the tackles, Jesse Robinson joining Keyes at the guards, and Brad Lundblade at center.
News has come out that Zach Crabtree has seen some time at center, and Larry Williams some time at right guard. Gundy came out and said he thinks eight players will play in some fashion of a rotation on the offensive line. Gundy said the eighth player is back-up guard Lemaefe "Junior" Galea'i. Now, that is unusual because the offensive line is not usually a rotation position. Find the best five and get them out there.
"I feel like we have the flexibility to play three guys other than the starters that may get 15 to 20 plays a game and we'll see how that goes. We have Victor (Salako), (Marcus (Keyes), (Larry) Williams, (Brad) Lundblade, (Michael) Wilson, Jesse (Robinson), Junior (Galea'i), and (Zach) Crabtree," Gundy said of the eight players.
"I have in my mind what I feel that we are capable of (in the run game) if everybody is healthy. And seeing the improvement in our offensive line, if we play what is a balanced defense and mix it up then we need to rush for 125 yards a game (at running back). That sounds minimal but you have to remember where we were the last couple of years, 125 yards (out of that position) would have been like Christmas for us. I think we need to keep in mind improvement in certain areas and not think that we're all of a sudden going to run for 200 yards a game."
Staying with the offense, wide receiver is yet another interesting position because there are three true freshmen listed as backups at the position. Obi Obialo is backing up Chris Lacy at one spot. On the outside, Tyrell Alexander is listed as the backup behind James Washington and inside, Dillon Stoner is listed behind sophomore Jalen McCleskey. That is a lot of youth at the position and part of that is because of the pre-fall camp injury to returning senior starter Marcell Ateman.
"You never feel good about losing a player the caliber of Ateman, but that's one of those things you talk about that is out of your control," Gundy said. "You move the next guy in. We'll know a lot more in a month at that position. We use a lot of receivers in a game and you worry about wear and tear on their bodies. That is always a factor and you worry about that as much as anything."
"I love it," senior wide receiver Austin Hays said. "I get to be in that role Charlie Moore used to tell me some day you will be the old guy and you will be tired and old like me. Dillon (Stoner), in particular, I love that guy and I have taken on that role (mentor) with him."
Finally, in the best news, at least according to Gundy, the defensive tackle position is loaded. There are three solid players at each of the inside positions on the depth chart. Eric Davis, a solid senior, and newcomer D.Q. Osborne, a really quick and strong force,are listed as the third team tandem behind returning starters Vincent Taylor and Mote Maile, and in the second group Darrion Daniels and returning from injury Vili Leveni.
"By far (best he's felt about his defensive tackle depth), really like those guys. We could play six guys in there in the first game and feel really good about it," Gundy said.
Mason Rudolph is the starting quarterback and Taylor Cornelius the backup. The linebackers and secondary are the expected names. It's just that five running backs, three freshmen receivers in the two-deep, and so many good tackles are all things you just don't see on a depth chart every day.