Pressure Point: Run Game Is At Top Of List

In this new series, Robert Allen selects what he describes as a "pressure point" that the Oklahoma State Cowboys must overcome in Saturday's season opener against Southeastern Louisiana.

Face it, most Oklahoma State fans are tired of talking about it, tired of the mention of it. The question is old, so old that it is barely brought up at the water cooler in the office, not mentioned over a beer in the sports bar. Oklahoma State and the running attack on offense.

In practice the offensive line has seen some changes with Marcus Keyes coming in at the left guard and teaming with left tackle Victor Salako and doing a good job. Mike Gundy talks about the worry of his inexperience as Keyes in a redshirt freshman, but his mean streak, something the offensive line may have been lacking, may more than make up for the lack of game experience. It is also a good sign that Keyes pedigree is one of a father that put in six seasons in the NFL as a defensive lineman.

Gundy still has said the offensive line is not completely set and that the Cowboy may rotate eight linemen in during the opener with Southeastern Louisiana. That is a little uncommon and one of the rotation spots will likely be center where Brad Lundblade, the former walk-on returns as the starter, but 6-foot-7 Zach Crabtree has worked some moving in from right tackle.

At center, you certainly look first for someone that can snap the ball, and second for a player that can be physical with big defensive tackles and mobile with linebackers, and also a smart player that can make adjustments at the line of scrimmage with blocking calls.

"Crabtree, he is just one of those guys that is all ball," offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said of either the Cowboys right tackle or center. "He loves it. He is constantly in the film room asking questions right before he goes to dinner, and then after dinner he is back in the film room. He's one of those guys that is probably going to coach one day. I try to talk him out of it. He is one of those guys that it's just in his blood. He's one of those guys that they eat and they drink and it's part of who they are as far as football goes."

The offensive line is part of it but the other part is the running backs. Remember, blocking from the receivers and Cowboy backs is part of it too. Using those blocks comes down to the running backs. While Chris Carson started fall camp just like he had left off in the spring, impressive, it was a freshman that came on to steal the show in Tulsa Booker T. Washington product Justice Hill.

"He's done very well in camp and we're trying to make some adjustments in the running game," Gundy said being reserved as he often is in discussing freshmen. "We think that the group that we have now, the three or four, is better than what we were using last year with really two to three. So he's part of that group that we think makes us better."

"He has play­making ability. He is a very well-­rounded tailback," Yurcich added, not being quite as reserved on discussing Hill. "He's really good through the hole. He doesn't stutter around a lot. He has good top ­end speed, good change of direction and good hands as well. He's a back that can do a lot of different things, although a young back and just learning the game. His role will grow as more experience comes. A running back with just a lot of natural traits: change of direction, speed, vision. He is a smart player and a great person. Those things make him a valuable part of our team."

Barry J. Sanders, the Stanford transfer and the namesake of his Heisman Trophy winning father, is also in the mix.

"Barry has done a real nice job of some tough runs," Yurcich said of Sanders' work in fall camp. "Coming out of our end zone, I can recall a couple scrimmages back, it was one-on-one with him and a safety … He put his shoulder down and blew right through him and got the first down for us. The tough yards are there.

"We feel confident that when we hand him the ball, there will be a positive gain. Obviously, we can't block them all, he can make the other guy miss or go through them. He has that toughness factor and that strength. Veteran player that has been in the weight room for several seasons and it's pretty obvious that he has that maturity level and the physical factor for him."

While the offensive line could see eight different players on Saturday, the running back position will likely see five. The aforementioned Carson, Hill, Sanders, and then also Jeff Carr and Rennie Childs. Just like eight offensive linemen and a rotation is not the norm, neither is playing five running backs. Gundy says it is a little like juggling an NBA lineup and using the players talents for the right spots and situations. 

I think it will be more of a trial and finding out who the top two or three are, a number more manageable as the season moves along.

"It's going to be interesting to see who emerges out of that," Yurcich theorized. "Kind of tailback by committee to start, then see who has the hot hand and go from there. Coach [Marcus Arroyo] has done a great job of getting all our guys assignments down so they understand the schemes. Very sound with pass protection. We all understand ball security. Now it's just a matter of who is going to execute when the bolts start flying."

If the offensive line executes, the Cowboys may find they have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. It would be a nice problem to have and might curtail all the talk and the questions.


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