Robert Allen's Cowboy Football Report Executive Editor Robert Allen offers a variety of thoughts and opinions leading up to this week's Big 12 Conference opener against Texas A&M.

Here's to Cowboy Health
By far the most important issue for the Cowboys coming out of the bye week and the most critical issue for the rest of the season is the health of the team. In a season where virtually every team has had to deal with major injuries to many of the sport's best athletes the Cowboys have not received a pass.

I believe wide receiver Dez Bryant and cornerback Perrish Cox will be back, at least on a limited basis, if not a full time, for the game at Texas A&M. I also think it could be longer for running back Kendall Hunter. Head coach Mike Gundy doesn't discuss injuries except in this term.

"We have placed everybody on a day-to-day basis and hopefully we'll get some of those guys back," said Gundy of his playmakers on offense, defense, and special teams. "They've been running. Some guys have practiced and it's just a day-to-day basis if we'll get some of those guys back."

On the defensive side of the ball, defensive end Jeremiah Price returned to practice during the bye week and star linebacker Andre Sexton says they got a lot accomplished in a limited amount of time.

"Getting back to the fundamentals on defense," started Sexton on what they did last week. "Just tackling and working on blitzes and timing up things. We're getting a lot of young guys in there to get some reps and we're letting some of the older people that are banged up get some rest time and a chance to recover and be fresh going into the start of conference."

Sexton, like many Cowboy starters, plays on some of the special teams. The injuries have really hurt there and caused associate head coach Joe DeForest a lot of extra work -- like two days before the Rice game where he made a total of 32 changes to the special teams depth chart. Losing Cox and Bryant is huge to the Cowboys vaunted return game.

"The injuries have caused a lot of problems," said DeForest. "The head ball coach (Gundy) will have the final decision on Dez and Perrish and whether they will be back on returns. I would think that if they are cleared to play on offense and defense that they would also be involved in the return game."

"Injuries affect your special teams greatly, even more so than a depth chart on offense and defense," added Gundy. "I mentioned that a few weeks ago. This is a little bit of an unusual situation for us from the fact that when you prepare for special teams, you have to have two-deep in every phase of the game. You use players that don't have as much experience in that area or players that don't have much experience competing at all. Anytime there's a player affected by an injury, you can't do anything about it. All you've got to do is put the next guy in there."

Stillwater walkon and now scholarship player Bryant Ward knows that special teams are the place to get noticed. The fullback and special teamer also is amazed at how many injuries the Cowboys have had.

"No, we've had a lot," affirmed Ward. "It's unfortunate, but it does happen and it's just bad luck I guess. We got healthy and we had a week off. Not everyone's healed up, but it did help out. We need to go out there and get it done, especially since we're not going to have another break until after the bowl game."

Tune in Saturday to see who healed up all the way and is no longer day to day.

Speed It Up
One concern for the Oklahoma State defense is the speed with which Texas A&M operates its offense. To give you an example, Oklahoma State has averaged 64.25 plays per game so far this season. Texas A&M is tied for the lead in the nation averaging 87.5 plays a game this season.

"They're as fast-ball, speed-ball as you can get," said head coach Mike Gundy. "In watching them on tape, they're trying to play very fast. It's considerably different than what they were last year. It has some similarities to what you're seeing throughout the country in college football. They want to play very fast. I think they want to keep the defense on the run and limit substitutions. They certainly want to play with a lot of pressure and just continue at full speed."

Now the Cowboys shouldn't be too shocked by the Aggies speed to snap the ball. Oklahoma State does sometimes really speed up its tempo so the defense sees it in practice. Also, the team that A&M is tied with for the lead in plays run per game is the Houston Cougars.

Need A Spotter for Miller
The Cowboys have a goal this season of 40 sacks and they need to pick up the pace as they have seven through the first four games. Texas A&M has 16 so far in the season and their "Jack" pass rushing defensive end Von Miller has nine of his own, two more than the OSU defense. Miller, a DeSoto, Texas native, was recruited by the Cowboys but decided on Texas A&M. Gundy really respects Miller.

"The guy is very good," said Gundy. "They use him in a lot of different areas. They'll put him on the outside; they'll bring him to the inside. They move him around and try to create mismatches in a pass-rush situation. I've seen 7, 8 or 9 sacks on tape already. I don't know how many he has. He has a lot of hurries and he's made a lot of hits on the quarterback. He's a very good player."

After the first quarter last Saturday Arkansas did a pretty good job on making sure they had two blockers between Miller and Razorbacks quarterback Ryan Mallett. It wasn't a lot of fun for Miller.

"I was trying my hardest to get back there," said Miller of the Arkansas protection. "It's a good learning experience. I haven't really been double teamed all year. They had really good offensive linemen. I feel good about the way I played but I can use this film and the schemes they showed and apply it to the next teams we face."

Recruiting Targets
I got hit on my radio show, somewhat blindsided that Oklahoma State had offered a running back from Florida in Gio Bernard, a 5-9, 195-pound standout from St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale.

That just happens to be former tennis great Chris Evert's alma mater. It also happens that after checking that Bernard has not been offered by the Cowboys. I know there is a lot of scuttlebutt and misinformation out there in trying to drum up recruiting business for the Web sites. We work very hard at staying on top of recruiting and this time of year, at the same time, allowing prospects to concentrate on their seasons.

With so many commitments in the 2010 class and maybe just three more spots to give, here is who we believe are the major targets for the Cowboys.

Darius White, WR, 6-5, 210, 4.5, Fort Worth (Dunbar), Texas
DeAndrew White, WR, 6-1, 175, 4.4, Galena Park (North Shore), Texas
Austin Haywood, TE, 6-5, 240, 4.65, Moore (Southmoore), Okla.
Trent Smiley, TE, 6-4, 220, 4.75, Frisco (Wakeland), Texas
Joseph Randle, RB, 6-0 1/2, 190, 4.45, Wichita (Southeast), Kan.
Several offensive linemen we are still attempting to find.

Mutual Admiration Society
There is a sizable age difference between Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy and Texas A&M defensive coordinator Joe Kimes, but there are some common connections. When Terry Don Phillips first took the job as Oklahoma State athletic director he wanted to hire Kimes as his head football coach but Cowboys fans wouldn't allow it. Negative reaction caused Phillips to hire Colorado assistant head coach Bob Simmons. Later, after Phillips had to fire Simmons, he almost (came really close) hired Mike Gundy when he tabbed Les Miles as the next head coach.

Gundy's first bowl win as a head coach came in the 2006 Independence Bowl against Alabama, coached by interim head coach Joe Kimes

"The guy has been around a long time and coached a lot of ball," said Gundy. "He's very knowledgeable. He's kind of one of the founding fathers of the three-down blitzing package. He's doing a lot of that now and he did a lot of that last year. I remember years ago people talking about the three-down and him being involved in the start of it. They're doing the same types of blitzes and defensive structure now that goes back to that three-down. We've gone against him several times."

Of course, Kimes has the responsibility of trying to come up with a defensive plan to stop the Cowboys offense, which when they have all their playmakers is a tough chore. Kimes, you can tell, respects the younger Gundy.

"Each week, teams present you with a different set of problems," said Kimes. "Some weeks you have a running quarterback, some weeks you have a throwing quarterback, some weeks you have a good running back, some weeks you have a set of good wide receivers. This week we have the whole nine yards all rolled up in one package.

"When you look at their offensive starters, we've faced teams with one, two standout players... this group, the quarterback, running back, wide receivers, offensive line, they've all drawn preseason honors. They are really playing well.

"I think one thing that's real noticeable is Mike Gundy is in his fifth or sixth year now, and he has his program established well. They've been doing the same thing for the last three or four years now. They are well into their scheme, and know how to use their scheme. They present a lot of problems for a defense. You have to be on top of your game. You have to be sound on the option. You have to be really good on the pass rush, and you have to get coverage."

Kimes is also very respectful of Dez Bryant.

"He's got height, he's got the leaping ability, and the running ability," said Kimes. "He has excellent hands. I think they use him well. He's a proven receiver, he's not a guy they think is going to be good, he's been good and performed well in games. He's one of those athletes that can really turn a game around."

Big 12 Conference Picks Re-Visited
Here is how we picked it.
1. Missouri
2. Nebraska
3. Kansas
4. Colorado
5. Kansas State
6. Iowa State

1. Texas
2. Oklahoma State
3. Oklahoma
4. Texas Tech
5. Baylor
6. Texas A&M

I'd like to change my North picks by dropping Colorado below Kansas State and Iowa State to sixth. In the South I will stay the same, although the loss of quarterback Robert Griffin really hurts Baylor.

Here's how a few of the Cowboys feel about the start of conference play:

"We feel very confident," said linebacker Andre Sexton. "We started out the season with a great win against Georgia. We had a slip up against U of H, but after that we've corrected the things that we had problems with against U of H and we've continued to get better each week and I think that's just how we're just going to continue to do it in conference and work on our mistakes. That gave us another opportunity to focus on the little things that we weren't doing well on defense and on offense and on special teams and just polish up some things so that we'll be ready come time to play A&M."

"The reason that it's way different from the beginning is that it's more exciting," said safety Lucien Antoine. "You know that you're playing for the Big 12 Championship, you can't lose a game. If you lose a game you're going to go toward the bottom. This week is just more of a challenge, like every game. Every game is a challenge, but I think from now on, every game we play it feels like we have to win."

The New "Go Deep"
Remember back in the day in the front yard, everybody's favorite play was "the bomb." That is what everybody wanted to do. In the Cowboys last game against Grambling, Gundy was impressed with a catch near the goal line by redshirt freshman wide receiver Isaiah Anderson. Anderson has some real speed and he has said he would like to catch another against the Aggies. After all, he is from Wichita Falls.

"Oh yes, I keep hoping they will just throw me a screen so I can go down the sideline 75 or 80 (yards)," said Anderson of the new deep route.

Here's to You Mr. Robinson
Gundy has a lot of respect, as we documented, for Aggies pass rusher Von Miller. Okay, A&M head coach Mike Sherman, who has seen great improvement in his quarterback Jerrod Johnson, really likes the play of Cowboys quarterback Zac Robinson. Robinson, by the way, really likes playing at Kyle Field despite the memory of a stiff hit to the chin by the A&M defense on his last visit in 2007.

"You know, each quarterback we've played this year so far has had a different dimension," started Sherman. "We looked at (Arkansas QB Ryan) Mallett as a throwing quarterback with a strong, powerful arm. Other quarterbacks that we played were more runners than throwers to some degree.

"This quarterback we're facing this weekend, he can do both. He can run it and he can throw it. I would caution our guys that they are very balanced offensively. They run it and throw it with equal proficiency. This quarterback presents those types of issues for us, to be able to handle both aspects of the game.

"If you're just defending pass or you're just defending run, maybe you concede a little bit in the other area because that's not a strength of theirs. But this team has equal strengths. They can run it and throw it. Their quarterback is the catalyst for everything they do, and he's a very good one."

Aggies Big Hole
The biggest problem for the Aggies, and there is no hiding it, is the offense line. They play a true freshman at left tackle and have a true freshman as the backup center. While Oklahoma State doesn't have the greatest pass rush in the country the Cowboys should get some pressure against the Aggies. Even A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson struggles a little in defending his protectors.

"They had their struggles but we knew going in one of Arkansas' strengths was their defensive line," said Johnson. "They gave it their all. We're going to go in the film room and try to fix their mistakes, but they played hard and that's all we can really ask for."

How does Sherman, a former A&M offensive line coach, see the O-line? "I would have to say it continues to be work in progress for us," answered Sherman. "It was evident in the ballgame the other day that we struggled in protection.

"I thought our quarterback was put under duress way too many times in order for us to be successful in the game, and obviously the offensive line plays a part in that. Part of it is me too. I'm not forcing the issue in some parts of the game where maybe we need to be a little more conservative at times. Maybe we weren't. And (it's) me helping them play better."

It is really tough for a true freshman, even one physically strong enough like Stephen Barrera to adjust and get comfortable against this level of competition.

"I think anybody in this conference, or playing a team like Arkansas who has speed rushers, is going to have a challenge," added Sherman. "There's a number of guys in this conference that can rush the quarterback. Playing left tackle three months removed from high school, and the fact that he was a defensive player no less...the fact that he had a concussion in camp that put him two weeks behind where we actually wanted him to be...I actually wanted him to play more in the early games than he had. And even really, to be truthful, hopeful that he didn't have to play, but I felt like we needed to make a change there to get the right guys in the right spots.

"It's a tough position for a young player. I looked at him on tape, I was able to grade the tape on way back on the bus. He made some fundamental mistakes. It wasn't athletic. It wasn't strength. When you worry about playing a freshman, which is different than the National Football League... When you get a rookie in the NFL you're talking about a 22- or 23-year-old man whose gone through the process and is strong enough, fast enough and big enough. You're not looking to develop those aspects of his physical game.

"With Barrera, I would say he's not a typical freshman. He has great strength numbers in the weight room this summer. He's one of our stronger players on the team. He's a very good athlete. What he lacks is just experience at that position. I don't think he's going to have problems out of the ordinary with physical matchups. From a fundamentals standpoint...he was just doing some things fundamentally that put him in tough positions, which are all things we can correct."

Left guard and senior Michael Shumard is frustrated and even hinted that if the line doesn't improve they are going to get Johnson hurt.

"We struggled in pass protection," said Shumard. "Jerrod won't make it through the season if we have something like that again. Their defensive line was a lot better than anything we've seen so far. They presented a lot of different looks that were meant to confuse us, and we did a really good job picking up a lot of their twists in their game. But anytime someone comes free, and a receiver isn't open down field or Jerrod can't escape, that's not a good situation to have your quarterback in."

This is an area where Oklahoma State needs to buck up and get the job done. They need to really get after the Aggies and put the heat on Johnson.

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