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March 6, 2011

Cowboys anxious to build on strong season

Spring football can't come soon enough for the Oklahoma State. Pistol Pete just can't wait to get back on that horse.

Last season was a breakthrough year in Stillwater. The Cowboys posted a school-record 11 victories, tied for first place in the Big 12 South and even knocked off perennial nemesis Texas.

A championship continues to elude the Cowboys, but the Cowboys appear to be getting closer and closer to that goal. Last season, they lost to Big 12 champion Oklahoma by six points. This season, they could be the Sooners' primary competition in the championship race.

Justin Blackmon won the Biletnikoff Award after catching 111 passes for 1,782 yards and a national-best 20 TDs.
Coach: Mike Gundy
Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in the Big 12 South. Beat Arizona 36-10 in the Alamo Bowl.
Spring dates: March 7-April 16
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): T Levy Adcock, WR Justin Blackmon, C Grant Garner, T Nick Martinez, G Jonathan Rush, G Lane Taylor, QB Brandon Weeden.
Defense (4): CB Brodrick Brown, SS Markelle Martin, LB James Thomas, FS Johnny Thomas.
Special teams (1): P Quinn Sharp.
That will require improving the defense and keeping one of the nation's highest-scoring offensive units at peak level.

Spring drills are the first step in doing that. And after coming so close last season, the Cowboys are eager to get started.

Here's a look at the Cowboys as they get ready to open spring ball.

Positions of strength

The passing game and all the things that go with it definitely are strengths. Last season, the Cowboys ranked second in the nation in passing offense, with QB Brandon Weeden and WR Justin Blackmon leading the way. Weeden threw for more than 4,200 yards and 34 touchdowns. Blackmon won the Biletnikoff Award after catching 111 passes for 1,782 yards and a national-best 20 touchdowns. The Cowboys have several other productive receivers with starting experience, too. The offensive line, which allowed just 10 sacks, returns intact.

Help is needed

The interior of the defense has to be bolstered. The Cowboys were thin at tackle last season and starting Ts Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson have completed their eligibility. All-Big 12 MLB Orie Lemon, who had a team-leading 133 tackles, is gone, too. The Cowboys need two new starting ends, as well as a new feature tailback. Joseph Randle is the expected new starter at tailback.

3 guys to watch

OL Michael Bowie: A member of Navarro (Texas) College's national championship team, Bowie is so talented coaches expect him to compete for a starting job this spring even though the Cowboys return all five offensive line starters. He was impressive in a week of fall drills with the Cowboys as a true freshman before the NCAA Clearinghouse declared him ineligible, which led to his transfer to Navarro.

CB Justin Gilbert: A contributor as a true freshman last season, Gilbert could be much more if he has a strong spring. A starting cornerback job is open and Gilbert, one of the Cowboys' fastest players, has a chance to fill it. He's already proved to be exciting on kickoff returns.

WR Michael Harrison: He's shown flashes that he can be a productive slot receiver, with 14 catches and three touchdowns in 2011. Now a sophomore, Harrison could develop into an excellent complement to Blackmon.

The pressure is on

DE Richetti Jones: He arrived in Stillwater as a four-star prospect with great expectations. He's coming off a solid junior season, but Jones still has not made the impact that was anticipated. In three seasons, he has 48 tackles and 7.5 sacks and only has been a part-time starter. The Cowboys have younger players coming up and brought in a junior college defensive end. Jones needs a good spring to show he still can reach his potential.

The buzz

Oklahoma State only lost twice last season, but allowed more than 40 points in both of those games. Clearly, upgrading the defense is a top priority this spring. The offense has a full arsenal, but needs the spring to get in sync with new coordinator Todd Monken, who replaces Dana Holgorsen. Monken was hired away from the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars after Holgorsen went to West Virginia. Still, any offense that features Weeden, Blackmon and a proven line figures to be nasty regardless of the coordinator.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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