Dallas Colleges: Austin Hays
Yet top to bottom, coach Mike Gundy agrees his Cowboys have never featured a deeper, more talented overall receiving corps than the one he’ll take into this season.
“But from top to bottom ... we have 10 or 12 guys that I think in three weeks could play in a game and go out there with the ones and have success. So we may be as good at that position as we’ve ever been -- without having maybe a potential first-round guy.”
The Cowboys might not have that potential first-round pick, but thanks to the fortuitous timing of an injury, they do have two go-to guys.
Oklahoma State went into 2012 counting on senior Tracy Moore to take over for Blackmon as the No. 1 receiver. Moore proved up to the challenge, hauling in four touchdown passes in a shootout loss at Arizona early in the season. But a month later, Moore’s season was derailed when he suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him for the year.
“Other than (running back) Joseph Randle, before Tracy got hurt, he was our best player on offense,” Gundy said.
Moore getting hurt, however, provided a silver lining that should benefit the Cowboys this season: it cleared the way for Josh Stewart to shine out of the slot. After taking over as Oklahoma State’s primary pass-catcher, Stewart rapidly developed into one of the most dangerous receivers in college football and finished with 101 receptions, third-most in the Big 12.
And because Moore played less than 30 percent of the 2012 season, he was given a medical redshirt to come back, providing Oklahoma State with two playmakers who have shouldered the No. 1 receiver role.
“Not a lot of teams have that,” Stewart said.
Moore and Stewart will have plenty of help, too.
The Cowboys return two other starters at receiver in Charlie Moore and Blake Jackson, who combined for more than 65 receptions and 1,000 yards last season. Oklahoma State also brings back Austin Hays, who filled in admiringly after Tracy Moore got hurt with 29 catches, and Blake Webb, who got the start against Oklahoma.
“It’s crazy because last year I thought that we had great depth at the position,” said Jackson, who plays on the inside opposite Stewart. “Now getting Tracy back for another year, it’s crazy how many good receivers we have. We have 12 guys that could start right now and we’d be productive and keep moving.”
Among those 12 are underclassmen David Glidden, Brandon Sheperd and Jhajuan Seales, who all are vying for time. Seales has been especially turning heads. Gundy singled him out as someone who developed physically during the offseason as much as anyone on the squad.
“Anyone in the starting lineup go down, we’ve got someone that could fill them up at every spot and do good, and I’m not just saying that,” Stewart said. “We’ve had pretty good depth the last three years -- but nothing like this.”
The Cowboys are also about to reap the benefits of more fruitful recruiting efforts. In its most recent signing class, Oklahoma State landed four-star receivers Ra'Shaad Samples and Marcell Ateman, incoming freshmen who appear talented enough to contribute right away.
“The success we’re having has a lot to do with this, the previous success,” Tracy Moore said. “People see what Blackmon did, people see what Dez Bryant did. They want to come here and we’re getting top guys now."
The Cowboys don’t have a Blackmon or a Bryant. But the position in Stillwater has never been better.
“We are so stacked on receivers,” Moore said. “We’re definitely pretty stacked.”
Next up: Oklahoma State.
Strongest position: Pass-catchers
I'll have to apologize to Oklahoma State's trio of safeties in Daytawion Lowe, Shamiel Gary and Zack Craig here, but I'm going with the guys hauling in balls in OSU's pass-first offense as the strongest position. I don't care to debate whether Blake Jackson is a receiver or a tight end (he's the former), but I'm obviously including him in this group. He'll be an interesting guy to watch this year after struggling with drops but clearly possessing loads of potential and averaging better than 20 yards a catch on his 29 grabs.
Oklahoma State had nine players with at least 12 catches and 150 receiving yards last season and returns six of those players, including Tracy Moore, who was given an extra year of eligibility. He won't be joined by Michael Harrison, who sat out 2012 and was expected to return, but won't be doing so after a strong 2011 season under Justin Blackmon.
Somehow, we've gotten this far without mentioning the unit's headliner, breakout star Josh Stewart. He was overshadowed by a trio of superstars in Baylor's Terrance Williams and West Virginia's Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but all three are gone and Stewart is easily the Big 12's best returning receiver. He caught 101 balls for 1,210 yards and seven scores last season, which is more than 150 yards more than any other returning receiver in the league. Stewart's underrated for now, but that could change soon, even though Oklahoma State has a ton of depth at the position with guys like Austin Hays and Charlie Moore filling out the position and Blake Webb emerging late in the season. Will incoming freshmen like Ra'Shaad Samples and Marcell Ateman find space to make an impact right away? It won't be easy, because this is Oklahoma State's biggest strength.
Weakest position: Defensive end
I've got nothing against juco transfers, who can walk on campus and be game-changers immediately, but if you're bringing in guys to do that, it shows a weakness at the position. Oklahoma State is doing that with Sam Wren, the nation's No. 16 overall juco prospect, after the Pokes lost three defensive ends from last season's team in Nigel Nicholas, Ryan Robinson and Cooper Bassett. Tyler Johnson is a solid player who made six tackles for loss a year ago, but OSU needs to find him help on the other side or opponents will be able to shut him down with double teams. Kansas State's Joe Bob Clements is a new addition to the staff who'll coach the position and try to sort it out this spring, but look for guys like Trace Clark, Jimmy Bean and early enrollee Naim Mustafaa to try to earn a starting spot, too.
More Weak and Strong.
Linebacker Eddie Lackey wasn’t a highlight signee in February 2012. Yet the junior college transfer stepped right in and finished second on the squad with 104 tackles. He had five games with nine tackles or more and intercepted four passes, returning two for touchdowns.
In 2013: Lackey could be even better with a year under his belt. His ability to be comfortable playing in space, while bringing the physical mindset of a linebacker is one of the reasons he could be poised to earn All-Big 12 honors as a senior.
Folks in Norman, Okla., barely noticed when Arizona Western running back Damien Williams signed with the Sooners in February 2012. Senior Dominique Whaley was set to return alongside talented juniors Roy Finch and Brennan Clay, making it appear unlikely the junior college transfer would make an immediate impact. But Williams didn’t get the memo, earning the starting job at the beginning of October and finishing with 176 carries for 946 yards and 11 touchdowns.
In 2013: Williams will have to hold off a bevy of talented backs angling for carries in the Sooners backfield, but the senior has proven game-breaking ability that will be difficult to ignore.
Receiver Austin Hays was an afterthought on Signing Day 2012. The overlooked prospect outperformed several Cowboys receiver signees who were much more highly regarded in February. He started six games and finished with 29 receptions for 394 yards and two touchdowns.
In 2013: His dependability, ball skills and competitiveness should make him a mainstay in the Cowboys lineup, even though he’s not a game-breaking receiver in the mold of Dez Bryant or Justin Blackmon.
ESPN.com had Joe Bergeron as a three-star recruit who appeared to be destined to a career buried on the bottom of the depth chart behind the elite running backs the Longhorns were inking. Yet Bergeron made an immediate impact as a freshman and continues to be a productive force in UT's offensive backfield. He's scored 21 touchdowns in two seasons including 16 touchdown runs as a sophomore in 2012.
In 2013: He enters his junior season as UT's best short-yardage runner and should continue to earn carries at running back thanks to his toughness and physical running style.
Offensive tackle Aviante Collins was a three-star prospect on ESPN.com, far from a recruit with expectations to start immediately. Yet that’s exactly what Collins did, starting all 13 games of his true freshman season. And he showed some versatility by starting games at right and left tackle in 2012.
In 2013: Collins will be a foundational member of TCU’s offensive attack this season. There’s no reason he cannot be a four-year starter for the Horned Frogs and leave a legacy as one of the most productive signees in the Gary Patterson era.
Jakeem Grant was never going to be considered the prototypical receiver prospect. At 5-foot-6, 163 pounds, it’s a given to have people notice Grant’s size (or lack thereof) before his ability. Size didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most explosive players on the Red Raiders offense as a redshirt freshman, averaging 11.7 yards per touch thanks to his quickness and speed.
In 2013: With Kliff Kingsbury taking over, the new Red Raiders coach will undoubtedly find ways to take advantage of Grant’s speed and open-field ability. His physical gifts are difficult for most opponents to match up with.
The fans spoke, and West Virginia receiver Shelton Gibson finished solidly in the No. 1 spot with 33 percent of the vote. He was well ahead of the No. 2 finisher, Baylor receiver Robbie Rhodes, who grabbed 23 percent of the vote.
I'd agree with those two having an immediate impact. I don't know if you can expect either to finish with 90 catches, but I'd be surprised if both Gibson and Rhodes didn't both make their presence known next fall. For freshmen, opportunity might be more important than skill itself. Both players obviously have the latter, but Baylor and West Virginia's offenses both provide opportunity. With a pair of receiving corps that are drained (more so West Virginia than Baylor), the pass-happy offenses will have to find targets. Rhodes is in the middle of the road when it comes to size, but Gibson's small and shifty frame could help him get open and get touches early in his career.
Oklahoma safety Hatari Byrd will have an opportunity with a pair of lost safeties from last year's team, and he edged out Ra'Shaad Samples with 18 percent, compared to Samples' 17 percent. Samples is entering a situation similar to Rhodes and Gibson, but Oklahoma State has a few more established weapons like Josh Stewart, Tracy Moore and the expected return of Michael Harrison, as well as the late emergence of Austin Hays.
Incoming TCU running back Kyle Hicks grabbed just 9 percent of the vote. It sound like the other 91 percent of voters didn't believe he could fight through Aaron Green, B.J. Catalon and Waymon James to earn some touches in TCU's offense.
These guys will be fun to watch over their careers, and it's not all about the first season on campus.
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