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March 8, 2010
Nine victories is becoming the standard at Oklahoma State, where back-to-back nine-win seasons certainly have raised the bar.
But can the Cowboys keep it there when all indicators point to an impending decline?
Three-year starting quarterback Zac Robinson is gone and his replacement has minimal experience. Four regulars are gone from the offensive line. Eight defensive starters must be replaced. Hubert Anyiam, the leading receiver in '09, made nearly half of his 42 catches in just two games and managed just four catches in the final three games combined.
Obviously, a daunting rebuilding project looms this spring. The top priority is installing the wide-open offensive system of new coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who supervised explosive offenses for two seasons at Houston. Should new quarterback Brandon Weeden quickly adapt to Holgorsen's system, the other issues may not seem like such big problems after all.
Here's a look at the Cowboys entering spring practice.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Though not mentioned as a returning starter because injuries sidelined him much of last season, Kendall Hunter gives the Cowboys one of the best running threats in the nation. He rushed for 1,555 yards and earned All-Big 12 acclaim in 2008. He could be the focal point of the offense. OSU has decent depth at running back with sophomore Jeremy Smith. There are many questions on defense, but not at safety. Returning starter Markelle Martin tops a deep list that includes Victor Johnson, who has starting experience, Johnny Thomas and Daytawion Lowe.
HELP IS NEEDED
Cornerback is a major concern. The Cowboys were vulnerable against the pass last season, and starting corners Perrish Cox and Terrance Anderson are gone. Andrew McGee saw action in 11 games, but suffered a fractured vertebra against Oklahoma and may not be available this season. Thus, the Cowboys must make big strides there this spring. The Cowboys may have to turn to seldom-used sophomores Brodrick Brown and Andrae May at corner. OSU also must find four new starters on the offensive line and rebuild its linebacking corps.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
LB Orie Lemon: After posting 90 tackles in 2008, Lemon was expected to challenge for All-Big 12 honors in '09. That was before he tore an ACL prior to the season. If he can come back strong, he'll be a disruptive force and add stability to what could be a problem area.
CB Malcolm Murray: As previously mentioned, the Cowboys are inexperienced and unproven at corner. Murray, a JC transfer who enrolled in January, could ease concerns if he shows the form from last season. He had six picks and seven pass breakups at Mount San Antonio College in California.
QB Brandon Weeden: For the first time in three years, the Cowboys are looking for a new starting quarterback. Weeden is expected to win the job vacated by Robinson.
THE PRESSURE IS ON
WR Josh Cooper: Cooper has good speed and hands, but not much luck. He has had nagging injuries that have slowed his progress. Last season, he had 20 receptions for 234 yards and a touchdown. The Cowboys need a reliable go-to receiver in the new offense. It could be Cooper if he distinguishes himself this spring.
Does the system make players or do players make the system? In two seasons as Houston's offensive coordinator, Holgorsen directed units that averaged more than 40 points and 560 yards per game. At Oklahoma State, he will oversee a unit with a new quarterback and largely unproven receivers. Can Weeden flourish with Holgorsen? Spring practice should provide a clue.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.