Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
Oklahoma State was a title contender in the Big 12 South into November, thanks to a powerful offense that returns most of its components.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant, tailback Kendall Hunter and tackle Russell Okung should be among the best players in the nation at their respective positions. But for the Cowboys to be a true title contender, their defense must be overhauled.
Here's a look at the Cowboys as they prepare to open spring practice.
oklahoma state AT-A-GLANCE
Quarterback Zac Robinson returns to lead the Cowboys' offense.
Coach: Mike Gundy Last season: 9-4, 5-3 Big 12 South. Lost to Oregon in the Holiday Bowl.
Spring dates: March 9-April 18
Oklahoma State is among the nation's elite at the skill positions. Bryant is a productive big-play threat and will be a preseason All-America pick. Hunter ranked seventh in the nation in rushing last season. Keith Toston, Hunter's backup, averaged 6.7 yards per attempt and had more than 100 carries last season. Quarterback Zac Robinson threw for more than 3,000 yards and is an accomplished runner, too. Okung will be one of the nation's best tackles. All three starting linebackers return, but they need to upgrade their play.
Help is needed
The Cowboys allowed more than 40 points in three of their last four games, and they surrendered at least 28 in six. Clearly, the defense is in dire need of help. Pass defense is the real problem: Oklahoma State ranked 109th in passing defense and gave up 28 touchdown passes last season. Complicating matters, they lost three starters in the secondary, including All-Big 12 cornerback Jacob Lacey. That's a cause for concern in the pass-crazed Big 12. Plus, there will be two new starting defensive tackles.
Keep an eye on
WR Justin Blackmon: A productive receiver is needed to take some of the load off Bryant; no other wide receiver had more than 19 catches last season. The hope is that Blackmon, a redshirt freshman, can fill that void.
TE Justin Horton: Horton, a redshirt freshman, has exceptional speed and good bloodlines. His uncle, Ricky Dudley, was a first-round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders in 1996. The Cowboys need Horton to have a good spring with the loss of last season's starter, Brandon Pettigrew.
SS Victor Johnson: As previously mentioned, help is desperately needed in the secondary. Johnson, a sophomore, could provide some. He's expected to secure a starting job this spring. He was OK in a backup role last season and needs to show he can flourish as a starter.
His time is now
Senior cornerback Terrance Anderson has made contributions in the nickel package and as a backup. It's time to prove he can be a productive starter in the Big 12, especially with the Cowboys needing to replace Lacey.
The hiring of defensive coordinator Bill Young has sparked hope that the Cowboys can upgrade their lackluster defense. Young supervised the nation's fourth-ranked defense at Kansas in 2007 and the 28th-ranked defense at Miami last season. Anything close to that would be a dramatic upgrade for the Cowboys, who were 93rd in total defense a year ago. The offense should be fine again.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.