STILLWATER, Okla. - Special teams have been a strength for Oklahoma State during coach Mike Gundy's tenure. But headed into this season, the Cowboys must adjust to replacing special teams coach Joe DeForest, who left to join the staff at West Virginia.
The Cowboys also must adjust to rule changes. Kickoffs have been moved from the 30 to the 35 and touchbacks on kickoffs will be brought out to the 25, not the 20. Considering Oklahoma State has one of the best kickoff performers in the country in Quinn Sharp and a dangerous returner in Justin Gilbert, the changes could impact the Cowboys more than any team.
Sharp has led the nation in touchbacks the past three seasons and last season had 61 touchbacks, 23 more than any other kicker. Will Oklahoma State continue to let Sharp boom kickoffs - and issue helmets to fans in the first few rows at Boone Pickens Stadium - or will Sharp try for higher and shorter kickoffs.
"It's something we'll work with and tweak and see what's the better option," Sharp said. "We've always worked a pooch here and there for the wind or following a safety. We haven't made a final decision, yet. We'll see where it goes."
There's also a rule change for coverage units on kickoffs - they are limited to starting five years behind where the ball is kicked, so they'll only have five yards of "run up" for covering kicks.
Opposing kickers who can sail the ball into the end zone could negate Gilbert's return ability. The trade off for Oklahoma State opponents will be letting the Cowboys start from their 25 or give Gilbert a chance to return a kickoff for a touchdown.
"We'll probably put our return men deep in the end zone and let them try to bring 'em out," OSU coach Mike Gundy said. "He'll have a green light."
Quinn Sharp is on the preseason watch lists for both the Groza (kicker) and Ray Guy (punter) awards. Last season, he took over as Oklahoma State's kicker, replacing Groza Award winner Dan Sharp. Last season, Texas A&M's Randy Bullock won the Groza.
No college player has ever won both awards. Sharp said that it's in his mind that he might have a chance this season. With the Cowboys' offense starting a freshman quarterback (Wes Lunt) and potentially not as potent, Sharp might have more opportunities on field goals (he was 22 of 25 on field goals last season). He averaged 46.3 yards per punt, which ranked third in FBS.
During Saturday's media day, pictures were taken on the field at Boone Pickens Stadium late in the afternoon. The temperature on the field was reportedly 177 degrees. The heat wave in Oklahoma is one of the worst in years and Gundy is more than aware of how that can impact his team's practices.
"We're going to be out there early every morning and if the humidity is different and it's really bad then we'll cut it back," he said. "They only have so much in them. Just because they're in great shape doesn't mean if it's 110 heat index that they can practice for three hours. So we'll trim it down and keep them healthy and fresh, and they'll be ready for the first game."
The forecast for the next week or so has the temperatures headed well into the 100s.
"We can all see the forecast, we know it's gonna be 106, 108, 110, whatever," Gundy said. "We'll stay on top of it. I've told the players they don't need to come down the hall and tell me how hot it is."
In the first three stops - Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State - of the Big 12's Skywriters Tour, a main topic of conversation for those teams was about defensive improvement. Consider this: Those teams combined for 32 victories.
Oklahoma State won the Big 12 title and in total defense (average yards allowed per game) ranked 107th out of 120. The Cowboys allowed 457 yards per game. In large part due to the team's prolific and fast-paced offense, Oklahoma State's defense also faced 1,089 offensive snaps - more than any team in FBS.
"Well, I hate to say it's a bad rap because we need to be better. We really do," said defensive coordinator Bill Young. "We need to challenge each other and challenge ourselves to do better. But at the same time, I think our players deserve a pat on the back, so to speak."
"We led the Big 12 in scoring defense (25.4 points per game in conference-only games) which, really, that's the bottom line on defense," Young said. "We led the Big 12 in red zone defense (35 scores in 48 possessions in all 13 games), so we got tough when they got down to our goal line. And we led in turnovers (a nation-leading 44 takeaways)."
As the old saying goes: There are lies, damned lies and statistics.
* Defensive tackle Mike Mustafa, a redshirt freshman who was listed as third team on the depth chart has left the Oklahoma State program for "personal reasons" related to family issues. He hopes to go to school in the Houston area, closer to his home. Coach Mike Gundy said that Mustafa was a promising prospect on the defensive line and his absence means the Cowboys have one less big body to help with practice and game preparation.
* The coaches' preseason poll last week had Oklahoma State had ranked No. 19. For the defending Big 12 champions, that is considered motivation. "I mentioned it to the team," Gundy said. "I told them I saw where they were preseason 19, so somebody thinks there are 18 teams better than them. So they've got a lot of work ahead of them."
* Oklahoma State hopes to break another record in season ticket sales. Last year, the school sold a record 48,700 season tickets. As of late last week, 35,700 had been sold to the public. In 2011, more than 12,000 season tickets were sold to students, who return to campus in two weeks. Based on the pace of public sales and the anticipated interest from students, Oklahoma State hopes to reach a goal of 50,000.