Heavy losses put Oklahoma State in rebuilding mode

Through five years, the Mike Gundy era at Oklahoma State has
been a time of building.

A $286 million stadium overhaul, including a brand new locker
room and training facility, was completed last season as the
Cowboys finished a rise back to national prominence that featured
the team’s first top-five ranking in nearly a quarter-century.

Now comes a second phase in Gundy’s tenure.

Many of the players responsible for the Cowboys’ ascent won’t be
back in Stillwater this season. Starting quarterback Zac Robinson,
first-round NFL draft pick Russell Okung and three other offensive
line starters and almost the entire defense played their final
season at OSU last year.

”I think for me to say that we’re not rebuilding wouldn’t be
fair because we’ve got a number of guys that are going to play that
haven’t competed at this level,” Gundy said Sunday at the team’s
annual media day. ”There’s not a lot of experience out there.

”We’d like to be in a position someday where we start each year
with a number of players that would be in the rotation that have
experience.”

That’s not the case yet.

Brandon Weeden, who led a dramatic second-half rally to beat
Colorado last season, takes over for Robinson, who set school
records for passing and total offense while spending most of the
past three seasons as the starting quarterback.

Surrounded by mostly new personnel, he’ll be running a new
scheme brought in by offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who was
in charge of the nation’s No. 1 offense at Houston last year.

”The guys that kind of started this whole thing graduated last
year and the year before. They started this deal and it’s our job
to keep it going,” said Weeden, a 26-year-old who played minor
league baseball for five years after being drafted in the second
round by the New York Yankees in 2002.

”We lost some guys that were big contributors to this team for
four years as starters. It’s our job to kind of keep the ball
rolling, and I think the guys are ready to uphold that task.”

Gundy hopes to make up for that lack of experience with what he
called the most athletic and fastest team the Cowboys have had in
”a number of years.” Those players were put through a rigorous
offseason training program that can’t replace game experience, but
perhaps is the next best thing.

”We wanted to make sure that we instilled the toughness in them
that we’ve had for a number of years here. We still believe that we
have to be a tough football team both mentally and physically, no
matter how experienced you are,” Gundy said.

At the end of last season, the Cowboys were in position to play
in their first Bowl Championship Series game if they could win the
Bedlam rivalry game against an Oklahoma team depleted by injuries.
Instead, OSU lost 27-0 and settled for the Cotton Bowl, then lost
that game to Mississippi.

Few are expecting the Cowboys to climb back to the point where
they were last Thanksgiving, even if the players themselves haven’t
lowered their standards.

”That’s our goal right now, is to improve from last year,”
said defensive end Ugo Chinasa, one of just three defenders left
who started more than two games for OSU last season. ”Everybody’s
motivated.

”Everybody picked us last in the Big 12 South, so that’s some
motivation, too, right there.”

The Cowboys get a boost from the return of linebacker Orie
Lemon, who missed all of last season due to injury after finishing
second on the team in tackles in 2008. And often overlooked in the
switch to Holgorsen’s four-receiver spread is Kendall Hunter, who
led the Big 12 in rushing in 2008 before missing most of last
season with a foot injury.

”It’s going to be a challenge when you graduate however many
seniors we did last year – a bunch of them,” offensive guard Lane
Taylor said.

”It just allows other players to step into roles and step up
and play as good as they did.”

Taylor knows that better than just about anyone on the team. He
was the new guy, making his first career start in Week 3 of last
season as a redshirt freshman. Now, he’s the only starter left on
an offensive line that helped OSU lead the Big 12 in rushing for a
fourth straight season.

”That’s college football,” Hunter said. ”You lose your guys,
you get some new, young guys who can step up and play.”