Les Miles' first rebuilding effort at Oklahoma State -- in 2001 -- produced a rocky debut season, redeemed only by a closing upset over Oklahoma that proved a springboard to back-to-back bowl bids.
Miles had Rashaun Woods and Tatum Bell then. Now, the fourth-year coach is dealing with the loss of those two key cogs of recent success. Yet Miles hardly seems concerned. And he's not even hinting at any thought of rebuilding.
"This team developed in the spring," Miles said. "That really set the table for a great summer. Then it really comes together in the fall. And during the season. Every team has a different personality. I can tell you we're very much looking forward to this fall. And this team will be as talented as any we play."
That's an optimistic statement. But that's Miles, who rarely concedes anything to anyone.
OffenseJosh Fields, who passed for 2,494 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2003, was taken with the No. 18 pick by the White Sox in Major League Baseball's amateur draft -- and will not return to school.
That leaves redshirt freshman Donovan Woods, the younger brother of current Cowboys wide receiver D'Juan and former wideout Rashaun, to take the reins at quarterback in State's season opener at UCLA. Bobby Reid, rated one of the nation's top dual-threat quarterbacks in the class of 2004, graduated high school early and enrolled at OSU in January -- but will have shoulder surgery and miss the entire 2004 season. Both young Cowboy QBs flashed dazzling talent in their early auditions.
While the Cowboys aren't about to abandon their passing attack, they'll mix in a heavy dose of the option that could present defenses with preparation problems.
Playmaking options remain, even after the loss of Woods and Bell to the NFL. Tailback Vernand Morency emerged late last season and showed star potential. D'Juan Woods is set to take over the feature receiver post occupied so well by his big brother. And the line returns nearly intact, led by All-Big 12 guard Sam Mayes.
DefenseThe development of the defense relies on improvement across the front.
"I think we're going to be OK there," defensive coordinator Bill Clay said. "But we need to have some guys come through and be better."
The defensive line doesn't have to be great, just competent, because the linebackers and secondary form the best back seven at OSU in years. Paul Duren has twice led the team in tackles and is among four players who have started at linebacker. Cornerback Darrent Williams heads a swift cast of defensive backs. In fact, speed is the theme across the board with this Cowboy defense.
The focus, however, remains up front. Clay Coe is a dependable performer on the line. And coaches are counting on highly touted sophomore Xavier Lawson-Kennedy to shore up the middle in his second season. Marque Fountain offers potential to the overhauled end spots.
SpecialistsCole Farden ranks among the Big 12's best punters, and his ability to put the ball in the end zone on kickoffs is an often-overlooked weapon. A kicker for field goals and extra points must be found, with Farden battling redshirt freshman Luke Roberts and incoming freshman Jason Ricks for that job.
As always, OSU's return units will feature explosive potential. Williams, Jones, Andrew Alexander and Daniel McLemore all possess game-breaking speed.
"We always emphasize special teams," Miles said. "And we always will."
Final AnalysisThe Cowboys might be expected to drop off from their back-to-back bowl success of the past two seasons. And, yes, Woods and Bell -- first- and second-round NFL draft picks, respectively -- were premier players who won't be forgotten.
Still, playmakers are in place on both sides of the ball. And if Woods comes through at quarterback, the offense should be a force. If not, the defense will bear a heavy burden.