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Mike Gundy’s next trick

Oklahoma State slowly started to evolve their offense to better attack the anti-spread defenses in the Big 12 and to maximize their reloaded roster. Things might break out in 2019 with a new QB and cast of characters on offense.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl - Missouri v Oklahoma State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The 2018 season was mostly considered a disappointment in Stillwater. The ‘Pokes finished only 7-6 on the year and 3-6 in the Big 12. They obliterated Boise State early and managed an upset win at home at Texas and another against West Virginia but also lost one possession contests to Iowa State, Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU. The story of the previous offseason was their upcoming challenge of replacing three-year starting QB Mason Rudolph and his top WR James Washington, the two of which had produced three consecutive seasons of at least 1k yards and 10 TDs together.

On defense, Gundy had made a move and brought in Duke’s Jim Knowles to update the scheme, only to see Knowles experience the typical rite of passage in which his defense was shredded when Kliff Kingsbury the blessed gave him the Air Raid baptism. Remarkably the Cowboys finished 7th in offensive S&P+. Fifth year senior and former walk-on Taylor “CornDog” Cornelius threw for 3978 yards at 8.2 ypa with 32 TDs and 13 INT while also adding 406 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs. The ‘Pokes also found new stars on offense with sophomore WR Tylan Wallace who 1491 yards and 12 TDs and RS freshman RB Chuba Hubbard who had 740 rushing at six ypc with seven TDs. For all the losses and issues they experienced throughout the season, OSU’s offense didn’t miss Rudolph or Washington too badly.

Now the Cowboys are heading into 2019 looking to rebound while installing a new QB at the helm of an offense with a highly experienced OL and a lot of established star power amongst the skill positions. On top of that, Gundy has been tinkering with his always potent offense and made two big additions this offseason to the staff.

Adding Sean Gleeson and Charlie Dickey

Oklahoma State has never been at the top of the food chain in regional recruiting. There are four programs in the Big 12 within a similar tier after Texas and Oklahoma that recruit the same region. TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State, out of which OSU arguably has the least advantages in trying to recruit the big Texas metro areas. The knock on Mike Gundy has often been that he doesn’t show enough energy or enthusiasm for recruiting higher ranked players, but here’s how the league’s coaches have done in B12 play since the round robin format was implemented in 2012:

Big 12 coaching records

Coach Big 12 W-L record
Coach Big 12 W-L record
Lincoln Riley 16-2 (.888)
Tom Herman 12-6 (.667)
Mike Gundy 39-24 (.619)
Bill Snyder 37-26 (.587)
Gary Patterson 36-27 (.571)
Dana Holgorsen 33-30 (.524)
Matt Campbell 13-14 (.481)
Kliff Kingsbury 19-35 (.352)
Matt Rhule 5-13 (.278)
David Beaty 2-34 (.056)

Gundy has the best record out of the non-blueblood programs in the league and the longer tenured coaches. When the only coaches with better winning percentages are young hotshot hires with only a few years under their belt at schools with double your resources, you’re doing something remarkably well.

The trick for Gundy has been to regularly infuse his staff with additions from the lower levels of football at places where coaches have to get creative because they lack resources. His departing OC Mike Yurcich came from a division II school as did current TE coach Jason McEndoo. DC Jim Knowles was selected for his expertise in crafting defenses at Duke working with lower ranked recruits. Now Gundy adds OL coach Charlie Dickey of Kansas State and OC Sean Gleeson of Princeton to the equation.

Dickey coached in Bill Snyder’s extensive system at K-State from 2009 until 2018 when Snyder finally hung up his windbreaker and was replaced by Chris Klieman. The Wildcats had one of the more diverse run games in the Big 12 (or the country) over that time with a wide array of sweeps, zone schemes, and multiple iterations of power football. Gleeson is a young up and comer who showed a lot of versatility and expertise at Princeton that drew in Gundy’s attention. The football version of “the Princeton offense” was a cutting edge spread RPO system that was very good at creating horizontal stress with packaged plays:

Oklahoma State’s tactical trends

Gundy hired both Dickey and Gleeson first and foremost because other programs poached his previous hires. OL coach Josh Henson was snagged by Texas A&M while Ohio State hired Yurcich to work with Ryan Day and transfer QB Justin Fields. Henson was instrumental in rebuilding Oklahoma State’s depth and talent along the OL by securing nine high school commits in the 2018 and 2019 classes. Yurcich was in OSU for quite a while (2013-2018) and helped install more QB option schemes into the offense.

It so happens though that the sorts of spread formations and concepts that both Dickey and Gleeson have experience utilizing are ones that Oklahoma State started to incorporate in the 2018 season. Specifically, true 11 personnel sets with an inline TE and gap running schemes.

That’s A-gap power with an attached TE and then pass options (RPO) on the perimeter for the QB to use to try and keep the box clear of defenders. Oklahoma State hasn’t really been a power running team in the past, instead often leaning on zone with lead inserts from fullbacks, but things changed in 2018.

They’d moved big QB Jelani Woods (6-7, 251 pounds) over to TE and started to use him more over their fullbacks. The benefit of utilizing a TE in the spread run game is that you create immediate gaps that have to be filled whereas a FB in the backfield clues in a defense on where the ball is likely going and they have some time to adjust to his path and get numbers to the ball. You can’t adjust to the path of a TE, the extra gap he creates has to be accounted for at the snap.

Utilizing a TE also allows an offense to pull lineman to serve as lead blockers rather than FBs, either on A-gap power schemes like the one above, C-gap power schemes aiming for the edge off the TE, dart/iso schemes that pull a tackle, or sweeps. All of those schemes are more manageable when there’s a TE on the field that can hold the point of attack against a DE and allow a tackle or guard to pull elsewhere. The Kansas State offense made frequent use of having “sixth OL” sorts of TEs that could allow them to pull their OL around.

Princeton also kept a TE on the field and ran the same sorts of QB sweeps that Kansas State found so deadly:

Another useful feature of having a TE is for attacking the three-down defenses that are becoming more popular as anti-spread measures, including Iowa State’s inverted Tampa-2 system. Three down defenses have to move pieces around and adjust to the TE in ways that can yield some of the flexibility they used that structure to create.

The ‘Pokes didn’t have much success running the ball on Iowa State, largely because (as you see on the clip above) their OL weren’t really moving the Cyclone DL off the ball. However, their QB run game burned the Cyclones a couple of times and they were able to hold enough Cyclones in the box for Cornelius to throw for 289 yards and four TDs while their offense put 42 points on the board. The main reason for their demise was the breakout performance of Iowa State’s Brock “pump fake” Purdy, who took over during the second offensive series and put up 402 yards of offense and five touchdowns leading the Cyclones to 48 points.

What do Gundy’s Pokes have in store for 2019?

Next year’s Oklahoma State team is set up to be a shockingly good team but the storylines on their squad concern their question marks like who’s playing QB or how they’ll improve on defense. The tweaks that they’ve been adding to their offense and the players they have on the roster to execute their evolving style has been somewhat overlooked and could be potentially explosive in 2019.

Their OL includes players such as Marcus Keyes (LG), Johnny Wilson (C), and Teven Jenkins (RT) that have multiple seasons as starters with young Dylan Galloway now poised to own LT after starting five games down the stretch last season. Their guards Marcus Keyes and Ry Schneider (likely) are shorter and quicker players, well suited to pulling in power and sweep schemes. TE Woods is back as a RS sophomore in his new position and will be flanked by Tylan Wallace and then proven slot weapons Dillon Stoner (603 receiving yards) and Landon Wolf (362 receiving yards). The backfield will be led by Chuba Hubbard after his breakout redshirt freshman season.

The infrastructure is all there to have a dynamic offense, particularly if they have a good runner at QB who can reliably get the ball to Tylan Wallace in their vertical passing concepts. As it happens, Gundy spent 2018 developing this player in secret in a redshirt season...

Spencer Sanders threw for 3877 yards and 54 TDs as a senior while running the ball 156 times for 1380 yards at 8.8 ypc with 16 TDs. He has yet to even be named the starter over Hawaii transfer Dru Brown, who also redshirted in 2018, but there’s a lot of pieces coming into place for the Cowboys that suggest he’ll get the nod.

With Dickey and Gleeson on staff it should be easy for OSU to continue to evolve their runs and screens to incorporate gap run schemes that incorporate a TE, speed on the perimeter, and also the QB run game. Both coaches have thrived doing exactly that at previous stops and OSU’s embrace of those tactics and recruiting dovetail with that same direction.

The Cowboys have stayed near the top of the Big 12 under Gundy because they’ve continued to evolve from year to year to find new tactics and practices to give them advantages in a league where they don’t have many in the recruiting sphere. They’ve been quietly positioning their team over the last two years to evolve from the two-back run game and play-action attack with Mason Rudolph to a TE-inclusive scheme that can create more horizontal stress before running downhill and then still mixing in screens and play-action bombs to receivers down the field. We’ll see how it goes in 2019 but if things come together in Stillwater the Big 12 may be more open to them than expected.