Why OSU could be one of the oldest teams in college football history

Why OSU could be one of the oldest teams in college football history

OSU spring football opens next week, and the Cowboys have a roster so stable, it’s straight out of 1964. A roster so old, it wouldn’t look much out of place in a pro football training camp.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 21, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 21, 2024, 6:00am CDT

STILLWATER —  Ollie Gordon ambushed the Texas Bowl press conference last December after OSU beat Texas A&M 31-23. Don’t ask why the all-American tailback wasn’t in the press conference to begin with; some things are unexplainable.

Anyway, Gordon made a cameo appearance, just four days after he had announced he was staying a Cowboy, despite all kinds of offers to hit the transfer portal after his 1,732-yard rushing season.

And Gordon gave the best of all possible rationales for sticking with the Posse.

“Moral of the story, I couldn’t leave my guys,” Gordon said. He looked at his teammates sitting on the podium, bowl most valuable players Rashod Owens and Nick Martin. “Look at what just happened. That guy. That guy. Can’t leave them.”

And just like that, you knew that Cowboy culture was back.

Mike Gundy’s favorite bragging point — that his program values players and treats them well and makes them want to stick around — has taken its hits over the years.

The Chuba Hubbard-led political flap in 2020. The mass portal exit of quality players in winter 2022-23.

But OSU spring football opens next week, and the Cowboys have a roster so stable, it’s straight out of 1964. A roster so old that it wouldn’t look much out of place in a pro football training camp.

OSU returns 17(!) players who started at least 10 games last season. The Cowboys return three more players who started at least six games.

OSU figures to start four fifth-year seniors, eight sixth-year seniors and two SEVENTH-year seniors. And lest you think it’s been a portal invasion, eight of those 14 players have spent their entire college careers in Stillwater. And three others have been longtime Cowboys (Collin Clay is in his fifth OSU season since coming from Arkansas, Trey Rucker his fourth post-Wake Forest and Jason Brooks Junior his third after Vanderbilt).

A depth chart like this makes four-year Cowboys Collin Oliver and Kendal Daniels seem like rookies. 

“We all know this, there’s instability and volatility in college football,” Gundy said. “It’s day to day. We as a coaching staff, and selfishly myself, we like our core leadership and the values that these guys are bringing to the younger guys.

“So we’ve got good young guys that are going to be developed. Then we might have 18 or 19 returning starters, I don’t know. Just throwing that number out.”

Gundy is right. It’s much easier to list the players who have left than the players who are returning.

Linebacker Xavier Benson (14 starts), tight end Josiah Johnson (12 starts), defensive end Anthony Goodlow (nine starts), wide receiver Leon Johnson III (seven starts), defensive end Nathan Latu (five starts) and tight end Braden Cassity (three starts) were lost to eligibility.

Wide receiver Jaden Bray (seven starts), wide receiver Blaine Green (one start) and cornerback D.J. McKinney (one start) were lost to the portal. Bray to West Virginia, Green to Stephen F. Austin and McKinney to Colorado.

That’s a far cry from the portal wounds of the previous year, when OSU lost quarterback Spencer Sanders to Ole Miss, cornerback Jabbar Muhammad to Washington, linebacker Mason Cobb to Southern Cal, defensive end Trace Ford to OU, wide receiver John Paul Richardson to Texas Christian, safety Thomas Harper to Notre Dame, wide receiver Bryson Green to Wisconsin, tailback Dominic Richardson to Baylor, wide receiver Stephon Johnson to Houston and offensive tackle Caleb Etienne to Brigham Young.

That’s a lot of talent going to a lot of quality programs (think Oakland Athletics, circa 1976), but it wasn’t a sign of things to come. The exodus this off-season consisted of no projected starters.

“We’re a stable organization,” Gundy said. “Selfishly, as a coach, you want everybody to stay the course and be back. But sometimes players have something that could be better for them and their future, and coaches have to respect that.

“We had some guys leave last year, and we tried to replace guys that left with the same maturity and positions of guys that went out.

And a number of those guys made a lot of plays for us.”

The offensive line stability is particularly striking. OSU’s 2024 offensive line likely is the most experienced set of blockers in college football history. The Cowboys return seven offensive linemen who made multiple starts in 2023; six of those are sixth-year seniors, and one is a fifth-year senior.

OSU reports that those seven have combined for 200 career starts in major-college football (163 of them at OSU), with 284 total games played and an average age of 23.56 on Sept. 1. And those numbers don’t even include Arizona State transfer Isaia Glass, who made 15 starts for the Sun Devils. Counting Glass, that’s 215 major-college starts, which surpasses Florida State’s 214 going into last season, which was believed to be the most in this super-senior era, when many players have a sixth season of eligibility, due to the pandemic.

That 23.56 average age? The 1973 Buffalo Bills’ offensive line, which blocked for O.J. Simpson in his 2,003-yard season, had an average age of 24.3.

“We’ve got a number of guys that are coming back,” Gundy said. “A large percentage of guys. I think they like the chemistry of the team, they like competing with each other against whoever we’re playing. And they feel like we can make a really good run.

“So my message to them will be if they’ll stay humble, and they’ll stay unselfish and continue to work, then they have a chance to be a really good team. And I think we have enough returning leaders to get that accomplished.”

A team like this might have more leaders than leadees. More Cowboys to corral than cows to be corralled. In this age, that’s remarkable.

And it sets up at just the right time. 2024 launches the new-look Big 12. Welcome, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Arizona State; say hello to Central Florida, Houston, Cincinnati and Brigham Young, all of which just got off the train  themselves.

2024 also launches the 12-team College Football Playoff. More opportunity than ever before for a program like OSU to take the national stage.

“It’s a great thing that a lot of guys want to come back,” said Owens, a fifth-year senior who is the perfect example of thriving in Cowboy culture. He played little for much of his career, then had a breakout season in 2023.

“Just shows that a lot of guys have trust in each other, love and emotion and support for each other,” Owens said. “Shows a lot of guys are determined to go back to that Big 12 Championship and actually get that ring. They want to finish strong, get to that college playoff experience sometime, and hopefully next year is that year.”

Like usual, the Vegas oddsmakers are not bullish on OSU. The Cowboys’ over/under number for victories in 2024 is 7½. This seems more like a 9½ team. A team this old? A team this experienced? A team with an identity and obviously a culture? I’d say these Cowboys are as promising as any Gundy squad since the Mason Rudolph days (2015-17) and maybe beyond that, going back to 2011.

OSU went 10-4 a year ago, counting the Big 12 Championship Game loss to Texas and the bowl win over A&M. In Gundy’s 19 seasons, the Cowboys have reached 10 wins eight times, plus nine wins twice more.

“That’s a big mark,” Gundy said. “It’s not easy to win double-digit games, at any level, in particular college football.

“I have made adjustments as a head coach, in trying to stay ahead of the volatility of college football. And the one thing we can do as coaches is take care of our players, be up front and honest with them and continue with discipline, structure and accountability and loyalty. And then they make the decision what they want to do.”

The portal opens again in April, so cross your fingers that there’s not another mass exodus. But that’s rare in the spring.

These Cowboys have made the decision that they want to stay. They’ve looked at their teammates — that guy and that guy, as Ollie Gordon said — and decided to stick together.

With historic experience and a history of success, OSU football looks awfully robust in 2024.

Cowboys with starting experience

Here’s a list of the OSU football players with starting experience as Cowboys.

Left tackle Dalton Cooper, sixth-year senior, 49 career starts, 36 of them at Texas State and 13 last season at OSU.

Right tackle Jake Springfield, sixth-year senior, 40 career starts, 11 last season.

Right guard Preston Wilson, sixth-year senior, 34 career starts, 12 last season.

Wide receiver Brennan Presley, fifth-year senior, 33 career starts, 12 last season.

Strongside linebacker Justin Wright, seventh-year senior, 32 career starts, all at Tulsa from 2020-22.

Quarterback Alan Bowman, seventh-year senior, 29 career starts, 16 of them at Texas Tech in 2018-20, 13 last season at OSU.

Wide receiver De’Zhaun Stribling, fourth-year junior, 29 career starts, 25 of them at Washington State, four in 2023 for OSU, before a season-ending injury.

Cornerback Korie Black, fifth-year senior, 26 career starts, 13 last season.

Guard Cole Birmingham, sixth-year senior, 26 career starts, 10 last season.

Safety Trey Rucker, sixth-year senior, 23 career starts, nine of them at Wake Forest in 2019, then 14 last season at OSU.

Center Joe Michalski, sixth-year senior, 23 career starts, 14 in 2023.

Weakside linebacker Collin Oliver, fourth-year senior, 20 career starts, 14 last season.

Rover Kendal Daniels, fourth-year junior, 19 career starts, 14 last season.

Wide receiver Rashod Owens, fifth-year senior, 18 career starts, 10 in 2023.

Cornerback Cam Smith, fourth-year junior, 17 career starts, 14 last season.

Defensive end Kody Walterscheid, sixth-year senior, 17 career starts, 14 last season.

Offensive tackle Taylor Miterko, sixth-year senior, 16 career starts, three last season.

Offensive tackle Isaia Glass, fourth-year junior, 15 starts, all at Arizona State 2021-23.

Tailback Ollie Gordon, third-year junior, 15 career starts, 14 last season.

Middle linebacker Nick Martin, fourth-year junior, 14 career starts, all last season.

Left guard Jason Brooks Jr., fifth-year senior, 12 career starts, one of them at Vanderbilt in 2021, the rest at OSU, including seven last season.

Nose guard Collin Clay, sixth-year senior, 11 career starts, eight last season.

Safety Cameron Epps, third-year sophomore, 10 career starts, all last season.

Nose guard Justin Kirkland, third-year junior, six career starts, all at OSU last season.

Defensive end Xavier Ross, sixth-year senior, four career starts, all in 2022.

Safety Lyrik Rawls, fourth-year junior, three career starts, all last season.

Fullback Jake Schultz, sixth-year senior, three career starts, all in 2022.

Safety Dylan Smith, second-year sophomore, one start, last season.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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