Star running back Hill could boost Cowboys into Big 12 contention

MORGANTOWN — Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder had a few choice words for head coach Mike Gundy’s ability to recruit to OSU.

“I would approach recruiting a little differently than he does,” Holder said. “I’d want to finish higher in those recruiting rankings than we consistently do. I think that ultimately puts a ceiling on what you’re able to achieve.”

While Holder’s comments are likely in direct relation to the Cowboys’ struggles to keep up with Bedlam rival Oklahoma on the field, Gundy built the Oklahoma State program to a point where, regardless of who it loses, there is plenty in reserve to take over.

That’s definitely the case headed into this season: Quarterback Mason Rudolph, gone; wide receiver James Washington, gone; wide receiver Marcell Ateman, gone.

Rudolph threw for 4,904 yards and 37 touchdowns a year ago, while 1,549 yards and 13 touchdowns went to Biletnikoff winner Washington.

Ateman hauled in passes good for 1,156 yards and eight scores.

The Cowboys lost a huge junk of their offensive production from last year, a season in which they finished 10-3 but below expectations. The Cowboys were expected to compete for a Big 12 title but failed to reach the conference championship game.

This season, with all of the offseason losses, OSU is flying under the radar. The Cowboys were picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 preseason media rankings, but there is still plenty of offensive fire power that could put them in position to surprise, led by running back Justice Hill.

“His leg strength, his power, his experience playing in games, his understanding of our offense, his pass protection, all of that got considerably better,” Gundy said of Hill’s performance last season. “This year could really be a good year if you’re as talented as he is and you can relax and play.”

Hill ran for 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore, and Gundy expects those numbers to increase this year. Though he will be the featured offensive threat, Hill likes that the Cowboys aren’t getting as much preseason hype as they have in the past.

“I like it way better,” he said. “When you’re at the top, you can get a sense of complacency sometimes. When you’re at the bottom, you’ve always got that underdog mentality — you’re hungry to go prove everybody wrong.”

Hill will run behind an offensive line that returns four starters, a group that Gundy believes will be even better than it was last season.

Another key returnee on offense is receiver Jalen McCleskey, who had 645 yards and five touchdowns last year.

But the biggest question is, who will replace Rudolph? Unlike at other schools in the Big 12 replacing quarterbacks, Gundy made it clear who is starter is, confirmed last week at media days.

“When we came out of spring, we felt very comfortable with Taylor (Cornelius),” Gundy said, “Certainly, going into August, he’s our guy.”

Cornelius, a former walk-on from Bushland, Texas, beat out Hawaii grad transfer Dru Brown in the spring.

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