By the Numbers: Who Are OSU’s Best Red-Zone Weapons?

Written by Kyle Cox

The Oklahoma State offense could be otherworldly in 2017. Mason Rudolph is an elite quarterback with an elite group of wide receivers to throw to. Justice Hill packed on enough offseason muscle to ensure his freshman 11 (-hundred yards) doesn’t get followed up by a sophomore slump. The offensive line should be better and potential backup QBs and RBs are being evaluated as we speak.

But there is one facet of Oklahoma State’s offense that could use some improvement — red-zone effectiveness.

The Cowboys ranked in the middle of the Big 12 in terms of red-zone effectiveness, based on points per red-zone attempt. If the Cowboys want to take the next step, they’ll need to be able to take advantage of those trips into enemy territory.

“You can always be better in the red zone and the score zone,” Rudolph said during Big 12 Media Days. “There’s a lot of times last year, fade balls and incompletions there and different schemes. Decision-making is so key down there.

“The ability to extend the play and get a couple of those scramble drill points down there in the score zone is key, and that’s something we’ve worked on.”

So, we know the Cowboys would like to be more effective in the score zone. Let’s take a look at the red-zone weapons they have to work with and why they could be improved on this front in 2017.

I’ve divided up the players by passing, receiving and rushing to see who the best options are based on last year’s numbers. Of course, these don’t include newcomers like several freshman skill players that could see the field and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson. For the record, Johnson had one red-zone catch for eight yards as a true freshman at LSU.

First, let’s look at red-zone passing numbers.

Red-Zone Pass Attempts
Player Attempts/Completions Completion % TDs INTs Passer Rating
Mason Rudolph 26/46 56.5% 13 1 183.8
Dillon Stoner 1/1 100.0% 1 0 446.8
John Kolar 1/2 50.0% 0 0 83.6
Jalen McCleskey 0/1 0.0% 0 0 0.0

Mason Rudolph did well in his first year with full rein of the offense. Minus what would be a costly red-zone interception against Central Michigan, his numbers were solid. He’s not the run threat that J.W. Walsh was but Mike Gundy has said he’d love to find someone else who is for certain packages.

That role could be possibly be filled by wide receiver Dillon Stoner who was great in his extremely small (one snap) sample size in the red zone. It is telling that Gundy and Yurcich trusted a true freshman to take a snap in his second game. He lined up behind center twice in his four games. Don’t be surprised to see it again. He may be the most versatile athlete on the roster if the talk from practice is any indicator.

Red-Zone Catches
Player Catches TDs
James Washington 7 4
Jalen McCleskey 7 3
Marcell Ateman (2015) 5 4
Chris Lacy 3 3

The Cowboys have several returning red-zone threats in their star-studded receiving corps. It’s never a bad idea to get James Washington the ball and McCleskey is a great option out of the slot. Chris Lacy was ultra-efficient with all three of his catches making it into the end zone.

Marcell Ateman’s return offers another big option for “70/30” balls Mason Rudolph calls them. Ateman was the Cowboys’ leading red-zone receiver with five catches and paid those off with four scores.

Red-Zone Rush Attempts
Player Attempts TDs Fumbles (Lost)
Justice Hill 34 4 1 (1)
Mason Rudolph 22 6 3 (2)
Jeff Carr 2 1 0
Taylor Cornelius 2 1 0
James Washington 1 0 0
John Kolar 1 0 0

The Cowboys need to replace a lot in this department. Chris Carson, Rennie Childs and Barry J. Sanders accounted for 51 attempts in the red zone which led to 17 touchdowns. Carson was the team leader with nine. And they have yet to name a backup to Justice Hill who is beefed up over the offseason but is still not the pound-it-up-the-middle option that even Chris Carson could be.

Rudolph has shown some ability to keep the ball and get six but has struggled with fumble issues — half of his six fumbles were in the red zone. And then there’s the increased risk of injury which is a prospect no one in (or in support of) the program wants to think about. He played over half last season with an injury he sustained doing his best human-projectile bit against Texas.

With all these playmakers and an improved offensive line, there is no reason Oklahoma State can’t get better in the score zone.