OSU's Kickoff Coverage Needs Help

STILLWATER – Orie Lemon sent a text message Monday morning to Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy. The Cowboys starting middle linebacker was volunteering to be on the kickoff coverage team that has given up three touchdown returns already this season and faces the nation's No. 1-ranked kickoff return from Kansas State on Saturday in Manhattan, Kan.

The 20th-ranked Cowboys, 6-1 after suffering a 51-41 loss to Nebraska last weekend in which they allowed a 100-yard kickoff return by Niles Paul, will face the Wildcats, 5-2, at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Saturday's kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. (Central time).

Although Gundy appreciated Lemon's willingness to assist on the Cowboys' kickoff coverage unit, the OSU head coach says the Cowboys leading tackler needs to concentrate on his role as middle linebacker.

"There's no way I'm going to put defensive starters out there," Gundy said.

"It's real simple. It's cut and dry. You can take starters and put 'em out there but if something happens to them (with an injury), and you don't ever want to play tentatively (which leads to injuries), then that guy that's a starter on your defense is no longer a starter on your defense, and the guy backing him up may be a freshman. So, (the freshman) may get 70 plays, not on kickoffs but now on your defense.

"That's really where you're at. I don't think there's really any reason to beat around the bush or hide the issue of what's going on. We're trying to find the best guys who can help us in other areas because we certainly want to cover kickoffs and we certainly want to keep people from running them back on us," Gundy added.

Paul's 100-yard kickoff return in the second quarter gave Nebraska a 14-6 lead and gave the Cornhuskers momentum after OSU had pulled with one point.

The Cowboys have now given up as many kickoff returns for touchdowns in the last six games – Troy's Jerrel Jenigan had a 100-yarder on Sept. 11 and University of Louisiana's Daryl Surgent returned one 97 yards for a TD on Oct. 8 – as they did in Gundy's first five years as OSU's head coach.

OSU is allowing 34.4 yards on 22 kickoff returns this season, but that number probably would be much greater if not for kicker Quinn Sharp having 37 touchbacks.?

"We're certainly aware of it. (Special teams coach) Joe DeForest and I started on that this morning at 6:15," Gundy saids. "I like the plan that we have. I don't think there is any question that we're all aware of what's going on as a coaching staff and everybody that watches the game and everybody that wants for Oklahoma State to have success.

"We feel like that we have a good plan. We liked our plan last week (against Nebraska). We had some chances to make those plays and we didn't. I certainly understand that we have a number of young guys on those units but we're trying to make the best decisions for our football team.

"Joe DeForest feels worse than anybody ... maybe second worse to me. I have confidence in coach DeForest. We just happen to be young at those positions. We grade effort very seriously, and a large percentage of the time effort was not a factor.

"There's a combination of some youth and speaking specifically toward kick coverage, scheme-wise we've been OK. So we have to allot some more time, the guys that are on kick coverage have to do a good job of watching tape in preparation, and they have to believe that they can get it done," Gundy added.

But the Cowboys will face the No. 1-ranked kickoff return team in the nation in Kansas State, which is averaging 29.0 yards on 25 returns through seven games.

The Wildcats have 10 kickoff returns of 30 or more yards, all from former walk-on William Powell, who ranks first in the Big 12 and second nationally with a 34.1-yard average. His 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Baylor on Saturday was the first of his career and tied for the longest in school history.

"We're going to face a really good kick returner," said Gundy.

The Oklahoma State head coach knows that if the Cowboys give up any more kickoff returns for a touchdown it could come at the most inopportune time and ruin the team's chance for a Big 12 South title.

"Desperation is not an option," he said. "There is no Plan B in college football. College football is based on taking the guys we have that are healthy, and can we get them in a position to have success in all three phases for what we do? That's our job as a coaching staff. Not being sarcastic but I don't plan on giving up another one.

"We definitely have to get better in that area, and the one way to do it is a lot more time and coach it and teach it and get those guys to play hard. Show them where they made mistakes, that's already been done, and show them where they were in position but out of control, their head needs to be in the right location and not on a swivel looking for the wrong guy to hit them. There are certain things that contribute to that, that we were able to correct. Now it's our responsibility as coaches to make sure that we can coach it this week and make them better.

"Are we going to become the best kick cover team in one week? No, that's not going to happen. But we certainly want to be better than we were this week."

So, do Cowboy fans.


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