Sizing Up The Cowboys Defense

STILLWATER - As the Oklahoma State players and coaching staff filed into the grass practice field east of Gallagher-Iba Arena for Wednesday's spring practice they were met by a familiar face. Former running backs coach Robert Gillespie was back in Stillwater to see his family as West Virginia is on spring break.

Gillespie left Oklahoma State with former offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to coach running backs and serve as running game coordinator for the Mountaineers. It was a career-building move for Gillespie, who has quite a resume at age 31 having coached at South Carolina, Oklahoma State, and now with a title at West Virginia.

Gillespie said hello to his former pupils at running back, but actually spent most of the time going around and watching other position groups, something he could not do when he was coaching for the Cowboys.

Gillespie is looking to expand his knowledge and this is a guy that has future head coach written all over him. It was obvious the way his former coaches at Oklahoma State greeted him that he has a great deal of respect. Head coach Mike Gundy also spent some time talking with Gillespie during the practice.

It was full pads again Wednesday for the Cowboys and another near two hour practice in windy and slightly chilly conditions. It was a practice that was very much drill oriented. They were also over on the grass practice fields, as mentioned above, for the first time this spring.

After practice, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken assessed the performance of the offense.

"We weren't as sharp as we were yesterday with certain things - throwing and catching - but it was another good day," Monken said.

As he expected before the spring started, Monken said the returning core of offensive players are looking good at this point. He pointed out that there are several Cowboys beyond Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden, Josh Cooper and Joseph Randle that are making plays at this point of the spring.

"The guys that have been here and played last year are moving around and playing fast, but some of the younger guys have a way to go," Monken said. "Tracy Moore, Michael Harrison, Justin Horton and Wilson Youman have done well. They've done well with what we've asked them to do and they've been somewhat of a pleasant surprise for me."

The Cowboys return to practice Friday.

With this being the second week of spring football, and following a week of taking a week off for spring break, it is a good time to take a run through the depth chart and see what has and what could develop. On Tuesday we looked at offense and specialists. Today we look at the defense. Here's a look at the way the Cowboys defense seems to be shaping up so far this spring and what to look for.

DEFENSIVE END: The split of Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick from the same side of the defensive line has worked as Blatnick has moved to the "Leo" defensive end. Blatnick needs to get used to dropping into zone blitz coverage and he has handled that just fine. Blatnick is athletic and has a good defensive feel. Meanwhile, the move has been sort of a confidence builder for Jones and he is playing at a very high level in practice.

The battle is finding backups. Cooper Bassett and Davidell Collins both appreciate moving out of the inside where they played as undersized defensive tackles last spring and they are showing up. Ryan Robinson, a mid-term transfer from Jones County C.C. in Mississippi, is learning, but man, is this guy athletic. He will help. Count defensive end as a very strong positive for the defense.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: It's still a work in progress. The emerging Christian Littlehead needs to be a big part of the bridge toward next season and the future at this position following the graduation of Shane Jarka and Chris Donaldson.

Littlehead is at the one technique and now sophomore Anthony Rogers is starting to really come on. Those two are battling with junior college transfer Maurice Hayes, who is kind of feeling his way right now. Nigel Nicholas is at the three technique and young pups in freshmen Joe Okafor and Diamonte Wheeler are working to emerge at that position.

Every day needs to be a positive step across the board for all of the defensive tackles, and while the 2012 season is just five months away there is time to make progress and it can be gradual.

Incoming freshman James Castleman from Amarillo, Texas was in Stillwater to watch Tuesday's practice. Honestly, I'm counting on Castleman to come in ready to take on some snaps because he has that kind of ability.

LINEBACKERS: You hate to lump sum this position because the three spots are so different. The "star" linebacker is settled with freshman sensation and freshman All-American Shaun Lewis ready to take his game to another level. He came into the spring slowed a little by a hamstring that he injured in offseason work, but there is no urgency to get him back. He is a proven commodity that will only get better. The "star" position is solid with veteran James Thomas, an extremely reliable player with lot of skills and maturity.

Joe Mitchell is also an intriguing player that I still could see moving to the weakside linebacker. Speaking of that position, LeRon Furr is picking up the pace. Furr and freshman Kris Catlin are staging a very competitive run at that spot, along with converted safety Chris Dinkins. Catlin has been the surprise showing more physical and mental maturity than usually seen in an incoming player. He is kind of a "see-ball, get-ball" kind of guy for now, but he is learning.

The middle linebacker is also competitive and may, at this stage, be a dead heat between Caleb Lavey and Tyler Johnson. Both players have had their moments and both have their areas where they need to improve. It is good competition.

CORNERBACKS: Brodrick Brown and the young ones is the description of the corners. Defensive coordinator Bill Young feels Brown is one of the most talented corners in the Big 12. He is and he continues to make acrobatic plays even in practice.

Devin Hedgepeth, Justin Gilbert, Andrae May and Larry Stephens are the young 'uns and they are talented and athletic. Hedgepeth has the experience edge, but they are all using the spring to work on the overall game.

SAFETIES: The best thing is the return of Daytawion Lowe, which has been well documented throughout the media. Lowe can do it all and joins Markelle Martin and Johnny Thomas making for three guys that can do it all.

That trio really doesn't need to prove much. They need to help Joe DeForest in teaching the young safeties in preparation for larger roles next season. Lavocheya Cooper, Deion Imade, and a bigger Zack Craig are all eager to show what they can do and all have big hit and big play capability. This is really a good blend at this position of veteran experience and young exuberance. All six are potential contributers on special teams.

(Oklahoma State's athletic media relations contributed to this story.)

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