Young Linebackers Continuing To Develop

STILLWATER - There was a certain atmosphere to Oklahoma State spring practice Friday. There was an intensity in the air that coaches and players alike noticed. It may have been the cameras out early in practice or the obviously larger than usual number of visitors. Maybe it is just that a number of young players are starting to catch on and feel a little more confident in what they are doing.

Whatever caused it, the Cowboys head coach liked it as his team put a wrap on the second week of spring practice. Six practices down and no nine to go.

"It was very physical and a lot of young players competed, it's exciting and a lot of fun to be around our guys," said Mike Gundy. "We got in a number of plays and worked short yardage situations.

"I really feel good about our team and have confidence in our ability to compete. We just need some young guys to continue to do this in order to get ready to play. We've had some really good practices. The attitude is good and the competitiveness is good and it is just fun to be out there."

Gundy's coordinators seemingly feel the same way. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken had a simple summary following his second week of guiding the offense.

"We're pretty good on offense, got some good players," said Monken. "This is a lot of fun! We ought to be pretty good if we don't get big-headed."

Monken elaborated that he is feeling comfortable with the staff, the players, and the scheme, which is really morphing into an offense that Monken is comfortable with. Now he likes it better with his starting quarterback Brandon Weeden running it. The big arm was jogging off the field early before a finsihing two-minute drill saying he was heading to an exam. That's right, an exam on Friday evening.

"That's an awful thing (Friday night exam), and it (offense) doesn't work as well without him," explained Monken. "That was perfect because the other guys needed the two minute work in Clint (Chelf) and Johnny (Deaton). That worked out fine."

Defensive coordinator Bill Young is enthusiastic, but maybe not quite as satisfied with the status of the defense as Monken is the offense. The defense has a few more position openings to fill and answers to come up with.

"We are in great shape (physically). The mental aspect is where we are hurting right now," said Young. "We need to learn what we are doing and we can go faster if we know which direction to go.

"Anthony Rogers and Christian Littlehead have got much, much better and faster than we may have anticipated. We think that Nigel Nicholas will be a heckuva player at tackle. We've got a lot of learning to do at linebacker."

Every practice this spring the linebackers are under the microscope, and for good reason. Two of the positions are undergoing almost a complete turnover.

While starter Shaun Lewis and experienced backup James Thomas both return at the "star" linebacker, and both players are on the field in the speed package the Cowboys will use, the other two linebacker positions, middle and weakside, will have new starters and will be fresh up and down the depth chart. Middle linebacker Orie Lemon, weakside linebacker starter Justin Gent, and backup Tolu Moala – all gone from last season's squad - accounted for 225 total tackles, 169 unassisted tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss. That's a lot of production.

"In this business your time always comes and all of a sudden it's a green, very green inside linebacker position between our mike (middle) and weakside positions," said newly named co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Glenn Spencer. "Those two spots are almost equal in what their assignments are. Those two are in the box and it's testing us right now."

Lemon was so instrumental last season in not only making plays but also serving a leadership role on the defense and getting other players in the right place. Lemon knew the defense inside and out, and it showed.

Now you add two inexperienced players to the mix. One is Celina, Texas, sophomore Caleb Lavey. Lavey is a smart player that was a "Lemon-type" player for his defense in high school. A big plus for Lavey is that he worked his way back sooner than expected from an elbow injury last season and got on the field as the coaches had hoped.

"It just goes to show you that even though Orie didn't come off the field a lot, those reps, those 10 to 15 reps that he got in were tremendous for him (Lavey)," said Spencer. "He got to see the speed of the game, and then earlier in the year Tyler (Johnson) was the back up because Caleb (Lavey) was hurt. Tolu (Moala) went back and forth throughout the season because he was the most experienced at the time, but both those young guys got reps.

"This is kind of the deal with all of them. It's an old adage I like to use, when you think, you stink," said Spencer. "When they think too much and they play slow, they aren't reacting and they are too mechanical. That is kind of what I'm dealing with right now. Between the install and what we're doing now is the time to get that out of their system."

At the weakside position, there is a three-way battle with Georgia native LeRon Furr (who Spencer recruited), sophomore Chris Dinkins (who was recruited as a wide receiver out of Tyler Lee in Texas and wound up playing safety and working on special teams last season), and mid-year reportee Kris Catlin out of San Antonio Madison. It is Catlin, who reported more mature mentally and physically than one might think, that impressing a lot. He is very athletic.

"He moves well and you can see how guys move on the field, and he is good in space and gets where he needs to and is not going to have a lot of issues," said Spencer, who also recruited Catlin.

"He is one of those guys and just needs to learn (the defense). The first couple of months in this program (learning) the verbage, the expectations, and he is just kind of overwelmed. That was the way Shaun Lewis was in camp last year.

"It's to the point that you can't just run up on the football because there is too much counter flow, counter option, so much misdirection that you have to have more keys than just the football. I told him after practice that every snap is valuable right now. We only have nine more practices left, good practices, and we need to treat those as gold and not let one go by without the intensity and energy that it takes to go out and get better," said Spencer.

When you have that many young players there is always concern because the clock is ticking. Oklahoma State has an experienced and ultra-talented offense. Fans are expecting the defense to continue to improve and for the Cowboys to follow up a co-Big 12 South championship season with an even better season to remember.

When you know you are going to have a passing combination like Brandon Weeden to Justin Blackmon just one more season you want everything else in place to take advantage of that prolific duo. Eyes will be on the defense, where along with Spencer's linebacking corps, defensive coordinator and line coach Bill Young is trying to find two new starting defensive tackles and a rotation there for the 2011 season. Spencer is zoned in on the linebackers.

"I was really concerned coming in the other day (Wednesday practice)," experessed Spencer. "My wife will tell you that I had really been dispondent and down and felt like I couldn't get them (young linebackers) going and I had a great challenge ahead of me.

"Well, they responded and I saw some physical guys and they answered the bell on Wednesday and they came back and had a good practice today."

The Cowboys will take the weekend off and then come back on Monday to start week three of spring football. The Orange-White game will take place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 16,

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