DeForest: Top Group of Safeties I've Ever Had

STILLWATER - The Oklahoma State football team, dressed in full pads, practiced in warm and humid conditions Friday on the practice fields adjacent to Gallagher-Iba Arena. After practice, Mike Gundy talked about the news from earlier in the day that the Cowboys' Bedlam series clash with Oklahoma was moved to Dec. 3 and will be televised by ABC with a kickoff at either 2:30 p.m. of 7 p.m.

"It's not really a factor for us," Gundy said of the game being moved back a week. "The conference makes decisions on when we play the games and it's our job to get ready and play them. I really don't think it's a factor, other than it lengthens the season."

Gundy said he does have a degree of concern with adding one more week to the season.

"A couple years ago, we extended the season to 12 games, which is fine, but now you have two open dates," Gundy said. "If you look at it, we extend the season, but we reduce scholarships, so it's kind of like the NFL thought.

"At some point we need to be careful about extending these kids from now until December when you're on 85 scholarships. Other than that, whenever they tell us to play them, we're going to play them."

Gundy added that there is a sense of respect coming to the OSU program for being selected to play on what has become known as Championship Saturday.

"People can read between the lines, but there are 10 schools in our league and all 10 would want to play in a primetime network game. For us to be in this situation kind of shows where we are as a program," Gundy said.

"I don't think there is any question that we have elevated ourselves. When they come and hand-pick you to play on Championship Saturday, it kind of shows where we are at."

Moving beyond the news of the day, the safety position at OSU figures to be one of the best – if not the best – group of players that Gundy and the Cowboy coaching staff has to work with this season.

Coach Joe DeForest talked about them, as well as the OSU specialists, to this point of the spring.

"There is no question that this is the best group of safeties I've ever had," DeForest said. "Top to bottom, I've never had this much depth and six guys that I feel comfortable with. This is the deepest, most talented and most athletic group we've had since I've been here."

DeForest said part of his enthusiasm for the group of safeties stems from the fact that this particular group has a chemistry about it.

"This is a great group of guys. They're very intelligent," DeForest said. "Markelle Martin has been a great leader in taking them and leading them by example on and off the field. They have fun. They're a close group.

"Markelle is a team leader as well, not just for the safeties. Because we're so young at linebacker and on the inside of the defensive line, we have to have the safeties step up. The strength of your defense is up the middle and those safeties are important in setting the tone."

While Martin is the headliner of the group based off his history of strong on-field performance and off-the-field leadership, he has been on the sidelines this spring after undergoing minor offseason surgery.

"It hurts with Markelle being out because he sets the tone as a big hitter, but it helps guys like Daytawion Lowe, Deion Imade and Zack Craig get more valuable reps that they may not have otherwise," DeForest said.

"Lavocheya Cooper has probably made the most improvement of any of the guys, and hopefully he can be a contributor for us next year."

The younger players who are getting increased action on the practice field now may pay dividends later.

DeForest said Martin and Johnny Thomas played almost every snap in 2010 and he now feels comfortable counting on the group of sophomores to be able to come in and give those two a break from time to time. DeForest said he is counting on that group to do more than just contribute on special teams.

DeForest also oversees the Cowboy special teams unit and has enjoyed overwhelming success with that group, seeing Matt Fodge win the 2008 Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter and Dan Bailey win the 2010 Lou Groza Award as the nation's top placekicker. Additionally, he coached return man Dez Bryant to Big 12 special teams player of the year honors in 2008.

Perhaps the next in his line of major award winners is punter Quinn Sharp, who earned first-team All-America status as a punter last year and led the nation in kickoffs resulting in touchbacks for the second consecutive season.

With Bailey graduated, Sharp joins Bobby Stonebraker and incoming freshman Matt Green as candidates for the starting placekicker duties.

"Quinn has done a great job punting and kicking off, but he really wants that placekicking job. I've never had a kid do all three because it's such a wear-and-tear on a leg throughout the fall, but if he's the best, then he's going to do it," DeForest said.

"I just have to be smart on how much work he gets on each particular phase each day so he doesn't get worn out throughout the year. That's something that he and I need to come up with to develop a plan or else he's not going to be able to kick touchbacks like he has at the end of the year."

DeForest was asked if Sharp should be considered as the nation's top punter entering the 2011 season.

"I think Quinn Sharp was the best punter in the country last year," DeForest said. "Unless he wins the field-goal job and that affects him punting – it's as much mental as it is physical – there's no reason to think he won't be the best in the country this year.

"When a guy does all three and he misses a field goal, how is he going to respond the next time he's out there and he has to punt or kick off? There's a big mental aspect that people don't understand. A kicker's psyche can carry over to the next kick, the next phase. That's a concern of mine and we're going to have to come up with a plan."

DeForest added that special teams will be one area where they will be somewhat limited in what they can do next Saturday in the Orange-White game. They will do all of the placements with field goals and extra points, but will be conservative with kickoffs, punts, and the return game.

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