James Thomas Adds Experience At Linebacker

STILLWATER - Dressed in full pads, the Oklahoma State football team practiced for approximately two hours in near-perfect conditions Monday on the grass practice fields adjacent to Gallagher-Iba Arena. The Cowboys are now down to the polish portion of spring practice, as not every decision has been made and many of those personnel decisions will carry over to the summer and into fall camp.

But the rest of this week is about polishing everybody in the role that they have found for themselves so far.

It's just a guess but there has probably been more uncertainty in print this spring at one position, linebacker, more than any other. You can be sure that other than the "star" linebacker position there will be some changes and much more competition before the depth chart is settled. Spring will not be the end of it.

"We have developed some depth with Tyler Johnson at 'mike' coming on," said co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Glenn Spencer. "He is light years from where he was last year. Last year he was just trying to get lined up and learning what key to read. That is a positive deal. With 29 practices in camp I expect him to get that much better.

"By moving Joe Mitchell to 'will' that has created more depth. He has to come on board and become a solid guy that we can trust to help us win Big 12 games. Right now he gives us the best chance because he plays with a sense of urgency and he has got a lot more physical and tougher.

"We are still expecting Alex Elkins (transfer from Blinn Junior College) to come in and compete and maybe even be the starter over there. Still working Chris Dinkins and (Kris) Catlin and maybe they are a year away and then maybe we don't have a year."

One linebacker slot is solid. It is so solid that Spencer was able to move Joe Mitchell to the weak side. Freshman All-American Shaun Lewis (5-11, 214) and veteran James Thomas (5-11, 209) combined last season for 107 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, two sacks, four interceptions, three fumbles recovered and four fumbles caused.

"Star is as deep as it has ever been since I've been here," said Spencer. "You don't miss a beat with James Thomas and Shaun. In fact, I've been splitting the number one reps with them this spring because James is a fifth-year senior playing the best football of his career, and then in the speed package we have a safety coming down and we will use them both."

All of that should make OSU fans happy, and Thomas too because he is eager to get on the field as much as possible.

"That is real exciting and it is a blessing from above," said Thomas of his increased opportunities despite being listed second on the depth chart at the 'star' linebacker.

"When Shaun (Lewis) was out there last year it was kind of hard to see that. But it is a team game and I will do whatever it takes for us to win. I'm real excited this year getting more playing time and we will see what happens."

Thomas understands that a big part of his responsibility is to teach the younger linebackers.

"Like everybody knows we're all young, but you can see my gray hairs and I'm not young at all," said Thomas. "The good thing is the young linebackers are hungry and willing to learn. They are coachable and as long as they will keep up that attitude, be aggressive and willing to learn we are going to be fine."

You always hear the offensive players talking up how good a season it can be for the Cowboys in 2011. Thomas enjoys the opportunity to project his feelings on the subject.

"We are going to be as good as we want to be," added Thomas. "As long as we stay hungry, fight, and take one game at a time we are going to be very good."

The running game has traditionally been an area of strength for the Cowboys, but entering the 2010 season observers of the program wondered if the Pokes would have success running the ball in the newly-installed spread offense.

As it turned out, senior Kendall Hunter earned consensus All-America honors, freshman Joseph Randle accounted for more than 1,000 all-purpose yards, redshirt freshman Jeremy Smith added seven rushing touchdowns of his own and all doubts were laid to rest as Oklahoma State ranked third nationally in total offense and scoring offense and enjoyed the first 11-win season in school history.

Jemal Singleton joined Mike Gundy's staff this offseason and is charged with mentoring the Cowboy running backs, a group that is led by a pair of proven underclassmen in Randle and Smith, plus junior fullback David Paulsen.

Singleton has either played or coached at the Air Force Academy his entire career, so he is well-versed in the importance of the running game. He talked Monday about what he has seen from the OSU backs.

"I'm real excited about the guys we have at the running back position," Singleton said. "You look at Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, both are young guys but they have played quite a bit of football. They have both shown this spring that they have some savvy to them when it comes to making plays, adjusting certain routes and breaking some very good runs. I'm very excited about what they're doing."

Ask anyone involved with Oklahoma State football, and they'll all say the same – Randle is a winner both on and off the field. Singleton has made a similar observation since joining the staff in February.

"In Joseph Randle, you're talking about a young man that definitely has a good head on his shoulders," Singleton said. "He's a guy that always shows up on time and it's important to him. You take a look at him academically and he's taking on an industrial engineering major and he's working hard on it. Class is important to him. I've always felt that a guy that can win in the classroom can win on the field as well."

Having players like Randle and Smith touching the ball in the Cowboys' spread offense is an exciting prospect for everyone involved, but long before the first snap of the 2011 season, Singleton is already making his key points to the running backs.

"It always starts with ball security. That's my first emphasis," Singleton said. "We're going to take care of the football. Whether you've been good at it or not, emphasizing that is important. If you ever get lax in how you protect the football, then it's going to come back to bite you.

"Another emphasis is that guys should come to work every day and have fun enjoying what they do. I've tried to instill that in the guys that we can have fun, but we also have to flip the switch and go to work. We are going to have fun and still compete and be very good at what we do."

At Air Force, Singleton played and coached in a system that was built around the run. At Oklahoma State, he's now part of an offense that ranked second nationally in passing yards per game a year ago. That said, Singleton was asked how the transition his going for him.

"It's funny because the question always comes up but the thing is, running back is running back," Singleton said with a smile and shake of his head. "The fundamentals you have to have to be a successful running back in any offense are the same. You have to be able to pass-block, you have to be able to make good cuts and you have to be able to take care of the football, so really, the transition hasn't been as drastic as some would think.

"It has been a fun transition because I'm working with great guys in the room and the coaches on staff. The best part will be when my family is finally here and we're settled."

Speaking of the transition from Air Force's offense to Oklahoma State's offense, Singleton made the analogy of how the pass-oriented system that Dana Holgorsen brought with him to Stillwater underwent some changes from how it looked at Holgorsen's previous stops.

"Maybe this system didn't lend itself to a very good running game in previous years, but any good team adjusts what they do offensively and defensively to the type of personnel that they have," Singleton said.

"In Kendall Hunter, OSU had a gem because he is a guy that can really do some things with the ball in his hands, so you incorporate that in and make some changes to allow him to do that. That's the same thing that happens every year. You have a guy that is capable of doing something different than what you're used to, so you adjust that to make sure those guys get the ball in their hands. The saying goes, ‘Think players, not plays.'"

The Cowboys will practice again Wednesday and then the plan is to split up the coaching staff and have a draft of players for the Orange-White spring game that kicks off at Boone Pickens Stadium at 2 p.m. Saturday.

There will be no television but the Cowboy Radio Network broadcast will begin at 1:45 p.m. with a 15-minute pregame show.

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