Linebackers Could Be Defense's Strength

STILLWATER - The Oklahoma State Cowboys were back on the field Wednesday for their second spring practice, the middle of three practices on this opening week that will conclude with a session in shoulder pads and some hitting on Thursday before being dismissed for spring break. Wednesday's session was just over two hours and conducted in perfect weather in shorts, jerseys and helmets.

The Cowboys will return for the balance of the 15 allowed spring practice dates on Monday, March 26, before concluding spring football with a scrimmage on Saturday, April 21.

Much of the excitement this spring has to do with the competition at quarterback as backup Clint Chelf will duel with redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh and true freshman Wes Lunt, who just enrolled in January.

There are also vacancies to be filled on the depth chart at wide receiver. The offense is getting a lot of new pieces, but the defense is dealing with filling in less spaces and actually has more players ready to go and contribute than they have in a long time.

Gundy says they have more and better linebackers ready to play than he can remember at any time that he has been at Oklahoma State -- as a player or a coach.

"When we went over our numbers and we set up our practice schedules last month, it's exciting for me to see the youth and the depth we have on defense and the direction we're going," said Gundy. "We'll be better on defense next year, and we'll be better the next few years.

"I think Coach (Bill) Young and Glenn Spencer are really excited, and they should be," continued Gundy. "It is obvious with the returning starters and the young linebackers that the position has a ton of speed. Watching (Shaun) Lewis, (Alex) Elkins, (Tyler) Johnson, (Nico) Ornelas and company fly around is impressive.

"It's the best group of linebackers that we've ever had here that I can remember as a player or a coach, in all the time that I've been here. We have more players who can run fast and have natural savvy to go make a play; they're just very inexperienced.

"As we all know, they can gain experience. It's hard to take a guy who has experience and make him faster and make him want to hit you. I see a very competitive position with a number of guys that can make plays, and some of them are experienced and some of them aren't.

"I'm looking forward to the development of the young players, which would allow those guys to play 30 or 40 plays a game, and then another guy come in and play 30 or 40 plays a game, which would keep that guy fresh, not only for that game, but for a 13-game schedule. That's really one thing that we consider as important as anything that we do is, 'How can we keep our team healthy for game 11, 12 and 13 like they are for games one, two and three?'

"Last year we lost eight starters and this year we have eight starters coming back," said defensive coordinator Bill Young. "We should be much improved on defense. Like Alex Elkins and Ryan Robinson coming out of junior college they were kind of lost-ball-in-high-weed kids early in the season because it is so difficult to come in and learn the defense and then react. You have to participate but they've got it all down now and the mental errors will be fewer and they will have to play at a faster pace."

Young is right about Elkins at weakside linebacker and Robinson at defensive end being much better the second time around. At defensive end Robinson will be getting help from Nigel Nicholas, who will feel like he has been freed up moving from defensive tackle outside to the open space on the edge at defensive end. Tyler Johnson, a big, physical presence, is moving from middle linebacker to defensive end.

You also have some players that should be more comfortable in second seasons in their spots, including defensive end Cooper Bassett and Caleb Lavey in his second season as starting middle linebacker.

"I want to work on my athleticism during play – things like my speed and breaking angles to the ball. I know my job, I just need to become a more efficient football player," said Lavey. "Our linebacker corps is like a family. We're really close, which makes it that much better in the meetings. When we're playing together, I feel like we know each other on the field really well, which helps us. We're very excited about having everybody back."

"I'm much more comfortable and I would like to play every snap," said Bassett. "I know it is going to help to have Nigel Nicholas over there because we will be able to keep fresh legs in there and always be explosive. I'm really excited about our defense."

In the secondary, the two starting cornerbacks return in Brodrick Brown and the ultra athletic Justin Gilbert. At safety there are a bunch of young players with experience, including returning starter Daytawion Lowe at free safety and transfer Shamiel Gary, a former freshman All-American at Wyoming and an Oklahoma All-State player at Tulsa Washington.

"We're expecting big things out of him," Young said of Gary. "We're going to give him every opportunity this spring to show us that he can be a starter.

"(Safeties) Isaac Maselera and Deion Imade should be a fairly strong position for us because we have a lot of guys that have played," continued Young. "Zack Craig started the second half of the year in our speed package as our nickel star and he also played a lot of special teams. He also played some safety.

Gundy said, "We have a number of young players that can really contribute and help us on that side of the ball. It's always been a goal of ours to try to get enough depth to play a number of guys like we have on offense, and I see this as the first spring we've really had that opportunity."

The Cowboys put on the shoulder pads on Thursday and then takes a break for Spring Break.


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