Cowboys Deep At Running Back, Linebackers

STILLWATER - With so many high schools out of school for the Good Friday holiday and the start of the Easter weekend this proved to be a bonus for the Oklahoma State football program in hosting the annual Spring Football Coaches Clinic. The Cowboys staff welcomed a record number of high school coaches, almost double the previous best as more than 300 coaches attended the clinic on Friday.

There were coaching staffs from Illinois, Iowa, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, New Mexico, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Part of the clinic was getting the chance to see the Oklahoma State staff in action with a full pad two-plus hour practice session. The practice featured a lot of drills, but also about 30 minutes of team period and several situations as head coach Mike Gundy and offensive coordinator Todd Monken are putting the quarterbacks through lots of work to start seeing who is going to end up on top of the depth chart.

All three quarterbacks had some highlights in the team work.

More coaches were asking about the receivers wearing specific numbers, especially newcomer Blake Jackson (No. 18) and redshirt freshman Torrance Carr (No. 80). Charlie Moore (No. 17) also attracted some attention after having a huge practice with a number of big catches.

We expounded last weekend with a story about how good the depth is throughout the Oklahoma State football team. Part of that story came out of spending last Friday's practice with former Oklahoma State head coach Pat Jones.

Jones was adament that Oklahoma State was deeper in talent than it had ever been. The two positions that may be the deepest on the team are on opposite sides of the football.

The deepest position on offense would be running back where you could see the third and fourth players on the depth chart, Texas schoolboy standout Herschel Sims out of Abilene and Lake Highlands multi-talented back Desmond Roland, starting at as many as half of the other Division I football programs in the country. That is impressive.

On the defensive side of the football you have to look at linebacker where the players are stacked three deep at all the positons, and that includes the starters from the 2011 season.

Think about this, all of those players at running back and linebacker return for the the 2013 season too (all except weakside linebacker Alex Elkins). Of the four running backs and the three linebackers at each position for a total of nine, Elkins is the only senior.

Linebacker coach and co-defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer is pleased with how each of his returning starters are leading the way in practices so far with nine down and six to go this spring.

"Shaun Lewis is playing like a veteran. He sees the big picture now," explained Spencer. "As a young player, you just kind of worry about your own little world, but the more you mature, the more you start to see the big picture, (and) not only doing your job but also helping everybody else and communicating. That's where he's taking his game.

"Caleb Lavey is very solid. He's probably the best communicator out there," continued Spencer. "He gets guys lined up, he's aggressive in the box, scraping downhill and having a really good spring. We'll count on him for a lot of leadership. He's really being vocal out there.

"Alex Elkins is doing exactly what I thought," continued Spencer, talking about the lone senior linebacker. "He's still making a few errors, but his effort and intensity overcomes those. Considering the amount of football that he's played, his ceiling is so much higher than everybody else because he plays with so much emotion. I love his intensity and he's picked up where he left off in the fall."

Oklahoma State fans know Elkins as a big hitter, a player that is also a huge asset on special teams that is a magnet to the ball carrier. In football terms, Elkins is described as a "see ball, get ball" player that is not as schooled in technique and assignments. He's working on that aspect of it.

"He's still a way off and has a lot to learn," said Spencer. "He makes some mistakes every day that I wish he wouldn't make, but he makes up for it by his effort. You can say he's come the farthest because he was the farthest removed from basic, fundamental football. He's had to pick it up quickly in order to compete at this level and he's done that."

The great part of the depth at linebacker is the younger players are eager and are pushing the starters. All of the players are going to play as Spencer and defensive coordinator Bill Young are cranked up about getting fresh defenders on the field all the time to chase the offense. No player had better take anything for granted, including the starters.

"The ones are getting pushed. Lyndell Johnson and Joe Mitchell are pushing Shaun Lewis. They're both showing up," said Spencer. "Lyndell is making some plays out there that are those wow kind of plays. You can see him move out in space. He's got some instincts that are going to make him a real good player.

"Ryan Simmons and Demarcus Sherod are not far from a starting spot. When I come out of spring, I might have an issue on my hands with three guys that can all play at each of the linebacker spots. Here's what that can bring you - in a 75-play game, you might have two or three guys playing 25 to 30 snaps. It's all-out. If you don't drop off talent-wise when the next guy comes in, then all of a sudden you've got a guy on the field for play 70 or play 75 that hasn't played but 30 reps and that's going to produce for you in the fourth quarter."

In the end, Spencer and all the defenders, especially the linebackers, may make Gundy look like a prophet with some of his statement about the defense, including the one that the linebackers are the best they have been since he took over as head coach. Spencer isn't ready yet to concur, but he is hoping.

"I don't agree with that until they earn it by performing on a Saturday," said Spencer. "To me, everything else is speculation, which doesn't mean a thing. They haven't proven that to me at all."

Running backs coach Jemal Singleton has a dynamic duo in place with proven All-Big 12 performer Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith. The duo combined to rush 299 times for 1,862 yards with 33 touchdowns last season. Randle and Smith look to have trimmed up maybe five pounds or so and are a step quicker.

"It's a pretty unique situation where we have two backs that are really polar opposites in a lot of their skill traits. I consider Joseph Randle as more of a slasher-type runner – even his body structure, he's a longer, leader type of guy," said Singleton.

"Jeremy Smith is a more explosive type of back, especially in short-yardage situations. He's very quick with a low center of gravity. Joseph is definitely a threat as a receiver as well. Jeremy needs to work on his receiving skills more.

"They're very unique and a great change of pace in terms of some of the things that they're good at. With two guys like that, I really have a 1a and 1b. I've got two backs who if they were at different places, they'd probably be starters. We're lucky that we've got those two here."

In addition to Randle and Smith, the Cowboys have the duo of Sims and Roland, both of whom are also very capable and talented. Sims appears to have lost 10 or more pounds and has picked up speed while Roland has added some muscle.

"Their growth. They were all young. All of them had played as freshmen, but they were still young. Seeing their football knowledge grow – just basic stuff like the fundamentals of football," covers the depth chart for Singleton as he details what he is seeing with the four players.

"It's been good to see that they're willing to do that. They're trying to learn more of the football side of it, not just ‘hey, I'm a running back, I run the football.' They're learning how schemes are involved. They're learning how protections are involved. I've been impressed that they're willing to step out of their comfort zone and continue to learn."

The Cowboys will be back on Monday for the 10th practice of the spring as the Cowboys should work toward a full scrimmage next week. likely Wednesday. Center Evan Epstein is expected to return to practice Monday after missing this week while battling a bout with pneumonia.

The spring will conclude on Saturday, April 21, with an open scrimmage being called the Spring Football Finale. The price of admission is $5 and includes a meet and greet with the coaches and players afterwards, as well as a ticket to the OSU-Texas Tech baseball game later that afternoon.

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