Defense Pleases Gundy In First Scrimmage

STILLWATER - With the team's two top center candidates healthy as Evan Epstein returned to practice after a bout with pneumonia and the forecast of some rainy weather later in the week the Oklahoma State Cowboys conducted their first scrimmage of the spring Monday inside Boone Pickens Stadium.

Overall, you might say defense won the day, but there were highlights on both sides of the football during the hour and a half scrimmage.

Here was head coach Mike Gundy's immediate reaction after the scrimmage.

"The defense really played well," said Gundy. "We've got a number of guys that can run to the football and they show up fast.

"Offensively, we could never get into a rhythm. Really, none of the three quarterbacks did much, but I kind of expected that with a more mature defense. I expected them to play well and the offense to be a little slow at times; that happens in the spring.

"As a team, some things that we've got to correct are that offensively we've got to get into a rhythm better, and guys who can make big plays have to step up and make big plays. Defensively, we've got to find a way to force more turnovers and get the ball on the ground," added Gundy.

Gundy had more to say on the quarterbacks in a later interview. But the Cowboys head coach was not kidding last week when he said that true freshman Wes Lunt was in the race.

The highlights on offense were in bits and pieces with just a couple of long distance drives. The scrimmage also included work on situations like coming off the goal line and work on red-zone and goal-line offense. Defense showed up well in situations too.

"Defensively, as a group they all ran to the ball well," said Gundy. "One thing I noticed is that our linebackers run sideways real well and they show up fast. Shaun Lewis, Lyndell Johnson and Joe Mitchell and those guys really run well side to side and show up. I think that's going to pay great dividends for us during the season."

Gundy was also asked about the intensity of the team and if it is where he expects it to be at this point.

"Not really. One thing that happens during the spring is they've now gone against each other enough that you lose a little bit of that, but they certainly need to be self-starters and do a better job of getting out here and playing at a high level and trying to put themselves into a situation that they'd be in on game day," answered the head coach. "It takes a little time, but I wasn't as happy as I was with last Friday, when we had a little bit of a scrimmage situation."

One of the more pressing issues and position battles during the spring on the defensive side of the football is at strong safety. There were a lot of looks at the position during the scrimmage on Monday.

Everybody discusses how difficult it is to replace players like quarterback Brandon Weeden, Biletnikoff Award winning and All-American wide receiver Justin Blackmon, and center Grant Garner.

But on defense, hard-hitting All-American Markelle Martin was an enforcer-type player who had wide receivers looking around all the time. There is a good chance that returning free safety Daytawion Lowe will help keep that happening, but the strong safety needs to be helping as well.

"One of the things I'm really excited about is the depth of the group," said Van Malone, the newest member of the Oklahoma State coaching staff. "Daytawion Lowe has been around and played in a lot of games, and on the other side vying to replace Markelle Martin is Lavocheya Cooper, who has had opportunities to play but has suffered through some injuries. I've really been impressed by him.

"Shamiel Gary has done a really good job. I've been impressed with him, too. He's a guy that if we put him out there, I wouldn't be displeased. Zack Craig is coming along. Isaac Maselera got thrown into the fire as a true freshman last year. He's coming along, but is still behind these other guys as far as experience."

All four of those players were involved in the scrimmage with Cooper starting out with the first defense and Gary with the second, but Craig and Maselera also had serious reps. Malone, a former safety during his playing days with the Texas Longhorns and then in the NFL for the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals, joined OSU after coaching the University of Tulsa and is excited about the caliber of players he is dealing with in the secondary.

"They're all aggressive, which is what I like," said Malone. "One thing that I'm going to continue to have to harp on and push to them is turnovers. We want to create turnovers. As a defense, we had a lot of turnovers last year, but the safeties as a unit did not. We will emphasize turnovers because that's the way they happen. If you emphasize turnovers and you practice turnovers, then you will get turnovers."

That is still the emphasis of the defense as last year they forced 44 takeaways and this season are looking to up the ante even though they expect to be better straight up defensively.

Lowe is the leader on the back end of the defense, along with senior cornerback Brodrick Brown and Fiesta Bowl Defensive Player of the Game Justin Gilbert. Lowe is a difference maker on the defensive side of the football who is smart and seems to have a sixth sense of what the offense is trying to do.

"He's played. And when guys have played a lot there's a certain level of comfort, there's a certain level of daring where he'll try certain things and be more aggressive," said Malone. "Daytawion Lowe's deal is that he's aggressive and he's an attacker. Even in coverage he does that. More than anything, he has experience. He's seen a lot of plays, he's seen a lot of formations, he's seen a lot of routes, whereas a young player just wants to make sure he's lined up the right way."

It's always interesting because some coaches play a position and then go on to coach another position. The Cowboys Doug Meacham is an example of that as he played guard for the Cowboys in the 1980s and now coaches inside receivers. Co-defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer played defensive tackle and now coaches linebackers.

Most of the rest of the staff is coaching the position from their playing days. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken was a quarterback, running backs coach Jemal Singleton played running back, Kasey Dunn played wide receiver, and Joe Wickline was an offensive lineman at Florida. Defensive coordinator Bill Young was a defensive end and linebacker at Oklahoma State, Jason Jones played corner at Alabama, and Van Malone was a safety at Texas.

"Because I played safety, I coach to my mistakes. I didn't always do a great job with my eyes; reading my keys and allowing my keys to take me where I needed to be. That is very important as a safety, so that's one thing.

"The second thing is that I always wanted to knock the guy out when I played. I didn't think about turnovers. Turnovers change the game, so that's the second thing, we want to create turnovers. We want to get our offense back on the field because that's how you win the game. Then the third thing rolls off those others. We want to be physical and aggressive in everything that we do."

Special teams is getting work in spring, but other than field goals there weren't any special teams involvement in the scrimmage. One area that is getting perhaps more work in practice is the punt return unit. Last season the Cowboys averaged only 3.4 yards a punt return, so there is an emphasis to improve and boost starting field position.

It may help to have one of the best returners in the country catching punts in Justin Gilbert. Gilbert has been a kickoff return sensation and he is joining redshirt freshman David Glidden and sophomore Josh Stewart in catching punts this spring.

"I told Coach (Joe) DeForest last year that I wanted to do it and after the A&M game he said he would slide me in there but he never did," said Gilbert. "I was mad but I was on the line trying to hold up guys, so at least I was out there. The first thing is you have to catch the ball and if you see a blur in the corner of your eye you want to fair catch it."

"I think all three of those guys are doing good and I'm excited about coaching punt returns," said Kasey Dunn. "I think we'll be fine and we just need to be ready to push hard and work plenty on it this summer and into the season. We have good players back there so I have all the confidence that we'll be fine there."

The Cowboys may have to fight the weather the rest of the week as rain is in the forecast for much of the week. Practices are scheduled for Wednesday and Friday afternoons.

The Spring Football Finale will be on Saturday. April 21, in Boone Pickens Stadium and is expected to be a scrimmage. Fans can attend for a $5 admission fee that will include a post practice/scrimmage meet and greet, and the ticket also includes admission to the Oklahoma State vs. Texas Tech baseball game that afternoon.


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