Spring Football: Ryan Simmons Makes Strides

STILLWATER - For the second time this week and the third time this spring the Oklahoma State Cowboys were in full pads for Friday's practice. The Cowboys went through drills in front of a lot of high school coaches on hand for the annual coach's clinic put on by Mike Gundy and his staff.

Over the period of time that Gundy has been the head coach at his alma mater, he has become known for his "thud" practice policy. During full-pad, full-contact practices in both the spring, preseason and during the season Gundy's teams do not take ball carriers to the ground, and they do not allow blockers or tacklers take on players below the waist.

The tactics are designed to keep the team healthy and avoid serious leg injuries, particularly knee injuries. It has worked for the most part as the Cowboys have suffered few serious injuries during practice. But the policy has also been questioned in the media and by fans as far as whether it has hampered the defense and their ability to tackle.

Gundy doesn't feel it has hurt his team or his defense. His belief is that Big 12 offenses have hurt all the defenses in the league.

"We work at it every day as long as we have pads on, and there are some limitations we have based on the NCAA and how they want practice set up in the spring and we certainly have no problem with that," Gundy explained while emphasizing that he and his defensive staff do put a premium on form tackling.

"We don't go to the ground in full scrimmages, we work hard in our team periods and in our other practices making sure we are in good position and we are physical up front."

It is positioning that Gundy believes is the key to making tackles, so many that have to be made in space against the spread offenses that use all 52 yards across the field.

If you see the Cowboys head coach on the street these days and engage in conversation then you are likely to be talking defense as he likes what he is seeing on that side of the ball. He is excited about the more aggressive play by the secondary on receivers and also by players on the defensive front attacking the quarterback and the backfield.

New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer and his staff of Joe Bob Clements (defensive line), Van Malone (corners) and Tim Duffie (safeties) along with young coaches Eric Henderson and Nate Peterson are fired up and pushing the intensity.

Spencer feels good about the talent he has and will count on his two returning starters at linebacker that are in a position where there will be an increased focus and by scheme increased opportunity on making plays. Middle linebacker Caleb Lavey and "star" linebacker Shaun Lewis need to be leaders -- both vocally and by example.

"Both of them are very smart and intelligent. In so much of what we do, you have to make adjustments. You have to react on the run. It's just part of the game when people spread the field and change formations on you, sometimes your call has got to adjust. Those guys handle all that," Spencer said.

"People have no idea how Caleb controls a game for us. How when he does his job, the ball is going to bounce out and somebody else can make a play or if somebody's not doing their job and the ball comes back in at times, he's there to make a play. It all works together.

"He's the general out there. Everybody respects him a lot. They know he can get them lined up, they know he's going to make the adjustments off of motion. To me that's not an intangible, that's a tangible.

"Same thing with Shaun. Shaun is out there in space a lot, but he's also got to come inside and have some toughness in the box. It's a tough position to play. I'm expecting both of those guys to have great years."

Last season, Lewis was among the top tackler's on the team with 58 tackles, 7.5 for loss, and 2.5 sacks. Lavey had 53 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

The rest of the linebacker corps will be younger and less experienced. Joe Mitchell, who had a solid season backing up the "star" is longer in the tooth but Kris Catlin (middle), Demarcus Sherrod (weak), and (star) are all young,

The exception is the expected third starter at linebacker as fans will be excited over Ryan Simmons moving to weakside linebacker where Alex Elkins graduated. The Cowboys have traded really athletic for really athletic and ultra aggressive.

Simmons is a sideline to sideline heat seeker. He's excited and will even tell you that there aren't a ton of changes for him as the weakside linebacker still plays inside some. However, there are more outside and coverage responsibilities.

"Even at the weakside linebacker I'm still playing inside a lot," said Simmons, who had 23 tackles last season and 5 tackles for loss. "There is a lot of coverage responsibility that is different for me, but I'm owning that and working to get good at covering the receivers, tight ends and running backs I see. It's a challenge but I've warmed up to it and I'm just taking it day by day."

It is awesome that Simmons is putting pressure on himself to be good, to not allow the newness to be an excuse for mistakes and to be determined to do his part to make this defense a much better unit than it has been.

"There's always pressure when there's competition going on at practice," explained Simmons. "I believe I can come up with the starting job and I believe it's a good change for me. I just have to take it day by day. Everybody knows that nothing is guaranteed. You just have to go out there every day and show effort. You have to give everything you've got each and every practice."

Simmons is doing that and so are all of the Cowboy defenders. While the defensive staff isn't smiling just yet, the head coach is showing a few smirks down on that end of the practice field when he can tell the offense is a little frustrated when they don't just move the ball up and down the field at will.

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