Spring Review: Front Seven Ready On Defense

This is the third part of a six-part series reviewing Oklahoma State's spring practice, and what we learned over the past five weeks. This edition takes a look at the Cowboys defense under the direction of new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer.

"It's really from this time until August that determines just how good we will be," said head coach Mike Gundy immediately after the spring finale on Saturday. "It comes down to how hard our guys want to work during this time, and I feel good about our team and where they are. We need to stay focused and avoid distractions especially off the field. The teams that do that are the ones that give themselves the best chance for success in the fall."

I believe Gundy will be able to count on several position groups to help ride herd on the team over the summer and provide the example of hard work and the preach the rewards if players will push to make themselves better.

One of those groups will be the defensive line. But the linemen will get plenty of help from a mature group of linebackers meaning you can count on the entire defensive front seven to help out.

Several factors have come into play to help ignite the defensive front seven into both a leadership role and a group that will really help the defense perform better this upcoming season.

We'll start with Glenn Spencer, a former defensive tackle at Georgia Tech moving into the defensive coordinator role. Spencer worked well with Bill Young, but always had on his mind pushing the defense toward a more aggressive attack without it being totally vulnerable to big plays.

This spring he was able to find that happy medium and it showed up in most of the spring scrimmages. They got a lot of good practice against the Cowboys explosive and high-tempo offense.

Spencer continues to coach the linebackers while Joe Bob Clements was brought in from Kansas State where he has been extremely successful coaching less into more with the Wildcats. To clarify that, Clements is a good recruiter and evaluator and often took players that other schools skipped over and then came back and beat those schools with those players.

Some of those players he could not get at Kansas State like defensive tackle Calvin Barnett, Trace Clark and James Castleman are now guys he is coaching in Stillwater. Add Eric Henderson, a former Spencer pupil at Georgia Tech and a former NFL lineman with the Cincinnati Bengals, who is serving as a graduate assistant on the defensive line and that line is being coached up strong every day. Clements is demanding but fair.

"He's getting after us. It's good. I wouldn't say we were a mediocre d-line, but obviously we weren't the greatest as a unit," explained Calvin Barnett of the coaching Clements brings.

"Any coach that wouldn't accept that (less than great) is what we need. He makes sure everything from a small step to a small hand placement or something really small that last year we didn't realize was important, now it's magnified. The little things are magnified. It makes us focus more and keep our shoulders square."

Barnett is the other reason for the promise on the defensive line. He sets a great example. Coming out of Tulsa Washington High School, he surprised Oklahoma State and many fans by signing with Arkansas. But he made a self determination that he was out of shape and at 320-plus pounds could not play major college football.

Since he was an academic casualty, Arkansas could not bring him in so he worked out on his own. He spent a lot of it in Miami, Okla., at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, which was hoping to get him there to play. He instead wound up at Navarro Junior College in Texas and helped them to an NJCAA national championship while eventually earning All-American honors.

Barnett is in even better shape now by eliminating red meat from his diet in favor of chicken and other lean foods. He is so strong and athletic at 6-2, 300 pounds. There is no doubt his influence has helped James Castleman, who sat out spring on rehab but will be back for the summer.

Also, Anthony Rogers and Davidell Collins have greatly improved, and Eric Davis moving over early in spring from defensive end has developed into a "mini me" of Barnett.

Barnett is exceptional physically and also impressive as a leader for a junior college player. Gundy often says junior college players are just coming around about the time they graduate and leave.

Barnett is ahead of schedule and in some ways so are the defensive ends. In the spring finale or spring game, some of their success had to do with offensive line depth and a watered down lineup protecting the quarterbacks.

But Jimmy Bean, who is all the way up to 245 pounds from 212 when he arrived; Trace Clark, who played some last season as a freshman, and Sam Wren, the preacher's kid from Arizona Western Junior College that is a stout 6-3, 255 pounds, are all showing signs they can get off the edge, around the corner, and into the quarterback's face.

Tyler Johnson was injured in spring but will be back for fall camp. He was just coming into his own in the bowl game and early in spring. This looks like a defensive line will really be better than in a long time this fall.

That will help as the defensive line and the pressure they can create is directly tied to the linebackers making plays. There are three seniors and a very talented sophomore at the head of the class at that position.

Still called the "star" linebacker, Shaun Lewis is back for his senior, which is hard to imagine. He is looking to make this his best season after some injury riddled campaigns.

"It's going well. It's easier to smile when everybody is doing what they're supposed to be doing, though," Lewis said during spring practice. "It takes the stress off of those other 10 guys when every one guy is doing what he needs to do. There's a lot more of that going on, as well as everybody rallying to the ball and having fun."

Lewis is backed up by senior Joe Mitchell, who does not get nearly enough credit for his performances. In several games last season Mitchell was an unsung defensive star with the work he did. He is way beyond solid at the position.

Speaking of credit, Caleb Lavey doesn't get near enough either as he is the quarterback on that side of the ball. As a video junkie and very intuitive player, he is often getting teammates in the right spot to foil the offense. Lavey has improved physically as evidenced by that twisting, turning interception return to seal the Orange win in the spring finale.

"We have really good potential," Lavey said when spring was over. "We just have to keep each other accountable. The plan we had going into the spring has really worked out. As long as we keep working, keep each other accountable and stay healthy, we should have a pretty good defense."

Fans have been clamoring for more of Ryan Simmons, who served as Lavey's backup in the middle. Simmons can go sideline to sideline to make tackles and is highly revved up. Now moved to weakside linebacker, he has learned the position and taken over.

The backups are very capable too with redshirt freshman sensation Seth Jacobs out of California as the third man at the "star." Kris Catlin backs up Simmons and was a top performer in the spring finale. Demarcus Sherod is the second guy at middle linebacker and also had a strong spring.

The Cowboys will lose a lot after this season with Barnett, Rogers, Collins and Tyler Johnson all seniors on the line, and Lavey, Lewis and Mitchell the seniors at linebacker. The thing about that is there is a lot of leadership built in there and that is good for this coming season, a concern for 2014.

For Spencer and Clements, use that experience to improve on defense while worrying about how to replace them while on the road recruiting and working camps.

The future is now for the Cowboys defense.

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