Today, we look at the secondary and the linebackers as that is where much of the reloading has to be accomplished. In those two position groups alone there are vacancies created by the graduation on Daytawion Lowe, Shamiel Gary, Justin Gilbert, Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis as starters. Add two valuable backups in Zack Craig at safety and Joe Mitchell as a star linebacker and that is seven very valuable players that won't return in 2014.
Let's start with the back end as safeties coach Tim Duffie will earn his paycheck. There are a lot of young players vying for starting spots and reps and this will be a young, young group.
I honestly feel like the starters could be two sophomores that played last season as true freshmen and, fortunately, gained some valuable experience but not a lot.
Deric Robertson, out of Killeen, Texas, is 6-2, and right around 200 pounds. He is strong, has good speed, and is the son of two Army veterans. Robertson has shown responsibility and I like him a lot as a player.
The night that Jordan Sterns committed to Oklahoma State, the Cibolo Steele High School product went to the gym for a serious weightlifting workout. Sterns is a stone cold football player. Football is important to both Sterns and Robertson, and that will sit well with head coach Mike Gundy. Now, expecting that pair to respond like Lowe and Gary did with all of their experience will be unfair and likely won't happen.
There is not a Zack Craig backup that can come out with all that experience either. Tre Flowers is a freshman who red-shirted last season and the coaching staff likes his ability. Larry Stephens was injured and will return after a red-shirt season, so the senior brings veteran leadership, but the thought is he will play more at cornerback. He can play in both areas. Elliott Jeffcoat is a walk-on who could factor some. He is a really good athlete.
The coaching staff really doesn't want to have to count on incoming freshmen or even junior college products but Dylan Harding is a player who might be able to quickly transition as he is a smart football player from a high quality high school program in Jenks.
D'Nerius Antoine out of Trinity Valley (Texas) junior college is thought of as a candidate for the "star" linebacker position but could wind up as a safety if the need is greater. It is actually pretty serious with both positions that answers are found, if not in the spring then in August.
The cornerback position is a little more settled as the return of starter Kevin Peterson really helps. Justin Gilbert was the headliner there with his seven interceptions, but one Big 12 offensive coordinator told me before a game last season that Gilbert gets opportunities because opposing teams have decided it isn't worth it to throw at Peterson. He called Peterson the best cover corner in the conference. Just a junior for next season, Peterson is talented.
His classmate is Ashton Lampkin, who was awesome on special teams last season, and made lots of progress to improving at corner. He actually played well in the Cotton Bowl in covering some of Missouri's top flight receivers.
As mentioned above, Stephens returns and could find himself in the very valuable Tyler Patmon-type of role. Miketavius Jones is 5-10, 175 and in size much like the Cowboy corners of the past. Jones can play. Young pups like Jerel Morrow (6-0, 183) and Taylor Lewis (6-0, 184) have a lot of athletic talent and are eager to play.
An "X" factor is Darius Curry, who is 6-1 and at 195 pounds bigger. There is talk he could become a hybrid secondary player that plays both safety and corner and could develop into that valuable kind of player that can factor in some of the Cowboys specialty defenses.
The concern about the secondary is there is so much youth. But the comfort is that they all have talent and just need a heavy dose of experience and lots of coaching to get to the point that they can handle the competition.
The linebacker corps is kind of a blend of both safety and corner in that the linebacker position has that valuable returning starter that knows what he is doing in Ryan Simmons. He is actually more experienced than Peterson is at corner and Simmons is likely going to take his athleticism and the experience afforded him by playing alongside Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis to the middle.
Once the pupil, Simmons will now be the teacher to linebackers like Seth Jacobs, Dominic Ramacher, Dawson Bassett, Demarcus Sherod, and junior college transfer Devante Averette.
If Simmons is indeed in the middle then fellow veteran Kris Catlin (6-1, 228) could play at the weak-side linebacker along with Seth Jacobs (6-2, 226), who could also be the top "star" (hybrid weak side linebacker) candidate .
Sherod is going to sit out the spring after his knee injury. Averette, Ramacher and Bassett are all middle or weak-side linebacker candidates, leaving some more searching for the right players at the "star" linebacker position.
The hope is that as many answers as possible are found in the spring and only a couple to be found in August, if necessary.
The good aspect of getting ready to play Florida State is that all of these players know who will be on the other side of Cowboys Stadium on Aug. 30 when the Seminoles and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston made the trip to Texas.