Inside that mixture of old, new, and the foundation classes of a team that are in between, you will find the ingredients that either make a team's season successful or the eagerness to fast forward and find a different mixture of talent, attitude, and chemistry. This season a blending of old and new was perhaps most evident in the secondary of the Oklahoma State Cowboys defense as I will take away strong opinions of fifth-year senior safety Larry Stephens and true freshman cornerback Ramon Richards (pictured above).
I start of with an apology to standout cornerback Kevin Peterson. Peterson knows how I think of him and the respect his play deserves. I nominated him for the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List and used every opportunity I could to advance the thought that when a team doesn't throw at their favorite receiver because he is covered all game by a suffocating cornerback then that is performance worthy of all-conference and All-American support.
Peterson finished the season with 59 tackles, two interceptions, and 10 passes defended. He shut out top receivers like TCU's Kolby Listenbee, West Virginia's Kevin White, and Texas's Jaxson Shipley. He will be the first to tell you he struggled that night in Manhattan against All-American Tyler Lockett of Kansas State. The best news is Peterson is coming back for his senior season and he will be promoted for many of those honors that I thought he was deserving of last season.
On to the mix of old and new as Larry Stephens came back this season, maybe somewhat a forgotten player. He played in every game but three his freshman season and then in every game as a sophomore and junior. He was dependable on special teams and in the secondary.
His first senior season he was injured against Mississippi State with an ACL and out for the year. He comes back this season and plays in the first four games and serves as a leader and "Mother Hen" for all the young players on the back end of the defense, including a young corner in freshman Ramon Richards that took over the job after an injury in the Texas Tech game took out starter Ashton Lampkin for what ended up being the rest of the season. It turned out Stephens was injured in that same game.
After missing five games, Stephens came back and intercepted a pass at Baylor and then the next week started the OU game. He earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week honors as he recovered the Samaje Perine fumble that turned the fortunes around in the Bedlam game.
Stephens had 14 tackles in the game to lead the Cowboys defense and was strong in the bowl game as well with four tackles, all unassisted and playing stout coverage as well. Stephens was a major factor in the late-season turnaround.
So was the development of Richards as the former high school quarterback and all-around offensive dynamo switched to the defense at Oklahoma State. His intelligence and athletic ability led him to being second on the depth chart when Lampkin was injured, but the amount of experience between the two was as wide as the Pacific Ocean.
It showed as Richards was baptized by fire with schools aiming at him early and often. His TCU game was forgettable as Josh Doctson got him for seven catches for 225 receiving yards including two long touchdowns. Kevin White of West Virginia scored the first touchdown of the game beating Richards before the Cowboys put Peterson on him almost exclusively.
Still, Richards never got too down on himself and he kept progressing. The Cowboys were hammered but his late "pick six" interception at Kansas State provided a jump in confidence. On the first play of the Bedlam game when OU's standout but injured wide receiver Sterling Shepard got in his face, Richards literally flipped him to the turf. The young man offered by the likes of Yale and Dartmouth in the Ivy League knows how to play physical.
Richards finished with 43 tackles and in the bowl game had six to lead the secondary and a tackle for loss and two key passes broken up. He had three interceptions overall on the season. Now, the Cowboys have an experienced corner for the next three seasons.
They also lose a veteran in the secondary that gave himself and his team a really stout performance on the way out the door. OSU gave up a lot of passing yards, but also made some influencing plays down the stretch against the pass.
There are other stories in between like the play of Jordan Sterns at safety, very tough all season long, and the youth of players like corners Chris Hardeman and Darius Curry or in safety Dylan Harding. In the end the long and short of it in the secondary came down to Stephens and Richards.