Cowboys Postseason Analysis: Linebackers

Starters Jordan Burton and Chad Whitener will return, and then there is plenty of young talent with Devante Averette, Josh Mabin, Gyasi Akem and Kirk Tucker looking to contribute at linebacker in 2016.

Offensive line and running backs are the most intensely criticized positions coming out of this season at Oklahoma State because of the season-long struggle with running the football and that aspect of the game having been a traditional strength in the program.

However, one of the most interesting positions to debate is linebacker. Because of the talent at the position, the transitions made during the season because of injury, and then the overall lack of success on defense with Baylor, Oklahoma, and Sugar Bowl opponent Ole Miss averaging 50 points, 592.6 yards of total offense, and 285 rushing yards in final three games, Cowboys fans have questions about the position.

Now you can't totally blame all that on the linebackers as it is a team game but you can place a chunk of it on aspects of the play at linebacker.

Yes, defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer is the position coach for the linebackers but Spencer sure didn't order up a season-ending injury for Ryan Simmons against Kansas State. You didn't wish for weak side linebacker Seth Jacobs' shoulder and stinger issues to continue and worsen to the point that he could hardly practice the last half of the season. You also didn't ask for star linebacker Jordan Burton, who earned some All-Big 12 honors, to suffer a sprained ankle that would cost him practice and game time the final three games of the season. An injury that he aggravated in bowl practice and in the Sugar Bowl.

That may all sound like excuses because it still goes to next man up. Take a micro look at the middle linebacker position Simmons was starting and transfer and talented Chad Whitener were trading snaps nearly equally and the defense was fresh up the middle and productive.

"(During the three losses that ended the season), our defense got hit pretty good. When I look back at it, losing (injured middle linebacker) Ryan Simmons hurt us worse than what I (expected). Even though Chad (Whitener) played good, there wasn’t any depth there," head coach Mike Gundy admitted.

On the weak side there was a similar situation with Jacobs being spelled by junior college transfer Devante Averette. Burton was playing most of the snaps at the star, but Gyasi Akem and Kirk Tucker were getting lots of reps in games that the Cowboys controlled. Burton and his athleticism held up otherwise.

"Burton was banged up the last part of the season. His play was average. Seth (linebacker Seth Jacobs) is going to stop playing football," Gundy continued. "His body can’t take it anymore. He didn’t practice the last three days before the bowl game. We were beat up and we couldn’t play as hard and fast as we wanted to. We need to coach better, come up with a better plan and do the best we can to keep our kids fresh."

Statistics don't lie and these speak loudly about the difference in defensive depth and the freshness along with the ability of the opponents. Baylor, Oklahoma and Ole Miss were the best offensive teams that Oklahoma State faced and with the exception of maybe Texas Tech and TCU it really wasn't even close.

First 10 Games
Record: 10-0
Total yards allowed rushing: 1,575 yards
Average yards allowed rushing: 157.5 yards per game; 3.8-yards per play
Total yards allowed: 3,930 yards
Average yards total defense: 393- yards per game; 5.2-yards per play
Points: 245; 24.5 points per game

Last Three Games
Record: 0-3
Total yards allowed rushing: 855 yards
Average yards allowed rushing: 285 yards per game; 5.6 yards per play
Total yards allowed: 1,778 yards
Average yards total defense: 592.6-yards per game; 7.3y ards per play
Points 151; 50.3 points per game

A lot of that difference came with missed tackles, missed assignments and flat out poor defense. It's hard to explain how a team can go from being pretty good defensively, even calling the defense the side of the ball that the team leaned on at times for strength to being a pin-cushion for offensive football.

It starts with the run and the linebackers are always your major strength in stopping the run. The Cowboys weren't good enough to slow down the run and that allowed the offensive numbers to climb. The opponents were better as well, it was the perfect storm in reverse.

Younger linebackers like Josh Mabin, Gyasi Akem, and Kirk Tucker probably should have played more despite lack of experience, but Spencer is huge on trusting his linebackers and that trust is earned. Spencer preferred to rely on his more veteran guys and they flat our looked and played tired at times.

There is nothing you can do about it now except benefit from the experience and plan better for the future. It is those young linebackers and the return of seniors-to-be Burton and Averette, along with Justin Phillips, remember the hard hitter from Pearland, Texas that last season as a freshman, that should excite Cowboys fans on the future of this defense. Phillips, unselfishly, chose to redshirt this season after playing as a freshman giving him a full year of playing time with some of those seniors having left.

Is improvement needed at linebacker and on defense? Absolutely, but is it a real probability that it can happen. Again, the answer is affirmative.   

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