Bruce Waterfield/OSU Athletics

Keeping Players Safe And Staying Aggressive

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy is adamant about not getting anyone hurt during fall practice, but it's a fine line between keeping players healthy and teaching the defense how to be aggressive.

If you read the Tulsa World on Sunday and recently new sports columnist Bill Haisten, you will find at age 49, Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy says he is more relaxed, more prepared to handle crisis and disappointment ranging from losses on the field to criticism of his program, primarily his players in the media, which at one time triggered a vocal but vocabulary measured rant that made headlines throughout the sports world.

Gundy is comfortable in his own skin, comfortable enough to keep a modified or mild mullet hair style going.

However, if there is one thing that can still get Gundy's blood pressure up it is senseless hits on his players. Gundy rarely screams at practice, but if he does it is usually because he sees a hit on a player that did not need to be made.

He preaches in the preseason for his players to go right up to the point of exploding on a ball carrier or player from the other side of the ball and then using the force necessary, but not excessive. After the scrimmage on Saturday, he was pleased with his defense and how they played and pleased with how they preserved their teammates at the same time.  

"Defensively, we were active," Gundy started. "It's always a tougher scrimmage for them because there are probably some times that the offense was down and the referees didn't blow the whistle because they didn't go all the way to the ground."

Gundy knows that in the Oklahoma State version of "thud" practice and scrimmage tactics and rules that the offense is down. He always meets with the officiating crew, in the case of Saturday a crew of mostly Mountain West officials, and explains to them what he sees as an offensive player being down in an OSU scrimmage and when to blow the whistle, but it isn't always clear to them. It does need to be clear to the Cowboys and on Saturday Gundy felt it was and told the players he appreciated their effort to take care of teammates.

"I complimented them on that. Coaches have big egos, and players are the same way," Gundy explained. "They want to win the scrimmage, but that isn't what our goal is. My goal is for them to get better, to remember that we need to… protect each other but play hard.

"I don't really care about what happens out here, other than be sound, get lined up, function, the clock isn't a factor, take care of the football. All of that is important to me, and I think the players understand what their role is at this point in the season."

Fans love the big hit, players really love the big hit, and Gundy loves the big hit when it is one of his players delivering a nasty but legal shot on an opposing player. He told the defense (and offense) after the scrimmage that there will be a time and a place for those monster hits and it will start on Sept. 3.

The defense has goals each practice that need to be met in the contact periods such as team, inside or middle drill, and seven-on-seven. Glenn Spencer's defenses are looking for turnovers, often the goal is five a practice. Big hits lead to offensive players being disconnected from the ball. They can also discourage an offense that gets into rhythm and starts cranking out big plays and consistent movement on offense.

The other day, Spencer spoke to Oklahoma State athletic media relations for their daily practice report and seemed unhappy with the big plays allowed in the Monday practice. By Wednesday he was asked about the practices balancing out.

Often when the offense has a good practice one day then the defense will surge and have the better practice on the next day. It's kind of a football system of checks and balance, if, of course, both sides of the ball are pretty talented and equal. Spencer wasn't buying into that. He was more wanting to make it clear that he is on the same page and knows he can't always have it the defense's way. The offense gets to shine too. 

"I'm not mad all the time," Spencer said. "I know we have good players on offense and they are going to make plays, so every practice there are going to be things happen that I like and things happen that I don't like. That is part of working and getting better. We have goals we set and we want to accomplish and that is what I'm coaching and watching for out of our players at practice."

Spencer is not quick to compliment but he does when it comes to senior free safety Jordan Sterns, who has had a monster camp and is set for a potentially All-Big 12, and maybe All-American season. Sterns just made the Bronko Nagurski Award Watch List and is on the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik Award watch lists as well.

"He's earned that because of how he's worked and how he's dedicated himself to his craft," Spencer said. "Everybody on the team respects that."

Spencer is not always in agreement with what he reads here. He will kid me often about being overly optimistic, and I have been this fall camp about the defense. I pointed out that I thought this was as deep a group of defensive tackles as Oklahoma State had in as long as I could remember. Not necessarily a Kevin Williams or Jamal Williams but a good solid group running about three deep. Now that seems to be a prevailing opinion.

I've also said I see with Ashton Lampkin and Ramon Richards as starters and the addition of graduate transfer Lenzy Pipkins from ULM and veteran Darius Curry backed up by some young and talented corners that position could be solid in depth.

"I don't think there is great depth right now," Spencer expressed. "Ashton is still out of full competition, when he comes back we'll be better, but right now we've got Ramon Richards who is experienced and Darius Curry who has a little experience.

"We find out in this league you can't have enough corners, but we don't have enough right now that we feel consistently happy with. We're trying to decide on a couple of young kids to see if they're ready or not and that's a day-­to-­day evaluation. We have to get Ashton healthy, and we're pleased with Lenzy Pipkins, our transfer. Ramon has to keep playing disciplined ball and he's so much better than he was, but those are just a handful of guys. We have to have a couple of those young guys prove they can help us win."

Spencer is happy with the leadership on his side of the football. Gundy has to point at that leadership as to why he is happy that teammates are taking care of teammates when it comes to contact.

"Tre Flowers has the same experience that Jordan (Sterns) has, but he's quieter and he's earned the respect of a lot of guys on the team," said the fourth-year defensive coordinator. "Chad Whitener, everybody knows his attitude, and how he's always willing to help other people, wanting to ask questions and perfect his craft. Everybody respects that and they'll follow him, which is good, so those guys have been really strong for us."  

There are more developing each day as Vincent Taylor and Jarrell Owens are surging on the defensive line as leaders. Jordan Burton at linebacker and Ramon Richards are developing. Even with so much youth, there is a really comforting degree of maturity on defense. While that maturity helps to keep teammates out of harm's way in fall camp, full contact situations, there is a hunger in this defense too that will insure no big hit opportunities are passed up when the jersey colors turn different starting on Sept. 3.

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