Cowboy Spring Football - Day Eight

STILLWATER - As spring practice continues, and Wednesday it crossed the halfway mark around 4:45 p.m., the practices get a little longer. Head coach Mike Gundy and his staff conducted a near three-hour session that included two team periods in the final hour of the workout.

Defense dominated the team periods as the big plays on offense were few and far between with running back Dantrell Savage breaking the longest run for an approximate 15-yard gain. In the passing game both quarterbacks Bobby Reid and Zac Robinson found tight end Brandon Pettigrew for completions, but the majority of passes were jarred loose as cornerbacks Jacob Lacey, Martel Van Zant, and Calvin Mickens all made plays. The defensive front was stingy and forced several fumbles that the mixture of white and black jerseys on the defense pursued like it was a rib-eye steak.

"We had a good practice, very good on defense," Gundy said following the practice. "Great attitude, a lot of communication on defense, and I'm real excited about how our players are buying into the system. They are presenting a challenge for that offense in the spring and that is very good for our football team."

Told about a conversation we had at practice with a quarterback's mom and that she relayed that her son was very impressed with the new defensive coordinator and how he had the defense performing, Gundy agreed that is a good sign for the defense.

"A lot of different looks and their attitude has been very good which makes all the difference in the world defensively," added Gundy. "You want to play hard and chase the football and that is what they are doing. They are having fun out there. Football is a tough game and if you're not having fun you are not going to get much better. But these guys are enjoying themselves and that is why they are getting better."

How aggressive was the pursuit by the defense? Aggressive enough that on one play they kept pursuing in the backfield and may have confused the head coach's orange shirt with an orange offensive jersey as they chased him out of bounds with Gundy trying to move as quickly as he did when he was being chased 20 years ago as a Cowboy quarterback.

"I'm not afraid to say that I do not look forward to those guys hitting me," laughed Gundy about his sprint out of bounds.

Special teams got extensive work early in the practice as an array of kickers including Jason Ricks, Elliott Goudge, Dan Bailey, and Patrick Kollars were all perfect on PAT and field goals. With the healthy crosswind on the practice field punters Matt Fodge and Cole Reynolds had some interesting punts. The punt unit continues to work on adapting to different alignments and rush strategies and picking those up in protection. Special teams coordinator Joe DeForest was pushing the unit a little harder Wednesday.

The real challenge on special teams for DeForest and every other special teams coordinator this upcoming season will be on kickoffs and kickoff returns where a new rule will drastically change that phase of the game for every team. Kickoffs will now start at the 30-yard line just like they do in the NFL. It's a rule that excites offensive coaches a lot more than their defensive counterparts.

"It goes back to the start of possession and that chart that I told you about. If the offense starts a possession inside the 20-yard line they have a 1-in-30 chance of scoring on that possession," explained DeForest. "Once it gets out to the 30 it's like 1-in-18 and so forth.

"I think now you'll see seven more points scored in a game total. Each offense is going to get a possession that is at least on the 30 now, so they are gaining themselves at least a first down on those possessions. It is going to change the way people think about kickoffs. Do you corner kick, do you squib, or do you pooch? Does it set you up on kickoff returns where you have to put three returners back there if people do start pooching? I know it has changed my mindset."

The new rule has Gundy's attention and will likely cause him to devote more practice time to DeForest and working on kickoffs and returns. The Cowboys have worked it once this spring and the kicks were landing anywhere from the 15- to the 10-yard line.

"It's going to make a big impact in football and our guess as a staff is it is going to change the average score of a game by three and a half points per side per game," said Gundy. "We think it is an advantage for us because of our kickoff returns, and when you move the ball back five more yards all that does is allow you more returns. I don't think there is any doubt when you think that the starting point for the offense is going to be five yards more at least and probably more like seven or nine because when you have to kick the ball further you're not going to be able to keep it as high so the kickoff team is not going to be as far down the field. It is going to factor in big time. That rules is probably going to change the game more than the clock rules last year."

DeForest hasn't worked it as much this spring because he will do more extensive study on it this summer and he knows where he will start gaining information.

"I think you go back to the NFL and use them as a resource," said DeForest. "Now their ball is kicked off at the 30 and they don't kick it into the end zone. They use three returners and there are some resources that I am going to have to go investigate this summer and come up with a plan as to what is the answer. The kickers in college are not as good as in the NFL, so you are going to see balls kicked to the 15-yard line and it is scary."

It's not just a physical change for the kickers that DeForest deals with, but it is as much a mental impact with Jason Ricks, Matt Fodge, or perhaps newcomer Dan Bailey, any of which could earn the assignment on kickoffs.

"I agree and they can't try to overkick it because then they'll kick line drives and they'll squib it by accident," said DeForest. "I think it changes the mindset of both the kickers and coaches on how we're going to set up returns and overall approach the kickoff game."

While you have been used to seeing teams handle the play the same way 90 percent or more of the time with the only changes coming late in the game by either squib kicking with a lead or an onside kick when behind, now teams will adjust throughout a game and week to week based on what their opponent does and is capable of with both their kicker and their return game. The variables will increase.

"It's going to adapt to the strength of the leg of the kicker of your opponent," said DeForest. "If they aren't getting the ball further than the 20 or the 15-yard line, and their answer is to pooch and squib and corner kick and make your tight ends and fullbacks catch the ball then you have to come up with a different formation."

Remember too that if you are really scared of a kick returner kicking out of bounds is no longer a great option as teams will likely refuse the designated penalty spot on the 35-yard line and opt to have the kicking team kick it again five yards back on the 25.

"I know that would be my first option if I had the choice," jumped DeForest on the proposition.

While DeForest shows great concern over the change, perhaps showing the defensive coach in himself, his potential star on the receiving end kind of likes the new rule. Return specialist Perrish Cox averaged 23.8 yards on kick returns and 12.8 yards on punt returns last season.

"It makes us feel like we can return more," said Cox. "We've been having a good return team here since before my time, and we are just going to make it interesting this year."

Cox has worked this week with senior Tommy Devereaux on the first return unit while running back Dantrell Savage and wide receiver Artrell Woods have been the second pair of returners. Cox is also expected to play a lot at corner. In high school at Waco, Texas, he played both ways and returned kicks, but his favorite role is that improvisational duty as a return specialist.

"It is two totally different places," said Cox. "As a DB you have the mind frame that you have got to stick on receivers where ever they go. On kick returns you are more like an offensive player. In high school I did everything, but I feel more comfortable as a returner because I am in the open field and have more blockers and everything."

The Cowboys will likely spend some more time on kickoffs and returns on Friday during a half practice and half scrimmage. Expect the scrimmage to start around 4:30 p.m. and expect another near 100 plays.Gundy said he would get it in except in case of lightning or heavy downpour. The practice and scrimmage are both open to the public.

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