Cowboy Football: Spring Practice-8

STILLWATER - The final open practice Friday before the April 18 Orange-White spring game brought out a good crowd of fans and more than 150 high school coaches milling around the practice field taking note of the drills and the coaching techniques of the OSU staff. What they saw was a good example of what has been going on the past couple of weeks since the squad returned from spring break.

The defense is getting better and they are doing a good job of pleasing new defensive coordinator Bill Young by forcing turnovers. Heck, the head coach is happy with what he is seeing. Despite his involvement with the offense, and in spite of what some fans may think, he is a big fan of the defense.

"I'm for the defense," said Gundy emphatically. "I'm for them shutting us out every practice.

"I think we are further along defensively than I thought we would be at this point," continued Gundy. "The defensive staff has done a really good job of working together and we have really good leadership on that side of the ball, so I'm excited about that.

"Probably the best practice we've had today and maybe one of the best that I've ever seen in spring ball, very competitive in all phases, guys made plays on both sides of the ball, so it was very encouraging."

During practice there was a very enthusiastic and physical three-on-three drill with three blockers and a runner on offense and three defenders, most of them linemen but a few linebackers. The high school coaches really lined up to watch that action.

During team period the defensive highlights included several sacks. Derek Burton and Chris Donaldson were very active from inside on the pass rush. Andre Sexton picked off a Brandon Weeden pass over the middle for a turnover and backup star linebacker James Thomas continued his run of making plays. He had a big scrimmage the other day with tackles and on Monday picked off a pass he returned for a score. Today he was way outside on coverage and stepped in front of an Alex Cate pass and returned it for a score. Defensive coordinator Bill Young was yelling at defensive players to go celebrate.

"That was awesome," said Thomas. "I have to give credit to the Lord because he put me in the right position. Got to give credit to the coaches because they told me where to go and put me in the right spot and help me make the most of my ability. I'm getting a lot more attention now and I've finally settled down and focused on what I need to be doing."

The offense had its highlights too as Gundy mentioned plays were made on both side of the ball. Running back Keith Toston got loose for a long distance run that went for a score. Weeden, who has been impressive this spring, hit Justin Blackmon in stride over the middle and Blackmon turned it up avoiding a pair of defenders for a touchdown.

Alex Cate had a long completion in the passing game to new walk-on wide receiver Colton Chelf. Zac Robinson, who gets limited snaps, had some good plays working the zone read option attack. Robinson is happy with the play-making tally on offense.

"Especially this week when we had scrimmages on Monday and Wednesday," said quarterback Zac Robinson, who is doing more watching than playing in the scrimmages. "All the young players it seems like they make plays all the times.

"I've been impressed with wide receivers like Josh Cooper, Hubert Anyiam, Justin Blackmon, and all the young tight ends. The running backs, all of those guys are capable and showing that they can make plays when called upon."

One of the positions on the squad that Gundy has been bragging on the most is running back. Gundy has been complimentary of all the backs. Kendall Hunter is being held out of a lot of contact and gets few reps. Keith Toston gets a few, but he has proven himself to the coaches just as has Hunter.

Young backs like Kye Staley and Travis Miller have drawn accolades. New arrival Dexter Pratt is feeling his way through the practices but Gundy had liked what he had seen prior to Pratt suffering a turf toe that has kept him out of practice since Monday.

The biggest praise from Gundy has gone to Beau Johnson. The junior college product rushed for 357 yards on 58 carries last season, averaging 6.2-yards per carry and he scored three touchdowns.

Gundy believes Johnson will get more done as a senior this fall. He had an example of that in practice Friday on a first-and-10 at the 10-yardline, Johnson took the pitch on the left and used his speed and a move or two to get to the corner for the touchdown.

"Beau is having a great spring and to a certain extent we see him as a veteran guy even though he didn't get a lot of reps last year," said Gundy. "He proved to us in the spring and in the season last year that he is tough enough to play the game at this level.

"He is in better shape now and he understands more than he did last year. He will be a big part of our offense and we're very excited about him and what he brings to the table. He will get a little more work this spring than Keith (Toston) or Spud (Kendall Hunter) will. We are very excited about what he has done so far this spring."

Johnson, like most seniors and especially the ones with established players at their position, feels an urgency to get on the field and make his mark in his short time in the program. He admits he started that process in the offseason.

"As a team we had a good offseason," said Johnson. "We all got better. I think throughout the season the workouts we were doing changed my body and then in the spring I got a little quicker with Coach Glass' agility workout that he had us doing before spring ball."

Something that may have helped Johnson is getting a new running backs coach in former South Carolina assistant Robert Gillespie who took over for Curtis Luper. Gillespie is an "old school" type of coach that has taken the running backs back to the basics in fundamentals. Gillespie had no preconceived notions going into coaching the vast stable of OSU running backs.

"Coach Gillespie motivates us and he lets us know what we are doing wrong and what we are doing right," said Johnson of the new running backs coach. "He just wants us to work harder and get better as a group.

"We are all in this together," continued Johnson. "Coach (Gillespie) said that and we are all competing trying to make each other better but whoever is in the game we have to support them. That is how we do it. That is how he wants us to do it."

Johnson has respect coming in from all corners as associate athletic director for academics Marilyn Middlebrook likes to brag on Johnson for his discipline and desire in the classroom.

"I came from junior college so I know how important academics are," said Johnson, who transferred from Butler County Community College where he was an All-American and rushed for 288 yards in the snow against Snow College in the national championship game. "I put academics first. I learned about doing that in junior college and Miss Marilyn (Middlebrook) and Terry (Henley) have reinforced that here."

An all-around good performer and listening to Mike Gundy you can expect to see more of Johnson this fall, along with Hunter and Toston. All three could be gone after next season with Johnson and Toston being seniors and Hunter is an ultra-talented junior. That would make room for the Staleys, Millers and Pratts of the squad.

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