Leadership on D: Players, coaches weigh in

CORVALLIS – Defensive leadership has been a hot topic this week and it's time to let the Oregon State players and coaches have their say. BF.C's Drew Wilson-McGrath asked Dylan Wynn and D.J. Alexander to weigh in, plus assistants Rod Perry Trent Bray too.

What does it mean to lead? D.J. Alexander was doing just that last Saturday against Utah, and it showed in the first half with the junior linebacker pumped up and cheering his teammates on.

"It felt great to finally get back out there with my team," Alexander said. "At first I was nervous – real nervous – shaky and stuff. But once I got in and got my first couple hits I was juicing… right back to my old self, just going crazy and having fun, just trying to do my job."

Is a loud and crazy player the missing ingredient to solve the Beaver's defensive struggles? Alexander thinks it could be. But you also need to lead by example, says linebackers coach Trent Bray.

"You need leadership, especially at our position. But what D.J. needs to get back to, having that month off of not doing anything, is where he was at before he got hurt. We are slowly building. In the (Utah) game, there was a lot of good stuff he did, but there were some mistakes he made that he cannot make. He has got to get back to that (higher) level, and his leadership will take over and help the young guys."

Mike Riley and staff emphasized the importance of leadership on both sides of the ball in OSU's spring and fall camp sessions. And Alexander says this defense has plenty of leaders.

"Everybody. We've got Dylan Wynn, Rashaad (Reynolds), you've got (Joel) Skotte, myself, J.J. (Jabral Johnson) – a couple guys that are leaders and try to step up, help each other out and make sure everyone knows what they are doing," said Alexander.

MEANWHILE, WYNN WAS asked what's more important - having a few generals and a slew of infantrymen, or a gang of generals raring to go at it every Saturday?

"I don't know if it's (just) one or two guys that need to be accountable – at this level of competition you've got to have a whole team of leaders," said Wynn. "That being said, to be a leader you also have to be a follower. It's not that one person is more important than the rest, we all just have to work together as a group and really connect as a family to be able to play good defense.

"It's all about trust (as well), because at this level everyone can do their job, everyone has proven it, it's NCAA football. When the whole defense can work together, that's when we stop offenses."

OSU's defensive backs coach Rod Perry was quick to name the leader among his group – CB Rashaad Reynolds, with a nod also to S Ryan Murphy.

"Reynolds has been our leader all-in-all. Him and Ryan Murphy – those guys are leading by example."

Veteran leadership pays dividends, especially when it can be found in every aspect for a defensive game plan. From this chair, leadership exists within the OSU ranks to degree where, if utilized, can lead to a surprising turnaround for an Oregon State defense that – in 2013 - has struggled to meet the expectations of not only fans and pundits, but of themselves.

As is usually the case, the ultimate difference between trying and doing is confidence.

"People follow who they see make plays," Bray said. "If you aren't making plays, nobody (on your team) is going to follow you. (Not) that your word doesn't mean anything (if you don't make plays), but they follow guys who do things right and are successful."

DURING WEDNESDAY'S PRACTICE, Alexander was sent to the sideline by Bray because his eyes weren't right. Alexander had a string of bad reads against the scout team offense, and Bray was unforgiving. That doesn't mean Alexander isn't key in Bray's eyes. With Michael Doctor out with an injury, Alexander is the only starting linebacker with more than three starts.

"(Alexander) is the leader of the group, whether he likes it or not," said Bray. "He is the only one with experience, so as these young guys gain experience as the season goes along, he needs to be the guy help them and lead them – keep them focused and sharp on what they're doing."

Experience generates confidence, which in turn generates higher defensive production -- players think less and react more, and they better know what to look for in an opposing offense.

"It helps a lot, it keeps their minds off of other things," Alexander said of being vocal. "You know, we had a couple bad plays (at Utah, but) when we have that one guy in the huddle or a couple guys in the huddle barking and yelling, trying to keep everybody in a good mood, it helps and brings up energy in the defense. It is important to have (a leader) on the defense."

In all its forms, leadership isn't only important, said Bray, it's pivotal.

"It is the difference between a great a defense, a good defense and an average defense," said Bray. "The ability for a guy to lead a group (is key) – because it can't always be the coaches. We aren't the ones out there playing, there's got to be guys out there that can communicate and get (their teammates) going. Not just motivation, but talking down and distance, awareness, splits.

"Things that offenses will tip you on – there have got to be guys out there that understand it that can communicate that stuff."

And you hear that a lot, that the coaches can only do so much when it comes to motivation and leadership.

"The best motivation is peer motivation," said Bray. "You want to play well for the guys you play with. That's why you play the game, as a collective group – these guys you've put all this work in with over the summer and winter – you want to play well for them. You want to be a guy that comes in to watch film on Sunday - you want to be a guy that executes."

SOME PLAYERS lead more by example, they're not exactly vocal about it – think Scott Crichton, Murphy and Reynolds. With Alexander, it seems to be a little bit of both. Wynn meanwhile is one of the most vocal and commanding members of the OSU defensive ranks.

He is usually as loud and aggressive in practice as he is during a game, and Wynn says he attempts to treat each practice as if it were Saturday.

"It can be a problem sometimes, I get coaches telling me to save my legs a little bit. That's how I am, that's why I play football – I love hitting," said Wynn.

Last Saturday against Utah, the Utes piled on 273 rushing yards in the second half. The pass defense fared better and notched three picks, but nobody on the OSU D was satisfied with that performance. After the win, Wynn sat in a conference room with a scowl on his face, while three offensive players - Sean Mannion, Richard Mullaney and Brandin Cooks – were all smiles.

"We played excellent the first half, but when fatigue started kicking in in the second half we just tried to do too much, and when you try and do too much, it doesn't work. Thank God we've got a really good offense. (But) it puts us in a position where we can learn from this and we can grow," said Wynn.

Indeed, something is missing in the second half for the Beaver stop corps. And maybe leadership is that missing ingredient. Both Alexander and Wynn said leadership can be more important in the second half depending on the situation. Wynn sees himself as the vocal leader of the D-line and indicated Crichton is quiet, and leads by example. But once fatigues does kick in, who else steps up? And will we discover the answer to that this Saturday?

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