STILLWATER — Pick your poison.
That is how Oklahoma State special teams coach Joe DeForest describes the Cowboys current kick coverage problems.
"Say you put your starting defense on there," DeForest said. "If they get nicked up, then your starter on defense is a true freshmen, the guy who is covering the kick now. It's a catch 22.
"If you put starters on that unit, then you have freshmen on your defense. So it's pick your poison."
Not to mention putting starters on the kick coverage unit means having defensive starters play 80-plus snaps per game and run the length of the field at least eight times per game (OSU averages 9.2 kickoffs per game).
"Your talking 40-plus, 80-yard sprints (through five games)," coach Mike Gundy said. "And you have to do it in practice."
Sounds like a good way to run your defense into the ground.
Kickoff coverage has been a big issue for OSU this season. Featuring a coverage team stocked with freshmen, the Cowboys rank 120 of 120 in the NCAA in kickoff return yardage defense (35.67 yards per return). It showed against Louisiana-Lafayette, as the Ragin Cajuns' lone second half touchdown came on a 97-yard kickoff return by Daryl Surgent.
Through OSU's first four games, kickoff specialist Quinn Sharp had lessened the concern about the kickoff coverage, burying 80.56 percent of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. In September, Gundy even pointed to Sharp's excellence as a main reason why changes had not been made.
Heading into the game, the Cowboys had allowed 297 yards on just seven returns (42.43 avg). But against ULL, eight of Sharp's 10 kickoffs were returned, making the Pokes' struggles on kick coverage difficult to overlook any longer.
Oddly enough, the Cowboys' kickoff coverage actually improved against ULL. Take away the 97-yard return, OSU allowed 141 yards on seven kick returns (20.14 yards per return).
"They're making progress, but when we bust, it's a big one and that falls on me," DeForest said. "I'm responsible for it and I'll get it corrected."
Against ULL, OSU switched from a regular kickoff formation to a pod-style formation in which the Cowboys start in a bunch and spread out as kickoff specialist Quinn Sharp approaches the ball.
"I'm just looking for an answer," DeForest said of the change. "We've tried everything."
OSU has 10 freshmen — meaning every player except Sharp — on its kickoff coverage team heading into Saturday's game at Texas Tech. Several, like safety Zack Craig and cornerback Larry Stephens, have been mainstays on the unit while others, like defensive end Andrew Hudson and running back Jeremy Smith, were added after the season opener.
"They're going to be limited because of youth," Gundy said. "You just want to be sound enough that you don't give up the big one."
Said DeForest: "They're freshmen but that's not an excuse, they're not freshmen anymore, it's game six."
DeForest blames himself for the Cowboys coverage problems.
"I'm as disappointed as everybody else," DeForest said. "I'm going to do a better job of teaching them the fundamentals and what they need to do when they get down there."
It's not a talent issue, it's a experience issue.
"The effort is there, the speed is there, the athleticism is there," DeForest said. "I have to do a better job of getting them to be able to finish the play when they get down there."
OSU'S KICKOFF COVERAGE
Date — Opp. — Returns — Yards — Avg — TD
Sept. 4 — Washington State — 1 — 20 — 20.0 — 0
Sept. 11 — Troy — 3 — 171 — 57.00 — 0
Sept. 18 — Tulsa — 2 — 59 — 29.50 — 0
Sept. 30 — Texas A&M — 1 — 47 — 47.00 — 0
Oct. 8 — Louisiana-Lafayette — 8 — 238 — 29.75 — 1