STILLWATER — Mike Gundy has waited his whole head coaching career for the Oklahoma State spring depth chart to look like this on defense.
With numerous questions surrounding the Cowboy offense, most notably at quarterback and wide receiver as it tries to replace Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon, OSU will likely need to rely a bit more on the defense during workouts over the next five-plus weeks.
And the thing is, Gundy finally believes the Cowboys can do just that.
“We have a number of young players that can really contribute and help us on that side of the ball,” Gundy said Monday before the Cowboys began their first spring practice. “It's always been a goal of ours to get enough depth to play a number of guys, like we have on offense.”
“I see this as the first spring that we've really had that opportunity.”
That's not to say that OSU has not lost some critical pieces of last year's unit that led the nation with 44 takeaways, a key reason why the Cowboys went 12-1 and won their first Big 12 championship and the Fiesta Bowl in 2011.
Gone are All-America safety Markelle Martin, All-Big 12 defensive end Jamie Blatnick and fellow end Richetti Jones, who not only were some of the defense's best performers on the field but its biggest leaders in the locker room and most visible spokesmen.
But through recruiting and development, Gundy said the Cowboys are go three deep at most defensive positions this spring. On offense, OSU is 2½ deep at most positions.
Defensive end will be one of the more intriguing position battles, with the Cowboys needing to replace both starters in Blatnick and Jones.
Former tackle Nigel Nicholas and former linebacker Tyler Johnson have both moved to end. Senior Cooper Bassett (17 tackles, one interception in 2011) is a versatile player who said he finally feels like he's settled in at the position, while Gundy said senior Ryan Robinson (21 tackles) has shown vast improvement in his second offseason since transferring from junior college. Sophomore Jimmy Bean, who played early in 2011, will also be part of the rotation.
“You won't have a guy at the defensive end position that will be tired on third and fourth down,” Bassett said. “We can rotate in however much we want and keep a fresh body in there rushing the edge and hopefully getting more pressure on the quarterback this season.”
Defensive tackle was arguably the Cowboys' biggest question mark heading into 2011. Now, Gundy said, “there's actually too many of them, I can't keep track.”
Juniors Anthony Rogers (21 tackles) and Davidell Collins (seven tackles) are currently the slotted starters, but junior college transfer Calvin Barnett is expected to have an impact right away. Sophomores James Castleman and Christian Littlehead and redshirt freshman Mike Mustafa are also in the mix.
“They should be better just by default,” Gundy said. “Just because they're a year older.”
The defense's real strength, however, is at linebacker and in the secondary.
Gundy called this group of linebackers “the best group…that we've had here that I can remember, as a player or coach.” All three starters — senior Alex Elkins (90 tackles) and juniors Shaun Lewis (61 tackles) and Caleb Lavey (74 tackles) — return, as does key reserve Joe Mitchell. Redshirt freshman Ryan Simmons and sophomore Nico Ornelas are two young players the coaching staff has high hopes for.
“We have more players who can run fast and have natural savvy to make a play,” Gundy said. “I see a very competitive position with a number of guys that can make plays. Some of them are experienced. Some of them aren't.”
OSU returns three of its four starters in the secondary. Junior free safety Daytawion Lowe led the team with 97 tackles a year ago, while cornerbacks Brodrick Brown (senior) and Justin Gilbert (junior) each tallied five interceptions.
It will be a three-man competition for the starting strong safety spot. Junior Lavocheya Cooper, who only played in four games in 2011 because of a knee injury, is currently listed as the No. 1. Junior Zack Craig recorded 12 of his 20 tackles and one sack in OSU's final six games. Junior Shamiel Gary, who played high school football at Tulsa Washington, sat out last season after transferring from Wyoming, where he was a Freshman All-American in 2009.
Though many key pieces are back, the OSU defense still has room to grow.
It was an often-maligned group last season, despite the number of turnovers it was forcing and even though the Cowboys emerged as a national title contender, because of the large amount of yards it consistently gave up. The Cowboys ranked 107th in the nation in total defense (456.77 yards allowed per game) and passing defense (271.8 yards allowed per game) and 90th in rushing defense (184.92 yards per game).
And without superstars Weeden and Blackmon on the other side of the ball, it's fair to assume the offensive production will dip, at least slightly, in 2012.
But Gundy and defensive coordinator Bill Young like where the Cowboys stand on that side of the ball this spring.
“We've got a lot of bodies in there and we've got a lot of competition,” Young said. “The whole idea this spring is to find out who comes out being the starters and who are their backups.
“We do have a lot of talent and got eight starters coming back, so I think we're way ahead of where we were a year ago.”