STILLWATER — One person who is not all that fired up about Oklahoma State's linebackers this season?
Position coach Glenn Spencer.
“They haven't done a thing yet,” said Spencer, who also serves as OSU's co-defensive coordinator. “I remind them of that every day.”
As a motivational tool, of course.
The truth is, those linebackers best exemplify the athleticism, speed and, most importantly, depth that coach Mike Gundy believes this Cowboy defense now has.
All three starters return in Shaun Lewis, Alex Elkins and Caleb Lavey. Behind that trio are youngsters who are now ready to see significant playing time.
The faith in those newcomers allowed former backup middle linebacker Tyler Johnson to move to defensive end in the spring. It should also dramatically decrease the workload of the starters, which is especially beneficial when playing for a defense that spends a lot of time on the field because of OSU's up-tempo offense.
“Now what I've got the luxury of is some guys that can roll in and keep some guys fresh,” Spencer said. “Whereas a Shaun Lewis or a Caleb Lavey might have had (snaps in the) 70s and 80s a game last year, (they) shouldn't do that this year.
“They should be in the 40-50 range, and then that next guy, there's not a drop-off … the next guy's 100 (percent) is going to be better Alex's 95.”
But even more importantly, Spencer said, is the versatility within the linebacker group as a whole. One player might be more physical, another quicker. One might play better in the box against the run, another better in space against the pass.
That gives the Cowboys several combinations to mix and match, depending on the offensive personnel group or game situation.
“We can have better matchups than we've had in the past, where you might have a guy that may be out of position a little bit,” Spencer said. “It's not only the freshness of the legs, it's the talent that they bring in certain situations.”
Here is a breakdown of OSU's linebacking corps:
Shaun Lewis, SLB, junior
2011 stats: 61 tackles (9.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
A Freshman All-American in 2010, Lewis himself regarded his performance last season as solid but not spectacular. But in OSU's turnover-heavy defense, Lewis has been a staple, recording five interceptions, four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in two seasons.
Spencer says: “Shaun Lewis is being more instinctive than I've ever seen him. He has a great knack for anticipating. There's a fine line between anticipation and guessing, and he pushes the limit there, and it allows him to make big plays.”
Caleb Lavey, MLB, junior
2011 stats: 74 tackles (5 for loss), 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
A reliable contributor in the middle of the OSU defense last season, Lavey was third on the team in tackles.
Spencer says: “Caleb Lavey is quicker. He has a great aptitude for the scheme and for getting to the spot where he needs to be and getting there quick and making up for when somebody else might lose their assignment. Somebody up front of him loses their gap and he's going to overlap and overtake it — shoot, you just don't get that out of many people.”
Alex Elkins, WLB, senior
2011 stats: 90 tackles (5 for loss), 1 sack, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
Elkins' story, which took him from a junior-college open tryout to becoming a starter in Stillwater, is well-known. One of the Cowboys' most exciting playmakers a season ago, and an All-Big 12 honorable mention selection, is continuing to learn OSU's defensive scheme.
Spencer says: “He's not a finished product. I don't know if any of them will ever be. We're working for perfection, but we'll accept excellence. That's what he's trying to do. He's got a further way to go than the rest of them, but as long as he's making improvements, I'm very pleased.”
Joe Mitchell, SLB, junior
2011 stats: 32 tackles (1 for loss)
Mitchell was a steady backup last season, but has since been dropped to the third team with the emergence of Lyndell Johnson.
Ryan Simmons, MLB, redshirt freshman
Essentially now a co-starter with Lavey, Spencer calls Simmons a “natural” in the middle.
Spencer says: “He's very instinctive, he's very smooth. The more reps he gets, he's just exponentially getting better every week. I'm rolling him and Caleb in with the 1s right now, and I think as time goes on, he's made Caleb better.”
Lyndell Johnson, SLB, sophomore
Johnson added about 15 pounds in muscle during the summer, but is still a bit undersized at the position. He's got excellent speed and athleticism, though, especially in pass coverage.
Spencer says: “He's rangy, he's quick and he's done better at getting more physical in this camp.”
Demarcus Sherod, WLB, redshirt freshman
Once projected to primarily be a special teams contributor in 2012, Sherod has since climbed up the depth chart to the backup spot behind Elkins.
Nico Ornelas, WLB, sophomore
Like Johnson, Ornelas is working to add muscle and plays best on the perimeter. He's currently competing with Sherod for the second-team spot on the weak side.
Spencer says: “Just watching him out there in practice in camp, he's not shy. He loves to stick his face in there. He's a guy that gives you a little bit more in the passing game than in the running game right now.”
Kris Catlin, MLB, redshirt freshman
Could compete for playing time behind the Elkins-Simmons platoon.