Tim Duffie didn’t need to say anything to Shamiel Gary to alert him that his starting job was going to be challenged when Lyndell Johnson moved from linebacker to strong safety in the spring.
“The one thing is you can’t fool players,” the Oklahoma State safeties coach said. “We don’t move players over there just to sit on the bench, from the standpoint of how many plays Lyndell made (last season).
“It didn’t take much (for Gary to think), ‘Hey, I better get myself going or I’ll be running with the 2s.’”
Johnson quickly evolved into one of the Cowboys’ most dynamic defensive playmakers as a sophomore last season, using his long wingspan, speed and athleticism in nine games as a backup hybrid outside linebacker to nearly fill up an entire defensive stat line: 28 tackles (6.5 for loss), two sacks, two interceptions, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
But Johnson’s move to the secondary has also pushed Gary to improve, particularly when it comes to attention to detail and competing for balls in pass coverage, Duffie said.
Which is why Duffie said that Gary is still the starter, “but it’s close.” Johnson is currently the Cowboys’ nickelback, a position needed plenty when facing the Big 12’s spread offenses that come with a wide variety of three-, four- and even five-receiver sets. Zack Craig and even starting free safety Daytawion Lowe could also fill that nickelback role, if needed.
Overall, Duffie is quite happy with the depth he has at safety. He just wishes there were fewer than four seniors (Gary, Lowe, Craig and Larry Stephens). That means next season’s crop will be very young, with Johnson and a group of freshmen and sophomores likely occupying those spots. True freshmen Tre Flowers, Deric Robertson and Jordan Sterns may play this season, but it’s likely the bulk of those snaps will come on special teams.
But for now, Duffie will take the vast experience he’s got. Those four seniors (make it five if you count Deion Imade, who just recently moved to outside linebacker) even helped teach the coach the Cowboys’ terminology when he first arrived from Wake Forest just as spring practice was getting underway.
“I feel like I’m a kid with a cookie jar with all the guys I have back there,” Duffie said. “… We’ve got so many options back there. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had seven guys that could play.”
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