STILLWATER — Mike Gundy called the 2013 Oklahoma State defense the best the Cowboys have had during his time as head coach.
That could be considered a bold statement. But what exactly does that mean? What is he realistically comparing this season's unit to?
Fielding a consistent defense has, of course, has been a struggle during Gundy's tenure. The Cowboys have flipped styles — from the aggressiveness of Vance Bedford to a more conservative approach under Tim Beckman and Bill Young to ramping up the intensity again under first-year coordinator Glenn Spencer.
Yet the 2011 unit set the bar. Not necessarily in total defense, as the Cowboys allowed 456.8 yards per game. But certainly in playmaking ability, racking up 44 takeaways to help set up OSU's explosive offense in a season where the Cowboys won the Big 12 title and the Fiesta Bowl.
That defense featured three first-team All-Big 12 performers in end Jamie Blatnick, cornerback Brodrick Brown and safety Markelle Martin. Additionally, Shaun Lewis, Caleb Lavey, Daytawion Lowe and Justin Gilbert were already key complementary pieces as sophomores.
So how does the 2013 unit stack up?
Statistically, these Cowboys so far are better across the board in every major category except takeaways, where OSU is on pace for 31. The quality of competition at this point in the season, however, must be taken into account, as well as the Big 12's overall lack of offensive star power compared to 2011.
Yet those former youngsters like Lewis and Lowe who contributed in 2011 are now established leaders. Players like Lyndell Johnson and Ryan Simmons give the Cowboys more lateral speed and athleticism. And perhaps the biggest addition has been Calvin Barnett, a legit defensive tackle to plug the middle of the field.
The increase in individual talent is reflected in the NFL Draft projections, where Gilbert is rated a second- or third-round prospect and Barnett a fourth-rounder by CBS, while Lowe and Lewis are both fringe prospects. Barnett and Gilbert are also both in the top 10 at their respective positions in ESPN expert Mel Kiper's preseason rankings.
Martin was the only Cowboy defender drafted following the 2011 season, slipping to the sixth round after an injury hindered him during the pre-draft process.
Of course, this season's defense still has plenty to prove. The bulk of the Big 12 schedule lies ahead, including a matchup with offensive powerhouse Baylor. Avoiding injuries will also be key for the Cowboys.
But so far, so good for the OSU defense.
So good that Gundy believes it's his best unit ever.
“The mixture of the positions on that side of the ball … allows for them to have success,” he said. “We have weaknesses on our defense, and obviously we have strengths. But when they play together, they've played fairly well up to this point.”