STILLWATER Things have gotten so distressing around Oklahoma State's kickoff coverage team that Cowboys coaches aren't asking for volunteers, yet getting them just the same.
OSU, which ranks 119th among 120 teams in kickoff coverage, surrendered its third return for a touchdown Saturday against Nebraska. Now the Cowboys head to Kansas State, where the Wildcats are the nation's leader in return yardage, with William Powell averaging 34.06 yards per return. Powell took one back 100 yards for a touchdown a week ago at Baylor.
Maybe that's why senior linebacker Orie Lemon sent a text message to coach Mike Gundy earlier this week, offering his services.
"Hey coach, I'll cover. I'll be a kickoff guy. I'll get it done," wrote in the text.
Lemon's services, however, are needed elsewhere.
"I appreciate that," Gundy said, "but I'm not putting him on there. We don't have that luxury. We've got to put somebody out there. And I'm not going to put my defensive starters our there. I'm just not going to do it.
"That's a decision I have to make."
And it's not a decision Gundy or special teams coach Joe DeForest takes lightly.
But for all the concerns over OSU's kickoff coverage, externally and internally, the Cowboys are caught in somewhat of a Catch-22.
Help is clearly needed. Yet there's no available help.
Five factors affecting OSU's kickoff coverage:
1. Missing Persons: OSU bid farewell to one of the largest senior classes in history last year, turning over a roster that is heavily weighted toward freshmen (true and redshirt) and sophomores. Key injuries have also robbed the Cowboys of experienced special teams candidates, including safeties Victor Johnson and Daytawion Lowe.
"They were on every unit," DeForest said.
Linebackers LeRon Furr and Kenny Alexander were other candidates lost to injury.
2. Finding Fits: Special teams coaches want primarily defenders - they're used to hitting and tackling - with speed for kickoff coverage. DeForest prefers fast linebackers and safeties and cornerbacks. And he prefers backups, with starters already putting in a heavy workload on defense.
Those three positions have been hit hardest by injury, robbing depth. Freshmen are listed as the backups at both corners, both safeties and two of the three linebacker spots.
3. On-the-Job Training: Along with sophomore kicker Quinn Sharp, the Cowboys use 10 freshmen on the kickoff unit. It's far from ideal, but it's the hand they've been dealt, short of using defensive starters.
"You don't want to play scared, but they're blowing full speed downfield and there's guys coming across and there's collisions," Gundy said.
Said DeForest: "You have to either live with the chance of a long kickoff return, or if Orie Lemon or Markelle Martin run down and get hurt, you lose them for 80 plays."
So freshmen it is. And as with any other position, reps are needed to improve. The problem here is 10 guys are learning on the job together.
4. Prolific Scoring/Kicking: You like all the scoring the Cowboys are doing? It comes with more kickoffs. That's more opportunities for returns.
Only Oregon, with 66 kickoffs, has booted the ball more than OSU's 60.
5. No Fear: Sharp is among the nation's top kickoff men, consistently sending kicks into the end zone. But across the country, return men are getting increasingly bold, bringing the ball out, even from deep in their end zone. Two of the three return touchdowns against the Cowboys are 100-yarders.
Until OSU improves its coverage, opponents are likely to test the Cowboys as well.
"We've already had three touchdowns scored on us," Sharp said, "so they're going to try to take advantage of the game anyway they can. That's where we've got to step up and do our jobs.
"I tell our guys, 'We can't let people do this to us anymore. We've to go down and make a play.'"