STILLWATER — Glenn Spencer could've played golf Thursday morning on one of the state's best courses for free.
Instead, the Oklahoma State defensive coordinator holed up in his office working on practice plans.
Time to knuckle down.
Even though he came out long enough to make an appearance at the annual media golf outing at Karsten Creek, Spencer is clearly aware of the workload on his defense this season. The Cowboys have been picked to win the Big 12 largely because they have an offense that rolls around regardless of who is calling it or playing it.
It was the difference between a Big 12 title two years ago and a so-so season a year ago, and if the Cowboys are to make good on those preseason prognostications, it will be because of the defense and its new coordinator.
Spencer said he doesn't look at it that way, that he concerns himself with doing whatever needs to be done on a given Saturday. But he acknowledges that the defense needs to be better than it was a year ago.
“It's scoring, then turnovers, then red zone,” he said. “Those are the three big categories.”
Look at the 2011 defense and what it did in those categories — scoring defense, turnover margin and red-zone defense — and you can see why OSU won a first-ever Big 12 title. The Cowboys were first in the league in turnover margin (plus-21) and red-zone defense (72.9 percent), not to mention a respectable fourth in the league in scoring defense (26.8 points per game).
But last year, the Cowboys weren't nearly as good in those categories. Even though they led the Big 12 in red-zone defense again, offenses were more successful, scoring 77.4 percent of the time. Scoring defense went up to 28.2 points a game, and turnover margin plummeted to zero.
The truth is, the 2012 defense wasn't statistically that much worse than the 2011 defense. In many categories, it was actually better. Yards per game. Yards per play. Third down conversions. Fourth down conversions. But the huge discrepancy was turnovers.
A year ago: 11 fumbles and 11 interceptions.
That led to a turnover margin of zero last season. The offense committed exactly the same number of turnovers as the defense caused. And Lunt, Walsh, Chelf and Co. weren't turnover prone. They actually committed one less turnover than Weeden, Blackmon and Co. did during that Big 12 championship season.
That team had a turnover margin of plus-21 — and a significant advantage because of it — because of the defense.
Can this year's defense duplicate that?
“We talk about it,” Spencer said. “We stress it. But it's not like we stressed it anymore in '11 than we did in ‘12. A lot of it has to do with players and being opportunistic.”
And that's where all eyes turn to Spencer.
His defensive philosophy is to be more aggressive. Up front. Down field. Everywhere. And in doing that, the Cowboys hope to create more opportunities for turnovers.
But Spencer insists scheme isn't the biggest change that he's brought. He believes that for a defense to be at its best, every player has to understand how every other player's actions affect him.
His message, for example, to defensive linemen Calvin Barnett and Tyler Johnson: “You need to be Justin Gilbert's fan. If he covers that wide receiver a second and a half longer, you're going to get a hurry, you're going to get a sack.”
His message to everyone: “You've got to get your eyes off yourself and realize how it's all tied in together.”
To that end, Spencer has had and will continue to have regular and frequent meetings of all the players on defense. That's not something that was done in other years that he's been in Stillwater. But he wants the players to see video clips of every position, to hear him critique the good and the bad and ultimately to better understand how everyone is dependent on everyone else.
And Spencer has seen evidence that the players are starting to think that way.
“I saw some sparks in the spring,” he said. “When they don't (think that way), it's glaring and I point it out to them and I get ticked off and they know.”
He believes having that mentality is crucial.
“Great defenses I've been around have done that.”
Will this be a great defense?
The Cowboys' title hopes depend on it.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.