STILLWATER — Minutes after the latest version of Oklahoma State's depth chart was released Thursday afternoon, Charlie Moore was not fielding questions about being listed as a co-starter at wide receiver with Isaiah Anderson.
Moore was talking about his additional, and surprising, role for the Cowboys — punt returner.
“Right now, I'm the guy,” Moore said. “It's a growing process.”
With seemingly more pressing position questions surrounding OSU heading into the season — most notably, true freshman quarterback Wes Lunt and slew of unproven receivers — the Cowboys' task of filling the hole left by Josh Cooper at punt returner has often been overlooked. Though OSU ranked 115th out of 120 teams in the nation last season in punt return average (3.43 yards per return), Cooper was sure-handed.
Want proof a team can't just throw any speedy or otherwise talented player back there? Recall the Justin Blackmon experiment last season, where the top-5 NFL Draft pick fumbled the only punt he attempted to return. Or the spring finale, when Josh Stewart muffed several punts.
“We could be better,” coach Mike Gundy said. “But for whatever reason, we've had guys that had missed some in the spring and in preseason camp. We'll work hard on it the next couple weeks, settle in (on) two or three guys and kind of go from there.”
Redshirt freshman David Glidden appears to ultimately be the best candidate to return punts. He worked there extensively during spring practice and topped the preseason depth chart at that position, but an ankle injury held him out of the end of spring ball and fall camp. He's since returned to practice but has dropped to third on the depth chart.
Another intriguing option could be Justin Gilbert, who has already proven himself as a dangerous kick returner. But Gilbert already works on several special teams units, not to mention starting at cornerback, and Gundy has previously expressed concern about overworking him.
Stewart, who was projected as a contender to return punts and kicks coming into the season, is not listed on the depth chart at either spot.
So for now, the job belongs to Moore. And make no mistake, it's a new job for the junior whose main special teams responsibilities at OSU so far have been on coverage units.
Moore, a high school quarterback, estimated he returned about two punts back then. But he did play center field in baseball, so he's used to tracking down balls as they're sailing high in the air. And as a receiver, Moore has solid hands and speed.
Within the first week or so of fall camp, Moore and wide receivers coach Kasey Dunn, who also works with the punt and kick returners, jointly decided to try him at that spot.
Moore started by fielding balls off the JUGS machine. Then it turned into practice reps, starting with last Saturday's scrimmage.
“He hasn't been out there enough,” Gundy said Thursday when asked to assess Moore's progress. “He's only been there four or five practices. We have a lot of faith in Charlie, for a variety of reasons. He works hard, it's important to him, he's willing to do whatever we ask him.”
Added Moore: “I went back there and felt natural at it. Coach Dunn has some confidence in me about it. He approached me and said, ‘I want you to work on this. I want you to be the guy.' Ever since then, I've been working at it every day.”
And what's been Moore's biggest adjustment in his new role?
“Eleven guys coming at you full speed ready to take your head off,” he said. “It's a different feeling. But I'm working to stay at it. It's a new thing. I like it.”
With the departure of Josh Cooper, Oklahoma State is looking for a new punt returner in 2012. Here are the candidates to fill that role.
Though he only started returning punts in practice about a week ago, Moore currently — and somewhat unexpectedly — tops the depth chart. He's got great hands and underrated speed, and his experience as a baseball center fielder in high school should help him quickly get comfortable with locating the ball high in the air and running it down.
Likely the ultimate answer at punt returner, Glidden was limited at the end of spring practice and during fall camp because of an ankle injury. But he was perhaps the most impressive during the spring because he's sure-handed and has shifty moves after the catch. Not to mention, his small stature (he's 5-foot-7) can actually work to his advantage when running behind the coverage team.
Already one of the nation's premier kick returners, Gilbert certainly has the speed, awareness and athleticism to make an impact on punt returns. He's listed second on the depth chart, but are coaches comfortable giving Gilbert yet another responsibility in games and practices?
A part-time kick and punt returner last season, Stewart appeared to be a likely candidate to fill one or both of those roles again in 2012. But despite being the only Cowboy on the roster who returned a punt last season, Stewart is currently off the depth chart. Stewart struggled in the spring finale, muffing multiple punts, and will also have an increased role as a starting inside receiver this season.
By Gina Mizell