STILLWATER — The Cowboys enjoyed a big senior class involving seven starters and several more key reserves on a rugged defense.
And yet, it was a defense that turned out just one NFL Draft pick — cornerback Justin Gilbert, who was drafted by the Browns with the No. 8 pick.
So when reflecting on Oklahoma State’s defensive success from a year ago, and assessing the defensive outlook for 2014, keep that in mind.
OSU was talented last year, yet not NFL-talented, leaning on experience and smarts and good college football players to post the best defensive season of the Mike Gundy era.
Experience will be lacking in the fall, no doubt. But Gundy and his staff believe in the next wave, with young talent on the come. The question will be how quickly can they mature?
The good news: once past the Florida State opener, the schedule allows for growth.
After the Seminoles, the Cowboys play four straight games — likely as favorites — at home: Missouri State, Texas-San Antonio, Texas Tech and Iowa State. A visit to downtrodden Kansas is next. So that’s more a month to mature in the incubator of Boone Pickens Stadium, followed by a rather safe road venture to Lawrence, Kan.
By then, the calendar will have advanced to mid-October. And that might just be time enough to get the OSU defense rallied for a challenging finish backloaded with the likes of TCU, Kansas State, Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma.
“The fun part about it is the young group is really hungry,” said Cowboys defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer. “They’re hungry to show what they can do. They’re hungry to learn. And as a coaching staff, we can hammer in the core principles and values of what we believe in.
“They’re young and they’ll absorb all that, molding them for what we believe in on our side of the ball.”
There’s still a sense of urgency in Spencer’s message. There’s much left to do, with some of it falling on the players themselves when they return for summer workouts without the benefit of coaches.
And the loss of the veterans and their leadership and production shouldn’t be underappreciated.
While it was a unit largely absent of NFL talent, Gilbert’s work and influence at cornerback was a major piece of the 2013 defensive uprising. And it was a savvy and game-hardened group that played well collectively.
Replicating that can’t just be assumed.
The defense’s youth showed in the spring, as expected, in uneven practices and scrimmages.
There were busts and mistakes, not so much due to a lack of talent, as exposure to being on the front line.
Still, there’s optimism around the program in youngsters like cornerback Ashton Lampkin, linebackers Seth Jacobs and Kris Catlin, safeties Deric Robertson and Jordan Sterns and ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Trace Clark. And more.
And it’s not just about teaching fundamentals. It’s about intangibles, too.
“You’re training their eyes. You’re training their feet and hands, their pad level,” Spencer said. “But you’re also training their heart and motivation for playing. You’re trying to impact them at an early influential time of their life and their career.
“That’s an exciting part of it.”
Going forward, the hope will be that the summer and preseason practices and the relatively soft September is enough to keep the defense growing. And glowing.
“We expect not to miss a job next season,” said cornerback Kevin Peterson, one of four returning starters. “I know we lose Justin, but we have good athletes everywhere, so we’re going to try to do what we do and try to pick up where we left off last year.”