STILLWATER — When longtime Oklahoma State assistant coach Joe DeForest departed Stillwater to become the defensive coordinator at West Virginia, arguably the biggest void he left was his role as the Cowboys' special teams coordinator.
OSU had a history of strong weapons under DeForest, including punters and kickers such as Matt Fodge and Dan Bailey and returners like Perrish Cox and Dez Bryant. Two recent standouts, punter/kicker Quinn Sharp and kick returner Justin Gilbert, were back in 2012.
And instead of giving the special teams coordinator responsibilities to one of the OSU assistants, coach Mike Gundy assigned the largest bulk of those duties to graduate assistant Ty Linder, who had previously concentrated on special teams as a grad assistant at Texas Tech. Additionally, certain assistant coaches focused on specific areas of special teams, and Gundy was also involved in the overall picture.
How did the first season using that arrangement go? Let's examine each component of special teams:
Net punting: 40.02 yards per punt (No. 13 nationally)
Field goals: 80.6 percent accuracy (No. 27 nationally)
Sharp was, of course, exceptional again for the Cowboys.
He was named the Big 12 co-Special Teams Player of the Year (an honor he took by himself last season) and an All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and the Walter Camp Football Foundation after leading the nation in field goals (2.08 per game) and ranking second in scoring (11.7 points per game).
Kickoff returns: 25.28 yards per return (No. 13 nationally), two touchdowns
Punt returns: 9.97 yards per return (No. 43 nationally), zero touchdowns
The new kickoff rule obviously affected all returners, including Gilbert. He did show off his impressive burst and acceleration when he took a kickoff to the house against West Virginia, and he finished in the top 25 in the nation in yards per return (26.40).
While returning more kicks this season (30) than last (26), Gilbert was solid, but not quite the same threat he was the previous two years. That was part rule change, part blockers and part Gilbert himself.
OSU actually improved statistically on punt returns — the Cowboys ranked 115th in that category a season ago — but were still shaky at the position at times.
Charlie Moore, who had never consistently returned punts in his career and wasn't given the job until the latter part of fall camp, often looked uncomfortable and fielded several punts off the bounce. David Glidden battled injuries for much of the season and muffed a punt against Texas. Sometimes, both players went back for the return.
Kickoff return defense: 25.37 yards per return (No. 112 nationally), two touchdowns
Punt return defense: 12.31 yards per return (No. 113 nationally), one touchdown
Punts blocked: 2
Field goals blocked: 1
Many forget the Cowboys were poor on both coverage units a season ago, ranking 108th in the nation in kickoff return defense and 98th in punt return defense. But OSU got worse in both categories this season, and gave up a crucial, momentum-swinging return for a touchdown in each of its losses to Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma.
Sometimes, players took bad angles. Other times, they missed tackles. Whether it is personnel or philosophy or execution, something with the coverage units needs to be fixed moving forward.
The Cowboys, however, did not block any field goals or punts a season ago, and got three over their last three games this season.
The bottom line
Next season might be the time to really judge Gundy's new way of delegating the special teams responsibilities.
Sharp will have moved onto the NFL, so a new kicker and punter will need to be groomed and developed. Gilbert and others will have had a chance to make adjustments following the first year of the new kickoff rule. Perhaps Glidden can stay healthy, or Moore can use the spring to work more extensively on punt returns.
But there's no doubt OSU's overall special teams production took a dip in 2012.