STILLWATER — Mike Gundy stood at a podium before a large group of reporters two weeks ago and enthusiastically boasted that Oklahoma State finally had enough prototypical defensive tackles.
And yet Christian Littlehead, a 300-pound part-time starter last season, didn't play in the Cowboys' 59-38 loss to Arizona on Saturday night.
Offensive coordinator Todd Monken half-joked during fall camp that OSU might play all five of its true freshman wide receivers, because it would need all of them to help replace the production of Justin Blackmon, Josh Cooper, Hubert Anyiam and Michael Harrison.
And yet Austin Hays, C.J. Curry and Brandon Sheperd did not see the field against the Wildcats, and Blake Webb only made one late catch when the game was already decided.
Even players like wide receiver Charlie Moore and linebacker Ryan Simmons, who are regarded as “co-starters” at their respective positions, saw so little action in Tucson that they did not record any stats.
Heading into the 2012 season, Cowboy coaches said a significant talent bump at several positions — stemming from experience, increased speed and athleticism and what Gundy called the best recruiting class during his tenure — would allow OSU to use a deeper rotation that would keep the starters fresh. But when that could have been especially beneficial, especially on defense, against Arizona, the Cowboys instead tightened up their circle of available players.
“They started scoring and they got ahead and then it was us chasing them,” said offensive lineman Jonathan Rush, who added he was on the field for more than 90 plays Saturday night. “So I guess you kind of want to stick with the 1s (starters).”
An Arizona defense that was apparently thin had more players record a tackle (20) than OSU's did (17). Additionally, seven Wildcats had two or more catches, compared to five for the Cowboys.
There were several reasons behind the reduced rotation.
The first was a steadily growing list of injuries early in the season.
Inside receivers Torrance Carr and David Glidden did not play, which led to Josh Stewart and Blake Jackson combining for 15 catches and 203 receiving yards. Defensive ends Tyler Johnson and Jimmy Bean were also held out, and Davidell Collins was limited, meaning Cooper Bassett had to learn the “Leo” — a hybrid position between defensive end and linebacker — in one week. Additionally, cornerback Devin Hedgepeth still isn't 100 percent after tearing his Achilles twice in the past year, and backup outside linebacker Lyndell Johnson hurt his ankle or foot in pregame warm-ups.
“Your depth goes from ‘wow' to kind of like any year,” Gundy said. “And then some of the guys that play haven't played as much, and then your experience shows what can be an ugly head in situations on the road, and that's really what happened.”
In Littlehead's case, Gundy said the sophomore had simply been passed on the depth chart by the likes of Calvin Barnett, James Castleman, Antony Rogers and Collins. Defensive coordinator Bill Young added that coaches “intentionally” did not play Littlehead, but did not expand any further.
“Anytime the game's on the line, you need your best players in the ballgame,” Young said. “Particularly, the closer they get to your goal line, you need to make sure of that.
“We talk to our players all the time, ‘If you need to sub out, make sure you sub out on the plus side of the 50.' The closer they get to our goal line, we need our best players in there.”
And some of the more inexperienced players simply were not ready for a tight game in a hostile road environment. Monken added there were no receivers he wished he would have played Saturday, except perhaps for Moore.
“Could Austin Hays have played a little bit more, knowing what to do and given us a break? Probably,” Monken said. “Because he's further ahead mentally, yes. Blake Webb gets out there and does some things athletically.
“But with all of our younger guys, it's 50-50 (when they're doing the right thing and not). They're improving. Hoping this week it'll be 60-40. Maybe we'll get to 65-35 and get to where they can function.
“But right now, you're not always sure they're in the right spot. You're not always sure how they're going to adjust from a football awareness standpoint to a coverage, and especially when you're down.”
With the Cowboys returning home to Boone Pickens Stadium this week to face Louisiana-Lafayette, a team they beat 61-34 in 2011 and 54-28 in 2010, it appears there will likely be a chance for more players to get involved and keep developing in a game situation.
That's what Rush expects.
“I think this week, you'll see a lot more of us rolling guys,” he said. “And you'll see the depth that we have, that we've been telling you about.”