STILLWATER — Kevin Peterson learned much from Justin Gilbert in two seasons of schooling in the Oklahoma State secondary.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson: “I learned to stay hungry,” Peterson said.
Peterson picked up tips on technique and coverage and preparation from Gilbert, but also to avoid a lapse in focus.
“I use Justin as an example all the time,” Peterson said. “I came in and heard about his sophomore year, and then his junior year he kind of fell off. But coming back his senior year, he had a great season and should be a first-round draft pick.
“So I know to stay hungry, stay humble. It can all go away in a flash, or you can make your name in a flash. I just learned to stay pretty level-headed.”
That lesson couldn’t loom more vital, with Peterson set for his own junior season just as the Cowboys’ defense — and secondary — continue a massive makeover. OSU is replacing seven defensive starters, including three in the back end, where Peterson is the lone returning regular.
So there’s a need for some level-headedness. And some veteran guidance.
And while Peterson may not naturally roll as a vocal leader, that doesn’t mean he’s not a natural guy to follow.
“His work habits and what he puts into our football team on game day,” said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy, “his toughness and his ability to step up and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there. This is what we need to do’ — he’s one of those guys.
“Even though he’s young, he’s still an experienced player, because he’s been in a lot of games for us.”
That’s the awkward age line Peterson straddles. He is still young, with two seasons remaining, yet he’s played in 25 games as a Cowboy, starting 12.
With last year’s defensive crew, which featured seven senior starters, he remained a pup. Then almost overnight at the Cotton Bowl, Peterson aged before his own eyes, making his way around the locker room at AT&T Stadium, saying his goodbyes to the seniors.
“‘Hey, I appreciate everything. I’m going to miss you, man,’” said Peterson in relaying his message.
“It’s crazy,” he said, “I was telling my parents, my freshman year I was the young guy, sophomore year I was the young guy. Now I turn around and I’m one of the old guys.
“It’s pretty crazy to think that from one year to the next you can go from being one of the youngest guys to one of the oldest guys.”
A glance around any day at practice only confirms his sudden change in status.
Ashton Lampkin, another junior-to-be, has experience, but will be cast in a new role as a starter. The projected starters at the safety spots — Jordan Sterns and Deric Robertson — are sophomores who played bit parts a year ago as true freshmen. And the backups at corner and safety are even more unproven.
“It’s been fun. It’s just a lot different,” said Peterson, a former Wagoner High standout. “Every time I turn around and look, I see a whole new view of numbers than I did my first two years here. You’ve got to get used to it. But I don’t worry, they’re really athletic — we’ve got some athletes — we’ve just got to get our mesh together.
“I’ve got to try and kind of hold everybody together, make sure everyone’s doing their job.”
And make sure he’s doing his job, in the mold of Gilbert as a senior.
“We always joke around, and I think he’s going to try to compare himself to me and the way that I played last year,” Gilbert said. “He’s very capable of doing that.”
Even with Gilbert in star mode last season, Peterson produced some signature moments. A 38-yard interception return against Kansas. Another interception on the first play of the second half against Oklahoma. A season-high six tackles in OSU’s runaway win over No. 3 Baylor.
The faces and roles are changing. And while it’s all different from a year ago, it’s somewhat familiar for Peterson, too.
“It’s just like my freshman season all over again,” he said, “coming in with a whole new batch of guys. We graduated so many seniors who played a key role on this team. It’s going to be fun to see how this plays out.”