In a number of conversations last season, unprovoked, Mike Gundy mentioned Lyndell Johnson as the X-factor for Oklahoma State's defense.
Gundy noted the length, range and athleticism of Johnson, a backup linebacker, as keys to what made him so effective. But he also felt there was another factor, an immeasurable trait, which made Johnson's presence so vital.
“You see it now with the basketball games we're watching,” Gundy said, referring to the NCAA hoops tournament. “When a team has a certain player on the floor, they play better, for whatever reason. And when he was on the field for us defensively, we had more success than when he wasn't.”
And now the Cowboys are trying to ensure Johnson gets on the field more, plucking him from the clouded linebacker competition and inserting him at the safety position, where he'll battle incumbent Shamiel Gary for a starting spot that remains up in the air.
With spring ball in full swing, and that competition starting to take shape, Johnson talked to The Oklahoman about the position change and the challenges that lie ahead:
Q: When did they come to you with the idea?
A: Actually I went to them with it. I was really feeling like I was ready to be an every down player and I felt like I could help the team more at safety. So they gave me a shot to be able to compete with Shamiel for the starting job and right now it's going really good.
Did you bring it to them right after last season?
Yeah, right after. I knew Shaun (Lewis) was going to be a senior and I thought I had a shot at safety. So one day I just woke up, said I was going to talk to Coach Gundy about it and he said it was cool, so we talked to Coach (Glenn) Spencer and Coach (Van) Malone about it and they let me go ahead and move.
Were they pretty receptive to the idea?
Yeah, they said it was a good idea. They asked me why and I told them I was ready to be an every down player. Coach Gundy said he agreed with it, as long as I would go somewhere and compete and that's all I want to do.
So you must be pretty comfortable as a safety?
Yeah, I'm real comfortable with the move. In high school, I played safety and in college that's what I got recruited to play. There's a big difference moving from linebacker to safety, but I feel more comfortable at safety.
But you're still going to play some linebacker, right?
Yeah, you know on the different packages we throw in, like third down packages, I'll be a linebacker for those. Similar to the times I was in the game last year (at linebacker), but I'll also be playing safety.
Long-term, even potentially at the next level, do you view yourself as a safety?
Oh yeah, I view myself as a safety. Until I can put on some weight. But yeah, I view myself being a safety in the league.
What do you like more about that position?
More freedom to roam. That's my biggest thing, being able to roam and going after the ball. If the ball is in the air, I feel like it's mine. At that position, I feel like I do it better than anybody.
Many of your coaches and teammates were high on you to the media last season, Gundy especially. Were those messages relayed to you?
Yeah, a lot of the guys would always tell me that every time I was on the field, I made big plays, made something happen. So as the year started going on, when I went on the field, everybody would tell me to go make something happen, go do what I do best.
Was it ever frustrating to know that, despite what you were doing, you weren't a starter?
You know, at linebacker, not really. But this year will be a little different, in a position I'm comfortable with and knowing I will have a chance to compete. You know, I had Shaun (Lewis) in front of me last year and he's been here three years and will be a senior. So now I feel like I've been here a while, made enough plays and got the system down, I'm just ready to be an every down player.
What makes you such a unique player?
I would say my length, my physicality. I may not be the biggest, but I love to hit. I've always been that guy. I want to be guy the offense looks at every time, ‘watch 27, watch 27.' So you know, I just love being physical and I feel like, at the end of the day, that's what it's about. Being physical, going to get the ball and attacking the person who has the ball.