Tim Duffie didn't need to say anything to Shamiel Gary to alert him that his starting job was going to be challenged when Lyndell Johnson moved from linebacker to strong safety in the spring.
“The one thing is you can't fool players,” the Oklahoma State safeties coach said. “We don't move players over there just to sit on the bench, from the standpoint of how many plays Lyndell made (last season).
“It didn't take much (for Gary to think), ‘Hey, I better get myself going or I'll be running with the 2s.'”
Johnson quickly evolved into one of the Cowboys' most dynamic defensive playmakers as a sophomore last season, using his long wingspan, speed and athleticism in nine games as a backup hybrid outside linebacker to nearly fill up an entire defensive stat line: 28 tackles (6.5 for loss), two sacks, two interceptions, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
But Johnson's move to the secondary has also pushed Gary to improve, particularly when it comes to attention to detail and competing for balls in pass coverage, Duffie said.
Which is why Duffie said that Gary is still the starter, “but it's close.”
Johnson is currently the Cowboys' nickelback, a position they will need plenty when facing the Big 12's spread offenses that come with a wide variety of three-, four- and even five-receiver sets. Zack Craig and even starting free safety Daytawion Lowe could also fill that nickelback role, if needed.
THREE OSU COMMITMENTS RANKED IN UPDATED RIVALS 250
Recruiting service Rivals.com updated its top 250 prospects for the 2014 class Tuesday, with three OSU commitments cracking the list.
Broken Arrow running back Devon Thomas came in at No. 164, while teammate Gyasi Akem (linebacker) is ranked No. 211. Houston Alief Taylor receiver Keenan Brown, who committed after attending OSU's scrimmage less than two weeks ago, took the No. 217 spot.
The Cowboys also remain in play for Monroe (La.) Ouachita Parish wide receiver Cameron Sims, a Top 100 overall prospect according to Scout who is scheduled to announce his commitment Saturday.
Sims, who is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, is choosing between Alabama, Southern Miss, Mississippi and Southern. He's rated a four-star prospect by both Rivals and Scout.
“All five schools are up there,” Sims recently told Scout. “I know a couple are smaller than the others, but Southern Miss offered me very early, and a lot of my family went to Southern. I have been going to Southern games almost every month since I was six or seven years old.
“Oklahoma State is a great school and they get the ball to their top playmakers. I really like Ole Miss a lot. Their coaches are great and it is just nice there. Alabama is always good and I know a few of their players, so it would be nice to play there.
“I could see myself at any of these schools. I like all five a lot.”
The Cowboys currently have three Texas prep wide receivers committed for 2014: four-star Keenen Brown of Houston Taylor, three-star Chris Lacy of DeSoto and three-star James Washington of Stamford.
COWBOY DEFENSE STILL PLAYING ‘FIVE DOWN'
No, not “five down” as in five defensive linemen.
“Five down” as in the OSU defense's goal of forcing five turnovers every day in practice.
It's a daily benchmark former coordinator Bill Young implemented during his tenure in Stillwater. And one new coordinator Glenn Spencer has kept as part of his plan to shift to a more aggressive style.
If the Cowboys don't reach that total, they run.
“I want five or more every day,” Spencer said. “And if they don't, they know what's going on. They're intense about it. And there's been some days we've been running (because) we haven't gotten enough.”
OSU's defense was certainly opportunistic in 2011, when it led the nation with 44 takeaways to help lift the Cowboys to the Big 12 title and a Fiesta Bowl win. Last season, the Cowboys tallied just 22, tied for 57th in the nation.