STILLWATER — Glenn Spencer’s first year as coordinator successfully rebuilt the image of Oklahoma State’s defense.
Year 2 now requires a full rebuild.
The Cowboys lost seven senior starters from last season’s group that ranked among the top 25 nationally in seven major categories, plus veteran and versatile safety Lyndell Johnson, who has been dismissed from the team for “personal reasons” as announced by head coach Mike Gundy.
Such was the stark reality Monday, the first day of spring practice at OSU.
“Today, we’re not very good,” Spencer said of his side of the ball. “But thankfully, we don’t keep score today. And we’ve got many opportunities to get these unproven guys ready to compete at this level.
“The fun part about it is, I think this young group is really hungry. They’re hungry to show what they can do. They’re hungry to learn. And as a coaching staff, we can hammer in the core principles and values of what we believe in.”
The new-look storyline extends throughout this team, which is without 37 members of its 70-man travel roster. Gone are 28 seniors, plus Johnson, centers Jake Jenkins and Travis Cross – who graduated and have decided to move on in their lives with eligibility remaining – and receiver Josh Stewart, who opted to leave early and enter the NFL Draft. Recovering from injuries and sitting out the spring: offensive linemen Devin Davis (knee) and Brandon Garrett (leg) and running back Desmond Roland (shoulder). And safety Larry Stephens and linebacker Demarcus Sherod will be limited.
Along with the significant defensive holes, the Cowboys are also in need of a new quarterback, three starters for the offensive line and new go-to guys at receiver, although that’s at least a position brimming with potential and possibilities.
“We’ve got some work ahead of us just to catch up,” Gundy said. “What that means is we have a lot of young players we have to bring along in the next few weeks. But we also have to be a little careful how we handle them from a rep standpoint, and bring them along slowly.
“And we need every practice we can get.”
At least the offense offers some known commodities, like young receivers Jhajuan Seales, Brandon Sheperd and Marcell Ateman, who dazzled with potential last season.
Even at quarterback, J.W. Walsh has started and won games over the course of two seasons.
On defense, however, the mass turnover is concerning, even for Spencer.
“As far as the numbers who are going to have that opportunity, that are unproven,” Spencer said, “there’s a lot more than what I’ve been around.”
And for now, there’s also a search for defensive leaders, compounding the challenges of restoring the unit ASAP, considering the seriousness of next season’s opener against defending national champion Florida State.
“Let’s talk about that in three weeks, to see who kind of earns that,” Spencer said of the leadership roles. “Because right now, there’ really nobody who has earned that for me to vocally say, ‘That’s a guy we can count on.’ There’s nobody right now who has done that.”
On the bright side for one group of players – youngsters seeking their breakthrough – here’s their opportunity.
Jobs are open, and competition is encouraged and expected. While some stand out as favorites in certain position battles, starting roles won’t be just handed over.
“And they know it,” Spencer said. “We’ve had a bunch of meetings in the offseason. It started with their approach in the weight room and their approach at the offseason training and running, making the statement about how good you want to be and what it really means to you, as opposed to just giving it lip service.”
The Cowboys count key figures at the starting spots on defense in tackle James Castleman, end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson. Ofa Hautau played important snaps last fall and should line up next to Castleman at tackle. Ends Emmanuel Ogbah, Sam Wren and Trace Clark all offer experience and upside. Same with Seth Jacobs and Kris Catlin at linebacker, where junior college addition Devante Averette also joins the mix. Ashton Lampkin moves from a key backup role into the starter’s job opposite Peterson at corner, while sophomores Deric Robertson and Jordan Sterns will need to come on fast at safety.
While their names might not be so familiar now, that doesn’t mean the Cowboys are lacking talent or playmakers. It just means they’re largely unproven or inexperienced.
“In the games, people only get to see the one-deep,” Peterson said. “They don’t get to see the two-deep. And the two-deep goes through the same practices, the same workouts, the same everything that the one-deep goes through. They’re just in a secondary role. But they get their chance to play this year. And especially in spring ball, we get to see what the guys can do.
“It’s going to be fun to see how this plays out.”
Gundy spent a lot of time in his Monday press conference pointing out what was lost and/or missing with this team. Yet, he said, it was meant as an update, not in any way meant to create panic among the fan base.
“I didn’t want to be the grim reaper here,” Gundy said. “Oklahoma State is fine. We’re fine. We’ve just got a lot of young players. There’s a lot of opportunity for young guys.”