Gundy called this group of linebackers “the best group…that we've had here that I can remember, as a player or coach.” All three starters — senior Alex Elkins (90 tackles) and juniors Shaun Lewis (61 tackles) and Caleb Lavey (74 tackles) — return, as does key reserve Joe Mitchell. Redshirt freshman Ryan Simmons and sophomore Nico Ornelas are two young players the coaching staff has high hopes for.
“We have more players who can run fast and have natural savvy to make a play,” Gundy said. “I see a very competitive position with a number of guys that can make plays. Some of them are experienced. Some of them aren't.”
OSU returns three of its four starters in the secondary. Junior free safety Daytawion Lowe led the team with 97 tackles a year ago, while cornerbacks Brodrick Brown (senior) and Justin Gilbert (junior) each tallied five interceptions.
It will be a three-man competition for the starting strong safety spot. Junior Lavocheya Cooper, who only played in four games in 2011 because of a knee injury, is currently listed as the No. 1. Junior Zack Craig recorded 12 of his 20 tackles and one sack in OSU's final six games. Junior Shamiel Gary, who played high school football at Tulsa Washington, sat out last season after transferring from Wyoming, where he was a Freshman All-American in 2009.
Though many key pieces are back, the OSU defense still has room to grow.
It was an often-maligned group last season, despite the number of turnovers it was forcing and even though the Cowboys emerged as a national title contender, because of the large amount of yards it consistently gave up. The Cowboys ranked 107th in the nation in total defense (456.77 yards allowed per game) and passing defense (271.8 yards allowed per game) and 90th in rushing defense (184.92 yards per game).
And without superstars Weeden and Blackmon on the other side of the ball, it's fair to assume the offensive production will dip, at least slightly, in 2012.
But Gundy and defensive coordinator Bill Young like where the Cowboys stand on that side of the ball this spring.
“We've got a lot of bodies in there and we've got a lot of competition,” Young said. “The whole idea this spring is to find out who comes out being the starters and who are their backups.
“We do have a lot of talent and got eight starters coming back, so I think we're way ahead of where we were a year ago.”