What was a weakness for Oklahoma State at this time last year (or at least a huge question mark) is now a strength according to its defensive coordinator.
Jim Knowles spoke with media members on Monday at OSU’s first spring practice of the year, and his overall message was clear: He likes what he has in his secondary.
But before we get into what he said, let’s look at how that group fared just last season. The numbers weren’t great.
Oklahoma State ranked 118th in passing defense and 111th in opponent passing plays of at least 10 yards allowed in 2018. In plays of at least 20 yards, the Cowboys came in dead last nationally.
Those stats don’t exactly instill confidence, but Knowles is putting his faith in a secondary that was baptized by the Big 12’s fire and is led by what he calls two of the best cover men in the country.
“I’m most excited about our secondary,” said Knowles. “We played a lot of young guys there last year, and you know, ‘school of hard knocks’. They had some tough experiences, but they are going to be light-years better and we have two great corners in my opinion.
“I think when you have two great corners, you have a shot. I think they are going to be some of the best in the league and in the country. When we can play two guys like that, I think we have a chance to be good in the secondary.”
That pair consists of redshirt junior Rodarius Williams and senior A.J. Green who will enter 2019 with 26 career starts each. But they too will be looking for a big step from OSU’s younger DBs.
“We have a lot of guys with a lot of experience,” said Williams. “The fresh faces last season are coming in as sophomores now, and it is great having a lot of depth.”
Tanner McCalister, who played 12 games at corner as a true freshman has made the move to safety and JayVeon Cardwell and Gabe Lemons only appeared during Week 1’s matchup against Missouri State, but just the year in the program, on the practice field and in meeting rooms should pay dividends for those young corners.
“It feels good to finally be back on the field being able to do football activities,” said Green. “Just being together with the corners and defense and competing again.”
Another fresh face who earned his stripes last fall is junior safety Malcolm Rodriguez. After appearing in nine games in a reserve role as a true freshman, he became a big part of OSU’s rebuilding safety group in 2018, playing in all 13 games and starting 10.
Rodriguez, the Cowboys’ returning leading tackler, says he’s just happy to be back on the practice field.
“It feels good to be back out here with the team,” said Rodriguez. “We’re all excited, we’re all amped up.”
Knowles will be trading one strength for another. After his veteran-laden defensive line helped account for a Big 12-leading 39 sacks last year, he doesn’t return a single starting lineman this fall, and will have to replace 62 percent of his sack production.
That’s not ideal, but that’s where he and OSU find themselves. His focus is now turned to playing to this group’s strengths.
“We did a lot in terms of attacking up front and trying to utilize our strengths and I think you saw that in the fact that we were, I think, fifth in the country in sacks,” said Knowles. “But, we also gave up a lot of explosive plays; too many explosive plays. I expect that to be turned around this year.
“We’ll see where we get with the sack production. We’ll see how the new guys develop, but I know we are going to be better in the back end and the emphasis is going to be put there a lot more.”