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Mike Gundy’s Overflowing With Confidence in His Defense — Should He Be?



Mike Gundy is feeling pretty confident these days. Not cutting the mullet regardless of test scores confident. Like snake-hunting-with-Wild Bill confident.

And its not just because he looks to field one of the most potent offenses in the nation this fall. Gundy thinks his defense in 2017 may be the best he’s had in years.

“The good news is that we may be better on defense than we were then [in 2011],” Gundy said before spring camp. “Those teams were really good at forcing turnovers which allowed us to get more opportunities so we could outscore you. A lot of what we do in this league has come down to that anyways.”

Takeaways are huge and that 2011 team was great at them. It led the nation in turnover margin at 1.62 (+23) thanks to its opportunistic tendencies and the kind of ball-hawking confidence that justified that “WTIB” moniker the Cowboys later adopted.

But over the last five years, some Cowboy teams have been better than others at “taking it back”.

2016 0.85 (+11)
2015 1.00 (+13)
2014 -0.62 (-8)
2013 1.15 (+15)
2012 0.0 (even)
2011 1.62 (+21)

Last year’s team was tied for 10th nationally at 0.85 (+11) in the turnover department. They grabbed 11 fumbles and reined in 14 interceptions. But the Cowboys lost a lot on that side of the ball. They will be without the players responsible for half of those picks (7) and half of their forced fumbles (6) from last year.

Maybe the most important stat for gauging the effectiveness of a defense is the amount of points per drive it allows.

2016 2.09 (54th)
2015 2.24 (73rd)
2014 2.25 (79th)
2013 1.29 (5th)
2012 1.93 (46th)
2011 1.53 (17th)

The 2013 Cowboys earn top marks in this category during this period but 2011 was just behind with an impressive 1.53 per drive. It’s even more impressive when you consider that the 2011 Cowboys scored at an ultra-high clip and ran an equally high-tempo style. They were 115th in time of possession nationally, leaving the defense out on the field for well over half the game, on average.

Last year’s team ranked 85th in that metric and with the possibility of OSU spreading it out on offense even more in 2017, the defense could be in for even more time on the field. If they want to replicate the 2011 defense’s success, forcing turnovers will be key.

That 2011 defense came in 3rd in adjusted defensive efficiency (DFEI) which is based on average points scored in non-garbage time and is adjusted for strength of schedule. The 2016 defense came in way behind at 47th in that category.

Both defenses had the benefit of elite-level help from special teams. In 2016, OSU led the nation in defensive field position which represents an opponent’s starting field position. Zach Sinor and OSU’s punt coverage team was the most effective in the nation last year. But 2011 was not far behind at 9th nationally in that category.

The 2016 Cowboys tied for 72nd nationally in long passing plays given up (10-plus yards) with 113. The 2011 team was actually worse in this category with 145 (tied for second worst nationally). But it made up some of the difference in turnover margin.

That brings us to the biggest issue facing the 2017 Cowboys: the young and very inexperienced secondary.

The only returning cornerback that has any starting experience is Ramon Richards – and he’s no longer a cornerback.  Help could be on the way in the form of Clemson grad-transfer Adrian Baker who is considering the Cowboys for his final year of eligibility. But that’s still one guy and a bunch of practice reps to look at.

Either way, Gundy thinks the Cowboys are still in better shape to handle a long season against the elite offenses the Big 12 showcases.

“I just think we have more depth. I think that we’ve recruited longer and that our culture is in place so we have more depth than we did then. We’ve got to get a couple of corners. We need to get a couple of guys that we trust that can play. We’re going to play multiple guys, but at some points we need to get a couple of guys in there in key situations that are fresh that you trust because you’ve got to be able to cover a little bit in this league.

“We’ve got to develop some guys. I think we’re going to be a lot better at those two positions in October than we are September 1. It would be difficult to think we could be that good on September 1 because a lot of those guys haven’t played.

“It’s difficult because there’s no substitution for experience and we don’t have any experience right now at those positions.”

One thing is clear. Mike Gundy is not afraid to make a change. Last season, the defense put on an embarrassing display in the road loss to Baylor. Glenn Spencer’s ensuing flight from Waco to Stillwater probably felt longer than the party side of Mike Gundy’s orange visor.

Whatever was said along the way, when the team landed, Spencer had traded in his sideline pompoms for a head set and a cozy seat in the booth.

They also started the move to a 3-3-5 “stack” scheme mid-season, similar to the one West Virginia has had success with. The Cowboys will now employ both 3-down and 4-down sets this coming fall. Gundy even brought on former NFL and Notre Dame DC Brian VanGorder, who is well-versed in the alternate scheme, as a second defensive analyst.

Maybe OSU can overcome its youth in the secondary. Maybe the defensive line is even better and deeper than we think. Maybe Mason Rudolph is going to scorch the earth and they’ll just outscore everyone.

Maybe Mike Gundy knows something we don’t.

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