Special teams grow into one of OSU's biggest strengths

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Even in the middle of his summer vacation, Oklahoma State special teams coach Joe DeForest still gets charged about his plans for the upcoming season.

The Cowboys' Sept. 5 opener against Georgia might be 2½ months away, but DeForest's excitement is understandable even as he relaxed last week on a Florida beach with his family.

The Cowboys traditionally have been one of the nation's best in special teams. And it could be even better this season with the return of game-breaking players like Dez Bryant and Perrish Cox to help charge those units.

"It's how you approach it with the kids," DeForest said. "We emphasize that aspect and people want to be a part of it. It's respected as a big part of what we do and the fans understand that as well."

The best example of the importance that Mike Gundy places on that facet of the game can be seen with the fact that Bryant was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award.

"It all starts with the head coach and the fact that he gives me the ability to use our best players," DeForest said. "The fact we use Dez Bryant to run back punts says a lot about the importance we place on it."

Talent plays a part in OSU's success, but the Cowboys have developed a distinctive attitude on their special teams that permeates that aspect of their program.

OSU special-teams players wear special black T-shirts that aren't given out, but are earned on the field of play. They eat first, before any of their teammates. And they are held to a different standard than the rest of the squad.

"Our motto for our special teams around here is 'one play and out,' and that's what we've been able to build on over the years," DeForest said. "There aren't eight plays like you get on an offensive drive or several plays on defense. We've got one play to make something happen -- one chance. And that's what we try to do."

It's led to the top players on the OSU roster actively seeking to be included in special teams.

"We emphasize it around here and people want to be a part of it," DeForest said. "Dez wanted to do it and it kind of spreads the words around the others. Our kids are willing to do anything they can."

Bryant made the most of his special-team opportunities, actually averaging more on his punt returns (17.9 yards per return) than he did on his receptions (17.0) as he ranked third nationally in punt returns. That proficiency led to him earning the Big 12's special-teams player of the year honors last season after touchdown returns of 78 and 71 yards.

Cox provided the same spark on kickoff returns, running back two for touchdowns and averaging 29.8 yards per game to rank third nationally last season.

"We get a lot of notoriety because Dez and Perrish, but it's the other 10 guys out there on their units who deserve a lot of the credit," DeForest said. "Dez and Perrish are great players and they get a lot of publicity, but the other guys who are out there blocking and getting dirty are the reason we have success. Those are the core unit for what makes it all possible for them."

OSU's kicking is in solid hands with the return of Dan Bailey, who missed only once inside of 40 yards last season and twice inside of 50 yards. He finished the season by converting 15 of 19 field goal attempts and he also was perfect with all 65 extra points.

One major national publication has already ranked the Cowboys as having the best special teams in the country. And that's even after losing punter Matt Fodge, the 2008 Ray Guy Award winner who helped the Cowboys rank sixth in net punting last season.

Redshirt freshman punter Quinn Sharp will get the first opportunity this season. Despite inconsistency shown earlier this spring, DeForest is confident in his development as the season nears.

"Sure, we'll have to replace Matt Fodge, but we'll find a way with Quinn Sharp. And we'll do that with the group we've got," De Forest said. "It's like it's always has been around here. We always seem to find a way."

Fodge's departure also could hurt the Cowboys considering his consistency as a holder for kicks. Wide receiver Bo Bowling was the backup holder last season, but his status remains in question. His suspension remains in place as he awaits the outcome of his trial on drug charges later this year.

Even with the changes, the Cowboys are poised for production from their special-teams unit that will be clearly special.

Along with Auburn, the Cowboys were the only team to rank in the top 20 in kickoff returns, punt returns and net punting last season in the NCAA's final statistics. They might have a chance to duplicate that unique statistical achievement again this season.

"We've done the same thing over the years and have become good at it," DeForest said. "We've got guys on the scout unit who will get plugged into their new roles and they'll do fine."