Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Even with the memories of his last trip to Boone Pickens Stadium unshakable, Texas Tech cornerback Jamar Wall will be missing Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant from the Cowboys’ lineup on Saturday.
Bryant was a preseason All-American for the Cowboys who was suspended for the season last month by the NCAA. Wall wishes he could face the test of stopping the Bryant if he was still playing.
“It’s a disappointment because I like the challenge,” Wall said. “Playing against him gives you a chance to show how well you can play.”
Wall’s first game against the Cowboys in Stillwater remains one of the most memorable of his career. He notched a career-high 11 tackles and produced an interception in the Cowboys’ wild 49-45 victory over the Red Raiders in 2007.
“It was hostile, hot, crazy. Definitely, it wasn’t a good experience to remember,” Wall said. “We had a bad taste in our mouths after it happened. And we know we can’t let it happen again.”
The showdown later became infamous because of the dueling news conferences after the game by the two rival head coaches. OSU coach Mike Gundy’s “I’m 40, I’m a man” rant was matched word-for-word by Tech coach Mike Leach’s where he questioned the toughness of his defense.
On the day after the game, veteran Tech defensive coach Lyle Setencich resigned and Ruffin McNeill was hired in his place.
That move has helped transform the Red Raiders defense. Wall said that McNeill hiring has helped bring a different attitude to a defense that traditionally had been overshadowed by Leach's high-powered offense.
“Everything about us has been changed with him transforming us,” Wall said. “He brought a different mindset to our defense. He’s pushing us, but knows what he can expect from us.”
The difference could be seen in the Red Raiders’ most recent victory, a 42-21 triumph over Kansas. Tech produced six sacks, nine tackles for losses, 10 deflected passes and forced two fumbles.
“You can see 11 guys swarming to the ball,” Wall said. “It’s a bunch of small things, but it gives us a different demeanor. It’s all because of Coach Ruff.”
Saturday’s game in Stillwater will be crucial in helping to settle the Big 12 South’s bowl order. The winner of the game will earn the inside track to the Cotton Bowl, while the loser could skid as far as the Sun Bowl or the Independence Bowl.
Wall is one of the key players on Tech’s improving defense. The Red Raiders have developed a fearsome knack for making plays, as they are tied for third nationally in sacks and 35th in tackles for losses.
Rival quarterbacks seem to be hesitant to test Wall in his third season as a starter. He still leads the Red Raiders with seven pass deflections, but doesn’t see as many pass attempts come his way as before.
His transformation into a lockdown cornerback is complete after a heralded career as a running back at Plainview (Texas) High School. Back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons as a junior and senior earned him all-state honors before he arrived at college.
Shortly after his arrival at Tech and his move to cornerback, he earned confidence at his new position after working out against former Tech standout Wes Welker, currently an NFL Pro Bowler.
“It happened coming into my freshman year here and it was my first time I'd really played defense,” Wall said. “He made me come out and work with him every day. It gave me a boost when he told me I could get better and play cornerback if I kept working hard.”
Wall considered attending Baylor, Kansas State, Purdue, Wake Forest, SMU, TCU and UTEP before settling on the Red Raiders. In a way, it was kind of preordained he would be heading to Tech, considering that his older brother Koy Smith played basketball there in the mid-1990s.
And despite his success at cornerback, he still sometimes wonders how his career would have been changed if he had continued at running back.
“I still kind of question that,” Wall said. “I like my change in position, but there’s no telling what I could have done at running back. You always kind of miss getting the ball like you did on offense.”