Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma State middle linebacker Donald Booker never thought he would be starting for the Cowboys this season.
Booker was thrust into the Cowboys’ lineup when projected starter Orie Lemon sustained a season-ending knee injury the week before the season started. The 5-foot-11, 236-pound Booker has emerged as a key defender, producing 32 tackles and starting every game for the 7-2 Cowboys.
We checked in with Booker to talk about his personal growth in Bill Young’s defense, how the Cowboys have prepared for Texas Tech’s spread offense this weekend and how his team has persevered through a troubling string of injuries in 2009.
What’s been the biggest reason why you have flourished once you took over the starting job?
Donald Booker: It’s mostly because my teammates have been helping me out. It came easy with all of the work and they all helped me progress in the defense. And that’s happened for me on and off the field.
Coming into fall practice, did you have any idea your season would turn out like it has?
DB: No, I didn’t. I expected to play a lot. It’s unfortunate that Orie went down when he did. And because of that, I had to step up and help my teammates when my chance came.
What were some of your initial thoughts when you took over the starting position?
DB: The first thing I thought about was about Orie and his career. And then, what I had to do for my team and just make plays for them when I had the opportunity. I was determined to do that when I got the opportunity.
How has your role in the defense gotten easier with more playing time?
DB: I’m a lot more comfortable. I was nervous at the beginning of the year, but playing in this defense is something that seems to be coming to me naturally.
I think about that almost every day. Last year I had some problems getting acclimated. But now it’s like second nature to me. I’m just trying not to mess up when I’m out there.
How has the arrival of your new defensive coordinator, Bill Young, helped out in your personal growth as a starter?
DB: He’s been a big help to me. When I do something wrong, he explains what is wrong in a way that I can understand it. He’s been a good coach for a long time. He helps me out so much.
What I like most about Coach Young is that he treats you like a man. He’s not a screamer but he’ll definitely get his point across. He’ll have his moments sometimes, but the way he coaches is so good. He’s helped me out on what I’ve done.
Before the season started, many observers had your defense pegged as a weakness of your team. How has your group emerged over the course of the season where now you appear to be an underrated strength?
DB: We knew this would be a good defense. Obviously, it would take a lot of hard work to get there. But it’s been rewarding for us to prove that we are a good defense and that we’ve been able to develop like we have.
What specific challenges are you expecting from Texas Tech on Saturday?
DB: It’s going to be a big challenge for us. They are a spread team and do a good job of moving the ball. It will be one of the most difficult offenses that we’ve faced all season. Obviously, we played Houston earlier in the season and they run almost the same offense. We’ve come a long way from that earlier game.
How has your defense emerged since those earlier struggles against Houston?
DB: Playing that game forced us to become a better defense. And ever since then, we’ve really stepped up as a pass defense. I’m excited about the challenge of playing Tech to see how far we’ve come.
Your team has overcome a lot this season with the loss of key players like Dez Bryant, Kendall Hunter, Orie Lemon and Jamal Mosley over the course of the season. How can you explain the perseverance that your team has shown throughout the season?
DB: It’s hard and everybody thinks a lot about those guys, but we can’t look back. The guys who are left are coming together and we’ve had others to step up and fill those spots. We can’t dwell on it because we still have a job that needs to be done.
How would you describe Coach Young’s defensive philosophy and why has your team been so successful in operating it in his first season.
DB: He has our linemen doing certain things to help create gaps. They then open things up for me to go through. His ideas have helped us a lot. It seems like the scheme is more understandable than what we did around here before.
Working with [former OSU defensive coordinator Tim Beckman] was kind of frustrating because you had to learn it first. Coach Young added some things and we’ve just put it all together. But Coach Young has made it where it’s easier for all of us to understand.
How do you think that confidence will make things different this season against Texas Tech, especially after the game they had against you in Lubbock last season?
DB: It will help us a lot. Coach Young’s defense will have us ready. We don’t have to think as much, but just react. He’ll have us in the right spots and ready to go.