Van Malone’s description of spring football at Oklahoma State is a clear representation of the obstacles facing the Cowboys' program in 2014.
“We went out in the spring, we had some crayons and we did the best we could,” OSU’s cornerbacks coach said.
Malone and the rest of the Cowboys’ defensive coaching staff spent the spring trying to prepare an inexperienced group of talented youngsters to replace a senior-laden defense that was one of the Big 12’s best in 2013. The task is particularly difficult for Malone, who is replacing top-10 NFL draft pick Justin Gilbert.
Junior Kevin Peterson returns after starting opposite Gilbert and provides an experienced and talented anchor at the position. Fellow junior Ashton Lampkin looks ready to slide right into the starting lineup in Gilbert’s place after two seasons as a special teams ace. And the rest of the roster has several talented albeit inexperienced cornerbacks who could provide quality depth, including redshirt freshman Darius Curry, whom Malone singled out for his strong spring.
“He has a Justin Gilbert-type body for the position, really strong upper body and is doing a good job picking up the schemes,” Malone said of Curry. “We look forward to him being able to step in [and contribute].”
Replacing Gilbert won’t be easy, but the cornerbacks in his meeting room are talented enough for Malone’s excitement to override his concerns.
“I’m excited about the group,” he said. “Because Justin Gilbert was not just a first-round talent, he was one of these guys [on the current roster], a guy with incredible talent who just hadn't realized it yet on the college level.”
It’s the theme on OSU’s entire defense. They’re young and inexperienced, but the talent level has changed.
“In the secondary and the defense as a whole, from an experience level, we have some guys who haven’t seen as much as Daytawion Lowe, who started 30 games,” Malone said. “They don’t have the experience level but from an overall level of talent and athletic ability, we feel like we’ve raised the bar.”
The Cowboys might have raised the bar but the only certainty about the Pokes’ defense is the ups and downs and uneven play that will become commonplace this fall. The only way for these young guys to get experience is to throw them into the fire.
“That can be scary but that kind of makes it fun when you don’t quite know where they may line up. They may create a new defense,” Malone joked. “That happened a few times this spring where we created a new coverage.”
But the Cowboys are hoping their plan during their recruitment of the young players currently on the roster will pay off.
“One thing when we recruited these guys, we researched and they love football,” Malone said. “So if they love football they’re going to be in here watching film and preparing themselves.”
Malone won’t rule out the possibility of playing his true freshmen with Chris Hardeman, Juwan Offray and Ramon Richards joining the battle for playing time at cornerback this summer, especially if they display the traits Hardeman has shown before even arriving on campus.
“Chris Hardeman is text messaging every coach,” Malone said. “Those kind of kids are the ones you can put out there, even as freshmen, because you know they are spending the time it takes to be prepared to go out and play. You put a lot on their plate and playing, for a freshman, is a lot on their plate. But these kids will be able to accept the challenge because that’s who they are.”
Replacing Gilbert is a tall task, one that probably won’t be accomplished this fall. But the long-term dividends could be well worth the roller coaster ride the Cowboys' secondary could experience in 2014.
“Eventually those freshmen will be sophomores,” Malone said. “If you can just make it to them being sophomores then you have a really talented guy with experience.”