When Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert lines up against Big 12 offenses this season, he'll carry with him some rare experiences. During his college career, the senior has intercepted two Pro Bowl quarterbacks, held his own in one-on-one battles with a receiver who was a top-10 NFL draft pick and won 31 games in three seasons.
In the Big 12, experience is a important trait -- in a player and an entire defense.
“Experience is invaluable,” OSU defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “You can't coach that, you can't recruit that, it just comes from guys being in the battles.”
Gilbert -- who intercepted Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck as a sophomore and battled Justin Blackmon in practice during his first two seasons in Stillwater -- is one of seven returning starters on the Cowboys' defense, a trend that is seen across the league.
Seven of the Big 12’s defenses return at least half their starters in 2013. That, along with six different squads naming new quarterbacks, sets up an ideal scenario for the conference’s defensive coordinators. At Texas Tech, the Red Raiders return seven defensive starters, giving new defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt peace of mind as he approaches his first year trying to stop the explosive offenses in the conference.
“All those guys have played a lot of ball here and been in a lot of these different environments,” Wallerstedt said. “These guys have played some ball together, and I think that’s the big thing.”
Quite simply, it’s impossible for a Big 12 defender to know what he is up against until he’s experienced it firsthand.
“I didn’t really understand how fast it was until I got out there,” Oklahoma senior safety Gabe Lynn said. “Once you get out there, get your first plays, you understand. I’m used to it. It’s my third year playing, I’m familiar with a lot of the different teams, different offenses.”
Several new faces at quarterback and a general lack of returning star power across the league promise to give the Big 12’s defenses the clear experience advantage this fall.
Still, “That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed success,” Spencer said.
For one thing, the league average was 29.4 points allowed per game, 418.5 yards allowed per game and 5.74 yards per play allowed by Big 12 defenses. Thus, it’s not like Big 12 defenders are returning after having dominated their offensive counterparts in 2012.
Secondly, experience only goes so far. Talent overcomes experience on a regular basis. For example, TCU defensive end Devonte Fields had 10 sacks and led the league with 18.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. He enters this season as the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year as a sophomore.
Yet experience still has value. The conference has become known for its up-tempo attacks, which can put Big 12 defenses on their heels.
“It’s stressful,” Wallerstedt said. “Everybody is spreading the field now with a lot of different looks. Things are changing every year and creating a game of space, where you have to have guys making plays in open-field tackle situations and when the ball is in the air. You’re trying to disguise as much as you can to keep the quarterback guessing.”
Being able to turn to veteran defenders can make adjustments much easier while a team is in the middle of an onslaught of offensive attacks.
“Those guys are more adept to adjust quicker, understand what the issues are during a game,” Spencer said. “On our side of the ball it’s all about doing what you do and trying to force the issue but also reacting to the things you get. A more experienced team is able to work through issues on the sideline between drives, maybe some things they haven’t shown before. Those are some things that just come with experience.”
TCU brings back nine starters on a defense that led the conference in allowing 323.9 yards per game and 4.92 yards per play and ranked second with 22.6 points per game. Head coach Gary Patterson sees the clear value in having an experienced defense at his disposal against up-tempo offenses.
“Older players are used to tempo,” Patterson said. “The biggest difference between a younger defense and an older defense is an older defense can be more multiple because they can get lined up and do more things. Younger defenses, you're trying to get lined up and play defense. That's harder to do. You've got to be able to fight back. If you can't fight back, it's a long day.”
As Patterson notes, being ready is half the battle. Lynn is one of four returning starters on OU’s defense, and he’s already trying to prepare his younger teammates for the up-tempo attacks they will see this fall.
“We have a lot of freshmen,” Lynn said. “And I try to relay to them how important it is to get the calls and get lined up. You have to be prepared and be ready to play.”
It’s hard to believe that inexperience would keep Baylor, OSU, West Virginia, OU and Texas Tech, up-tempo offenses that finished in the top half of the conference in offensive yards a year ago, from having success in 2013.
Yet experience will matter in the Big 12 this season.
“I said from the start I am fortunate to be taking over with that [experience returning],” said Spencer, who is entering his first season as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. “Does that guarantee success? No. But it’s better than the alternative.”
Staff writer Jake Trotter contributed to this report.