Oklahoma State figured replacing Justin Gilbert would not be easy.
The former Cowboy was the eighth overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft after an All-America season at OSU a year ago. While Gilbert provided game-changing plays and three years of starting experience to the Cowboys secondary in his final season, Kevin Peterson was the overlooked lieutenant in the cornerback duo, quietly holding his own opposite his standout teammate.
This year it’s Peterson’s time to be the captain in the Cowboys’ backfield. And he’s slid into the role with unusual ease.
“He wanted that role,” defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “He knew Gilbert’s gone, I’m the guy, I’m going to be put on a island a lot. I think he wanted that.”
Lots of guys want a role like that, as the key cover man who can be counted on to battle with the Big 12’s best receivers throughout a 60-minute frenzy of passes from all angles. Fewer guys seize the opportunity and hold up under the barrage.
“To want it and then to be effective every snap is different,” Spencer said. “He’s doing what he’s supposed to do now preparations-wise and practice-wise to fulfill that role. It’s a week-by-week process though.”
Now he finds himself on a similar path as Gilbert. He’s been a starter since his sophomore season after making an impact as a freshman and teams that test him, more often than not, end up regretting it. Most importantly, he sets the competitive tone and provides a daily model for OSU’s freshman cornerbacks Ramon Richards and Juwan Offray as the most experienced cover man on the roster.
“They see how he approaches practice and when we’re doing scout reps he’s not backing up, he’s not going through the motions,” Spencer said. “The harder they practice it translates to Saturday and Kevin does that, so it’s good for the young guys to see … 'He's practicing like this? Against the scout team on a Wednesday?' Then they say, that’s probably the way it’s supposed to be done.”
It’s part of the reason the Cowboys have been better than expected thus far this season. Gilbert wasn’t just a superstar. Along with fellow three-year starter and departed Cowboy Daytawion Lowe, Gilbert passed along his good habits and provided a baseline during Peterson's first two seasons for how to strive to mimic their success when he was the man.
“Having those guys show how to work hard instilled it in me,” Peterson said. “It takes more than athletic ability to be a great player.”
Said defensive tackle James Castleman: "I feel like what sets him apart from everyone else is not only is he a vocal leader, but he sets an example. So, you know, ‘You've got to do this, you've got to do that,' and it's good when you tell someone 'You've got to do this,' and you do it as well.”
Four games into his junior season Peterson has 15 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception. He ranks second in the Big 12 with seven disrupted dropbacks -- an ESPN metric that combines sacks, interceptions, passes broken up and batted balls -- behind Baylor’s Xavien Howard (7.5). He's not quite on Gilbert's level yet but he's quickly becoming one of the Big 12's top cornerbacks and a critical playmaker for OSU's defense.
“Up to now, game-by-game, he hasn't disappointed,” Spencer said. “He’s made some big-time breakups in critical situations and his discipline is good. He’s done what he’s supposed to do. His preparation needs to be the same. If he takes that approach he will do that every week.”