Cowboys take defensive stance

IRVING, Texas – Andre Sexton won’t reveal the name of his teammate. The freshman tailback, he said, already is embarrassed enough about what happened countless times on the Oklahoma State practice field last spring.

Each time the newcomer took a handoff, Sexton said, senior linebacker Donald Booker was there to hit him. A forearm to the helmet on one play, a lowered shoulder or a full-speed spear the next.

The pops were vicious enough to make onlookers cringe – and Sexton smile.

“Every time he lined up, [Booker] would knock him out,” said Sexton, also a linebacker. “The poor kid is still shell-shocked. I’m not sure he’ll be the same for the rest of his career.”

The question now is whether Oklahoma State’s defense will have the same effect on its opponents.

That certainly hasn’t been the case the past few seasons, when Big 12 foes have hopscotched their way toward the end zone against Cowboys teams that were usually stacked in every other area.

Whether it was with Josh Fields, Rashaun Woods and Vernand Morency in the early-to-mid 2000s or Adarius Bowman and Dantrell Savage a few years ago, Oklahoma State hasn’t had too many problems when it comes to scoring points. No Big 12 school has been better on special teams.

Still, year after year, the Cowboys’ defense hasn’t been able to stop anyone, which is the reason Oklahoma State continues to be good, but never great.

Oklahoma State ranked last in the Big 12 in sacks in 2008 and eighth in total defense.

“That’s been the biggest difference between us and Texas and Oklahoma,” Sexton said. “It’s not like we’ve been bad on defense. We just haven’t been able to do it for four quarters. Hopefully that will change.”

Here’s guessing it will.

There’s plenty of excitement surrounding Oklahoma State football in 2009 because of “The Triplets.” The hype, though, seems misguided. After all, can quarterback Zac Robinson, receiver Dez Bryant and tailback Kendall Hunter really be that much better than they’ve already been?

No, the real reason Oklahoma State fans should be excited is because the Cowboys – finally – might field a pretty doggone good defense. For that they can thank the folks who shelled out a reported $315,000 for one of the best defensive coordinators in the country.

It might seem farfetched now, but Oklahoma State’s hiring of Bill Young from Miami could be the move that changes the face of the Big 12 in 2009. For so many it seems like a foregone conclusion that either Texas or Oklahoma will advance to the Big 12 title game – and eventually, the BCS championship – at the end of the season. But with Young on board to motivate and tweak an athletic defense laced with experience, the Cowboys could change all that.

“One of the main things we’re working on is the psyche of our players,” Young said by phone Monday. “They don’t need to be hearing how bad they are. They need to be hearing how good they are – because they are good.”

Indeed, led by Sexton and Patrick Lavine, the Cowboys’ linebackers are all seniors. So is Perrish Cox, one of the fastest cornerbacks in the nation. Defensive end Richetti Jones was one of the country’s top recruits when he signed with Oklahoma State two years ago.

The difference, though, is Young, who spent just one season at Miami before Cowboys coach Mike Gundy called last winter and asked him to return to his alma mater to coach.

“My wife and I were planning on being in Miami a long time,” Young said. “We had leased a house with a pool and were really enjoying ourselves. But Oklahoma is home for both of us. We couldn’t pass it up.

“Still, it was shocking to see the way everything unfolded.”

It’s hard not to be impressed by Young’s résumé. The 62-year-old, who was born in Oklahoma City, spent 16 seasons as an assistant under John Cooper at Tulsa, Arizona State and Ohio State and also has had stints at USC, Oklahoma and Iowa State.

“I just take a little something from each head coach I’ve worked with and put it in my toolbox,” Young said. “I’ve had the opportunity to coach at some real good spots. It’s just blind luck, I guess. Whenever you make a mistake, you learn from it. And I’ve made a million mistakes.”

But not too many lately.

Before moving to Miami, Young served six years on Mark Mangino’s staff at Kansas. In Young’s first season, in 2002, the Jayhawks finished 2-10. Five years later – thanks in large part to Young – they went 12-1 and defeated Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Kansas ranked 12th in the country in total defense that season.

“He came in with a lot of confidence, a lot of maturity,” Gundy said. “At times there can be a lot of egos involved in coaching, and he certainly doesn’t have one. That’s really been a plus for our program.”

As instrumental as he was in rebuilding Kansas’ program, Young could have an even bigger influence at Oklahoma State. With Nebraska probably a year or two away from returning to national prominence, the Big 12 needs another team besides Texas and Oklahoma to become a mainstay in the top 10.

Texas Tech, Missouri and Kansas have flirted with the role but, looking toward the future, no school seems better suited for it than Oklahoma State. Thanks to billionaire donor T. Boone Pickens, the Cowboys’ athletic facilities are among the best in the country. It’s a situation that has paid huge dividends when it comes to recruiting, coaching salaries, publicity – all things that help continuity.

Think about it: In 2009, the Cowboys will feature the Big 12’s top running back (Hunter), top kick returner (Cox) and arguably the nation’s best receiver in Bryant – as well as the school’s second all-time leading passer in Robinson.

That’s enough to warrant a top-10 ranking. A top-five ranking and a shot at the Big 12 South title, though, will only come with an improved defense, which is a tall request in the pass-happy Big 12.

Young said he’s doing his best to simplify his playbook so his players “don’t have to think too much.”

“You play much faster when you don’t think,” he said. “Our main issue is depth. If we can stay healthy we feel like we’re going to be a very good defensive football team. If we lose a few players here and there, look out. It could get questionable.”

Sexton believes the Cowboys’ second-team unit is much-improved.

“Last year we got tired late in the games against Texas and Oklahoma,” he said, “but we weren’t able to sub out starters, because there was a drop-off with the second team. Hopefully that won’t be the case anymore.”

Sexton paused.

“People were bashing our defense and saying we’re not any good,” he said. “It’s not that we’re not any good. We’re just playing against the top talent week in and week out. If an SEC team played in our conference for a year, they’d see. They’d totally respect it. It’s something that’s hard to understand unless you’re in the middle of it.”

One SEC school actually will get that chance the first week of the season when Oklahoma State plays host to Georgia on Sept. 5. A Cowboys’ victory in that game could mark the start of something special – not just for the 2009 season, but for the long-term future of the team’s defense under Young.

Gundy said Monday that the potential for continuity was one of the reasons he hired Young. Later that afternoon, Young was asked if Oklahoma State would be the final stop in his successful career.

“It’d certainly be great to end up here,” he said. “I don’t want to ever say it’s my last job. I want to coach quite awhile. I’m 62 but I feel like I’m 42. I don’t want to retire next year or the next or the next or the next.

“I want to coach as long as I possibly can, until I physically can’t get it done anymore.”

The Cowboys probably won’t argue.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009