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Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bryan Nardo got to work firsthand with the Cowboy defense in mid-March at the beginning of the Cowboys’ spring camp. This his first stint as a defensive coordinator at the Division I level.

Mike Gundy turned just about every stone to find Oklahoma State football’s new defensive coordinator.

A little more than three weeks after Gundy’s 18th year at the helm of the program concluded with a loss to Wisconsin in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, now-former defensive coordinator Derek Mason announced he was leaving the Cowboys after one season to take a “sabbatical from coaching in college.”

Looking for someone with experience leading a 3-3-5 defense, a difference from OSU’s usual four-down front, Gundy sifted through tape from all across the country. The search even included evaluating what he deemed as qualified coaches at the high school level.

“There’s only this many of ’em that actually understand that system,” Gundy said, providing a visual aide with the thinnest of gaps between his index finger and thumb. “I interviewed all of them. But you can count ’em on one hand. I went everywhere. I looked everywhere.”

The hunt made its way out to Gannon University, a Division II school in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Gundy expected his meeting with Bryan Nardo, the defensive coordinator at Gannon, to last about two hours. He figured it’d just be an informative conversation, Gundy said prior to the Cowboys’ first spring practice on Tuesday afternoon.

Then they talked for more than six hours.

“He’s the guy,” Gundy thought afterward. “That’s the guy. It doesn’t make a difference where he came from, he’s the best guy.”

Under Nardo, Gannon’s defense went from allowing 393.3 yards per game in 2021 – the year before he arrived – to giving up 287.4 in 2022. It marked the fewest yards per game that Gannon had allowed in 20 seasons.

But he did that with a defense that the Cowboys haven’t used before, and that’s what piqued Gundy’s interest. OSU’s coach has had an up-close look at Iowa State’s success with the same scheme, and he watched Big 12 Conference foe TCU use that en route to the College Football Playoff this past season.

Gundy understands that the implementation of such a nuanced scheme won’t happen overnight, especially given the Cowboys will be under the direction of a third defensive coordinator in as many seasons.

“The players are gonna have to buy in, coaches are gonna have to understand the simplicity,” Gundy said. “And let’s just get good at what we can get good at to slow people down, and we’ll try to build on it. We’re not gonna be able to do it all in one year; it’s just not gonna happen.

“They’ll go through some growing pains, but hopefully we can morph this into what we think’s best at Oklahoma State as we move forward and have a multiple-style defense.”

Nardo’s defenses weren’t always the matchup nightmare that he caused a season ago at Gannon. Before then, and before his two years as the linebackers coach at Youngstown State (FCS), the biggest change of Nardo’s career came toward the tail end of his eight-year tenure at Emporia State (Division II).

In the aftermath of a 2017 campaign in which Emporia finished 6-5 while giving up 28.3 points per game, Nardo turned to a different approach. He moved the Hornets from a four-down front to a three-down front, and, two seasons later, Emporia was one of the most formidable defenses in one of the most formidable conferences that Division II football has to offer.

In 2019, the Hornets were among the top ranks of every defensive category in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, including second in total defense (271 yards per game), first in pass defense (183.3) and third in rush defense (144.1).

“Whether we like it or not, Bryan comes as a young guy that people are looking at. I feel like we’ll do really well on defense in a few years,” Gundy said of Nardo, who turns 38 this year. “And if that happens, we’ll have a hard time keeping him.”

Gundy understands that everything Nardo has accomplished up to this point won’t help him at OSU. He’s never had to prepare for running backs such as Bijan Robinson, quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III and wideouts like Ceedee Lamb.

But something stuck out on tape – at least enough for Gundy to have an unexpectedly extended conversation with Nardo more than two months ago – and that’s why he made his way back to Stillwater, dug a little deeper and realized he had found his guy.

“I did my research, calling all the people he worked for. He either paid everybody off or whatever, because nobody would say anything bad about the guy as a person and a football coach,” Gundy said. “That’s how we got to that point where we hired him.”

Follow News Press sports reporter Jon Walker on Twitter @ByJonWalker for updates on Oklahoma State athletics, Stillwater High sports and more.

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