Dan Hammerschmidt couldn’t believe the look of his safety group the first time he saw them coming back to fall camp.
Well, he could believe it because anything is possible in strength and condition coach Rob Glass’ weight room, but it still surprised the Oklahoma State safeties coach.
Whereas the cornerbacks – their counterparts in the defensive back group – are looking for consistency for the first time in years with lots of returning veterans, the safeties look to just keep the good vibes going. All but one safety returns from last season as Kenneth Edison-McGruder graduated and Hammerschmidt looks for his group to be one of the meanest squads in the Big 12 Conference.
One thing he knows for sure is that they will be one of the biggest.
“We have size and Coach Glass has done a heck of a job as he does every summer,” said Hammerschmidt, who is going into his fifth year at OSU. “Sometimes you bring those young guys in at 180 pounds and you go into Big 12 play, you need bigger guys.
“… Give all that credit to Rob Glass and his staff. I have been around for a while. Body by Glass is a no brainer. That is where the program starts. We have certain time limits and they are with them a lot. They turn them over to you on Aug. 1 and Peel is all ripped up and Jason Taylor is big. Kanion Williams is about 190 after coming in at 175. He is all yoked up.”
The leader of the group might epitomize the hard-hitting style Hammerschmidt likes with Malcolm Rodriguez taking up the mantle of elderly statesman as he enters his junior season. While he might not be a vocal leader, the self-contained Rodriguez speaks loudly on the field with his play.
At 6-foot, 205 pounds, the muscle-bound former wrestling state champion from Wagoner is a force to be reckoned with in OSU’s secondary. Locked in Hammerschmidt’s formation as a bandit – a safety-linebacker hybrid – Rodriguez is usually playing downhill.
“I am in the middle of the striker and rover,” Rodriguez said. “I have to communicate with the strong side of the field and tell them the calls.”
Rodriguez was second on the team in tackles last season with 83, only linebacker Justin Phillips surpassed him with 98. 53 of Rodriguez’ were solo stops, as well.
Hammerschmidt said he likes having Rodriguez as his leader on the field. When Hammerschmidt came to OSU, he was gifted with all-conference talents in Jordan Sterns and Tre Flowers, who both went to the NFL. After a few years of instability, including last season having the youngest and most inexperienced position group, he believed the safeties are back to the level they were when he came in.
Some of that confidence in the group comes from Hammerschmidt’s belief in Rodriguez, who helped fill the gaps in those lean years and who has started since he was a freshman.
“He is an unbelievable competitor and like James Washington, he has that same mentality,” Hammerschmidt said. “He is not a big vocal guy. He goes and gets it done. He is a lot better athlete than everyone thinks. As a wrestler, he is a knee bender and can change direction. He is doing his job and is a football player and a silent leader.”
Rodriguez isn’t the only one who made plenty of plays in the heat of the action. In fact, 36 percent of the team’s tackles last season came from the safety position. Edison-McGruder was third in tackles with 73, including two sacks and Jarrick Bernard had 59 total tackles – good for fifth – with a pair of sacks as well.
Bernard is entering his sophomore season after both he and Kolby Harvell-Peel had incredible freshman campaigns.
A winner of last year’s Russell Okung Award for the team’s outstanding newcomer, Bernard was everywhere last season and after a year in the system, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound, speedster is looking to build on that success.
“I just see myself as more of a leader this year because I started toward the middle and end of the year,” Bernard said. “I have to hold a higher standard for myself and perform to the best of my abilities to give my team the best ability to win.”
A graduate of Evangel Christian in Shreveport, Louisiana, Bernard comes from a long line of successful Evangel players. OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said the last 20 players that school sent to the FBS level all played as true freshmen.
Bernard said the safety group is much more confident this season, not just because of the offseason weights but also having a year of Knowles’ defense under their belt. Knowles likes to play a lot of defensive backs and in his first season, it was an adjustment for the younger guys to learn his base 4-2-5 set. Now that there hasn’t been a lot of turnover, Knowles has been able to implement multiple formations and Bernard said the safeties have been fast learners.
“I think as a group we are more mature and know what we are trying to do better,” Bernard said. “We understand Coach Knowles’ scheme better. We are more confident in each other and trust each other to have each other’s back.”
Harvell-Peel, a 6-foot, 210-pound native of College Station, Texas, finished sixth on the team in tackles with 52 stops including a sack.
Although Hammerschmidt’s scheme does have the three positions in the cover-oriented striker, the hard-hitting bandit and the combination role of rover, Harvell-Peel said he believes that any of the nine safeties can play wherever they are put.
“You have guys that you can ask everyone to step back into coverage or ask everyone to come downhill and make tackles as a safety,” Harvell-Peel said. “I think Coach Hammer hit it on the nail. I think we have a lot of guys who can do lot of different things and a lot of guys who have a whole lot of talent. Guys that are known currently and guys whose name may not be as big.”
Aside from those three big names, the Cowboys have quality depth in redshirt sophomore Tre Sterling, sophomore Tanner McCalister, and a quartet of redshirt freshmen in Sean Michael Flanagan, David Thibodeaux-Beniot, Jason Taylor and Kanion Williams.
I think we have a group that even though we are young, we are a pretty experienced group with me, Malcolm, Tanner and Jarrick,” Harvell-Peel said. “All of us are young guys but we have all played a lot of snaps. It is weird, I am not going to lie to be flipped like that because last year we had an experienced D-Line and now all of them are gone. During the spring and going into fall camp, at safety we are a strong group and I think as a whole we are helping the defense out.”