With the departure of the some of the most experienced veterans on both sides of the ball, Oklahoma State has turned to returners to establish leadership roles in their absence.
The biggest leadership void comes on the defensive side, which turned out its third-best season (in terms of points per game) in the Mike Gundy era. The 23.5 points per game in 2020 trail only the 21.6 average in 2013 and the 21.7 in 2009. Those are the only seasons with Gundy as head coach in which OSU’s defense allowed fewer than 25 points per game.
Linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga was an extension of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles in the heart of the defense, and cornerback Rodarius Williams was one of the longest-standing starters for the Cowboy defense.
With those two now preparing for the NFL Draft, the coaching staff is once again looking for a linebacker and defensive back to guide the Pokes.
“I’m just kind of teaching the younger guys the defense, because we got a lot of linebackers,” said senior linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, who returned for another year after starting at the position the past two seasons. “They’re just wanting me to step up, be that leader and just kind of voice my opinion to the younger guys, and get them on track with the defense.”
Rodriguez, who has been one of the team’s leading tacklers the past two seasons, typically let Ogbongbemiga handle that role in the defense, but he has grown to know what is expected in the middle of the defense after shifting down from his safety role prior to the 2019 season.
Having an advantage of getting a feel for two different roles in Knowles’ defense could help Rodriguez blossom into that leadership role.
“I always tell them, you really don’t know the defense unless you can teach the defense,” Knowles said. “That’s where you take it to the next level – when you can teach. They are really mentoring the young guys and teaching them – on the sideline, constantly talking to them whenever we do walkthroughs. They are constantly in the ears of the new players.”
In the back of the defense, returning safety Tre Sterling – who along with Kolby Harvell-Peel leads a safety corps full of depth – is leaving the guidance in spring to his coaches, but anticipates taking on more of a leadership role later in the calendar year.
“When it comes down to it, during the season and fall camp when we’re getting ready to compete for a Big 12 Championship, I’m definitely going to be amping it up more and teaching them from my experience – what I’ve seen and what I do,” Sterling said.
On offense, the leadership and skills at running back and wide receiver left by Chuba Hubbard and Tylan Wallace have the Cowboys looking throughout the entire unit for leadership.
Obviously returning starting quarterback Spencer Sanders will be expected to continue to grow his role at the top, but they also been reliant on offensive lineman Josh Sills – who turned out to be one of the more vocal leaders on the offense last season after transferring from West Virginia.
“We’re looking forward to Josh performing at a really high level mentally and physically,” Gundy said. “Last year, he wasn’t in shape, came in coming off an injury, we had COVID and we didn’t train the way we should’ve trained. …
“I think he’s in better condition now than he’s been probably in 18 months. That helps him, things resonate differently when he’s not tired all the time. So, I’m excited about the direction he’s moving.”
But on the outside, Oklahoma State saw three of its most veteran receivers depart the program.
Alongside Wallace, Dillon Stoner elected to forego an extra year for an opportunity to make it professionally. Senior receiver Landon Wolf decided to leave the program as a graduate transfer.
“Braydon (Johnson) is stepping into that role because of his age, and probably has the most production returning for us right now,” said Kasey Dunn, OSU’s offensive coordinator and receivers coach. “And Brennan Presley. He’s a guy that everybody loves, and just outworks everyone. He busts his (butt) every day.”
Johnson returns with 20 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown from a year ago, while Presley – who didn’t get really involved in the offense until late in his true freshman season – comes in with seven catches for 125 yards and three touchdowns (as well as a rushing touchdown).
Follow News Press sports editor Jason Elmquist on Twitter @jelmquistSW for updates on Oklahoma State athletics.