Kendal Daniels celebrates stop on fourth.jpg

Oklahoma State safety Kendal Daniels celebrates a fourth-down stop late in Saturday’s game against Iowa State at Boone Pickens Stadium.

Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy liked what he saw from redshirt-freshman safety Kendal Daniels throughout the first half of this season.

Following the Cowboys’ Week 7 win over Texas, Gundy wasn’t ready to deem Daniels an All-American. But the Beggs native showed flashes that he could be.

“He’s gonna do things that are gonna wow us before it’s all said and done,” Gundy said Oct. 17. “He’ll make his mistakes, but he’s also doing things where you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good.’”

Daniels helped OSU’s secondary stymie Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers that day, even snatching the game-sealing interception in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

That was a glimpse of the player Daniels can be.

Two weeks prior, with a clear path to Texas Tech quarterback Behren Morton in Week 5, Daniels wanted to lay the boom. and he did – illegally.

Morton braced for the hit, tucking his head in the process, and the top of Daniels’ helmet clipped the bottom of the Red Raiders quarterback’s facemask. Upon review, Daniels was ejected for targeting, a call that sidelined the him for the remainder of the 41-31 win and the first half of the following week’s loss to TCU.

That was a look at the player Daniels was on that Saturday afternoon in early October.

“What he did is targeting,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said after that game. “He hit him with the crown of his helmet, so.

“He’s got a ways to go. This time next year, he’s gonna be a good football player.”

Daniels’ would’ve-been sack was the result of a spry, wide-eyed first-year player who had a game-changing moment in front of him.

But it was a turning point of sorts. He’s been a nightmare for opposing offenses ever since, and his absence was noticeable during the first half of the Week 6 loss to TCU, when he was serving the latter part of his suspension from the game before.

In the second half and overtime, despite the loss, Daniels (5) had the fifth-most tackles on the team that day.

“Elite playmaker. We love Kendal,” Cowboys defensive end Collin Oliver said two days after that loss. “I feel like he’s gonna be a beast the longer he stays here. I can’t wait to keep playing with him, but yeah, we were happy to get him back.”

He wasn’t figured to play much this year with the Cowboys garnering a secondary that includes Jason Taylor II, Thomas Harper and Sean Michael Flanagan. With OSU suffering, as Gundy said, an “unusual number of chronic injuries” this season, the Cowboys were awaiting Daniels to take the next step.

Step taken.

Of course, Gundy was right when he said Daniels had a ways to go. But he doesn’t have to wait until next year for Daniels to stand out.

Heading into the Cowboys’ final road game of the regular season, a Week 11 bout with rival Oklahoma in Norman, Daniels is stating his case to be named the Big 12 Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year.

Daniels currently leads all Big 12 freshmen in tackles, tackles for loss, passes defended and interceptions. He has the most interceptions in the country among all freshmen, and he’s fifth in total tackles.

“I’m a young guy, so I’m kind of hard on myself,” Daniels said. “I know those older guys are counting on me.”

“Young kids are that way, they learn by making mistakes,” Gundy said. “He’s starting to get seasoned a little bit and should get a little bit better and better now based on experience.”

And all of his work culminated during OSU’s win over Iowa State in Week 10.

On the heels of back-to-back blowout losses to Kansas State and Kansas, and with starting quarterback Spencer Sanders sidelined with a shoulder injury, the defense knew it’d have to anchor down if the Cowboys wanted any chance of getting back on track.

Then Daniels proceeded to have his best game in bright orange.

He tied for a team-high 10 tackles against the Cyclones, and yes he picked off ISU quarterback Hunter Dekkers, but Daniels’ dominant arrival came on a fumble he forced in the first quarter.

The Cyclones were driving, in business with a first-and-10 from the OSU 37-yard line. It seemed as if they’d score the first points of a game that was an offensive struggled – or defensive masterclass – up to that point.

Daniels blew up the Cyclones’ first-down play, once again having a clear path to the backfield and, this time, legally delivering the biggest of blows to ISU running back Deon Silas, whose fumble was recovered by the Cowboys.

“I was just on the way to grab (Daniels) and get on him a little bit about tackling, and then he smacks the guy and knocks the ball away,” Gundy said. “Then I was like, ‘Well, I’ll let him go.’”

That was a showcase of the player Daniels is now – and who Gundy and Co. want him to be moving forward.

The biggest thing for Daniels, Gundy and defensive coordinator Derek Mason have said, is adjusting to the speed of the game at this level. They knew experience would help him, but he wasn’t expected to garner an abundance of it this season.

He has, though. In the aftermath of the win over the Cyclones, Gundy figured Daniels will play somewhere between 300 and 400 snaps before season’s end. and it’s paid dividends.

Daniels was raw when he moved to Stillwater, joining the program with a trove of athletic abilities that helped him be a force on both the football field and basketball court in high school.

Now, he’s returning to the player he once was and the player the Cowboys need him to be – the dominant, hard-hitting, ball-hawking beast from Beggs.

“It feels like high school. I mean, I started (doing) my high school routine last week,” Daniels said after his coming out party in Week 10. “Started getting back to the way I used to play, just listening to music that I used to and stuff. (I’m) just getting back to that feel where I’m way more comfortable.”

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