State Sports

October 27, 2010

Many happy returns against No. 20 O-State

CHICKASHA — STILLWATER (AP) — Mike Gundy received a text message Monday morning offering to provide help with kickoff coverage that’s proving to be problematic for No. 20 Oklahoma State.

He had to turn it down.

Despite the plea from Orie Lemon, Gundy isn’t about to let his starting middle linebacker be part of the solution. It’s not that Gundy couldn’t use his most prolific tackler to bolster the only unit in the Bowl Subdivision that’s allowed three runbacks for touchdowns this season.

He just doesn’t see it being worth the risk.

“It’s real simple. It’s cut and dry,” Gundy said. “You can take starters and put them out there, but if something happens to them — and you don’t ever want to play tentative — then that guy that’s a starter on your defense now is no longer a starter on your defense and the guy backing him up may be a freshman. So, he may get 70 plays as a true freshman, not on kickoff but now on your defense.”

Gundy has seen too many players get hurt on high-impact hits in the return game, including freshman Andrew Hudson on a scary blow in Saturday’s 51-41 loss to Nebraska. Hudson was eventually able to walk to a cart and get driven off the field.

That play highlighted both Gundy’s growing concern with the costly returns and one of the reasons why he’s hesitant to put his starters on the coverage team.

Instead, the unit is heavily dependent on freshmen who aren’t getting snaps on plays from scrimmage. Gundy said his players have been in position, but have failed to make tackles after they get there. That makes him hesitant to make any schematic changes, especially considering that OSU had given up only two TDs on 376 kickoff returns in Joe DeForest’s first nine years as special teams coordinator.

“If you just look, there’s not really a lot of secrets to it. Everybody’s pretty consistent with what they’re doing. But there’s not very many people that are running down 10 freshman,” Gundy said. “That’s really what it’s coming down to.”

The problem is that Oklahoma State’s experienced depth is limited after it lost eight starters from last year’s defense and then had safeties Victor Johnson and Daytawion Lowe get hurt.

There simply aren’t that many seasoned linebackers and safeties — the ideal cover men — left.

It only complicates matters that Oklahoma State’s offense — like others in the Big 12 — operates at a fast tempo, requiring defensive starters to be on the field for more plays. Adding a couple of 70-yard sprints to their workload isn’t appealing to Gundy.

“We definitely have to get better at it. We just need to keep working it,” he said. “I’m not going to put my defensive starters out there. I’m not going to do it.”

On Saturday, Oklahoma State will visit Kansas State (5-2, 2-2), which is averaging the most yards on kickoff returns in the nation and got a 100-yard runback by William Powell last week. Gundy called the K-State return game “something to be reckoned with.”

The returns have been an all or nothing proposition for the Cowboys. Quinn Sharp leads the nation with 37 touchbacks this season, and he started the season by launching his first 35 kicks into the end zone. The three TDs have come on a mere 22 returns by opponents, including two where they simply recovered onside kicks.

Now, adventurous returners are taking their chances even when Sharp’s kicks make it to the end zone. Paul said the Cornhuskers “knew we were going to have a chance to take one to the house” even before Saturday’s game.

“We haven’t changed anything so far,” Sharp said. “It really has been that everybody’s right there. It’s just that one person, you’ve got to lay out and make that shoestring tackle.”

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