When Oklahoma State coordinators Sean Gleeson and Jim Knowles split into separate rooms during the media availability Monday at Karsten Creek, Gleeson’s room was the main attraction.
Gleeson is entering his first year as the Cowboys offensive coordinator and it’s his turn to be the “new guy.” Knowles, OSU’s defensive coordinator, is no longer living in the spotlight of coaching in the Big 12 Conference for the first time. He got his first taste of that last season, and he now is focusing on trying to improve from his experience.
“I knew what to expect, but it’s different,” Knowles said at the football assistant coaches’ golf outing. “It’s different when you live it. I mean, play by play, game by game, it’s different. I like not being the new guy. I have a better feel for the conference and what to expect.”
Knowles, who previously coached at Duke, had a tough introduction to Big 12 offenses last year. The Cowboys took a step back by posting a 7-6 record after going 10-3 the three previous years, and the defense had its struggles.
Oklahoma State ranked in the bottom two of the conference in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, pass interceptions, first-down defense and turnover margin. It also didn’t help that OSU ranked ninth in penalty yards per game.
Coach Mike Gundy took much of the blame for the team’s mistakes during Big 12 Media Days by acknowledging he let some things slide in practice. He also expressed his belief in Knowles having a better grasp of the defense in Year 2.
“It’s different in our conference, the willingness of head coaches and offensive coordinators trying to score every play, and I think coach Knowles understands that maybe more so than last year,” Gundy said. “You kind of get into a groove in this league and figure it out.”
The OSU defense had its problems, but Knowles coached one of the best pass-rushing defenses in the nation last season. The Cowboys ranked 10th in the country and led the conference by averaging three sacks per game.
OSU also led the conference and was ranked No. 9 nationally in red-zone defense. The Cowboys’ 7.4 tackles for loss average earned a No. 2 conference ranking and a top-20 national ranking.
OSU will try to duplicate some of these statistics, despite losing six players who combined for 107 career starts on the defensive line.
Although the Cowboys are plugging in players who have zero career starts, Knowles said he is confident in the experience he has on his defensive line.
“It may look like the starts aren’t there, but there are a lot of guys that played,” Knowles said. “Israel (Antwine) coming in and Kyle Junior coming in, I feel really good about that group. I think there is a lot of experience, maybe not starts but there is a lot of experience.”
Knowles also has a high level of confidence in his secondary. The Cowboys return both of their starting cornerbacks, A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams. Knowles said third-year sophomore safety Tre Sterling and freshman Thomas Harper had a great spring.
Junior Malcolm Rodriguez is back at safety and sophomore Jarrick Bernard started the last nine games of last season as a freshman.
One area Knowles is concerned about is the linebacker corps. Senior Calvin Bundage is the second-leading returning tackler from last season, and he will be leading the linebacker group. Bundage was named to the Butkus Award preseason watch list, and the Cowboys are going to need a big year out of him.
But Knowles said injuries are one of biggest concerns about Bundage.
“In the beginning of the season in this system, it was looking like he was going to be an All-American and then his body just couldn’t handle it,” Knowles said about Bundage. “As the season wore on, he took on injuries and he tried to play hurt. He’s a tough kid, but he just didn’t look good, and then that results in penalties.”
Knowles said Bundage has shown his maturity by taking more of a responsibility for plays where he could have been better and said he is looking to be more consistent this season. Bundage and the rest of the Cowboys defense are going to have to stay more disciplined to improve on last year’s performance.
“We talked about it a lot. We emphasized it,” Knowles said about discipline. “We took responsibility for it as coaches, which I think is important. It’s my job to make them tougher and more disciplined and focused. We’ve got good kids here, so they responded to the coaching.”