Kansas State at Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State safety Tre Sterling (right) has been a key contributor to the Cowboys defense this season. His solid play has allowed the coaching staff to move Malcolm Rodriguez from safety to linebacker. DEVIN LAWRENCE WILBER/for the Tulsa World

STILLWATER — Moving junior Malcolm Rodriguez from safety to linebacker has been a smart move by the Oklahoma State coaching staff, but Rodriguez isn’t the only one making the coaching staff look good for that decision.

Coach Mike Gundy said Monday that the linebacker group is a lot further along than he thought it would be. Amen Ogbongbemiga and Rodriguez each has a team-high 42 tackles after five games.

Rodriguez is playing well, but Gundy said it’s safety Tre Sterling who is allowing the staff to keep Rodriguez in his new role. Sterling assumed the starting safety spot after Rodriguez was moved.

“If you move (Rodriguez) down and (Sterling’s) not playing good, now you have to think about moving him back and going a different route,” Gundy said.

Gundy and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles haven’t had to cross that bridge because Sterling is holding his own in the secondary. He led OSU with seven tackles and a pass deflection Saturday in the Cowboys’ 26-13 victory against Kansas State. He was named OSU’s defensive player of the game.

“He’s come a long way,” Gundy said. “He’s been a steady player for us. … He made some really good plays, seems to be in the right spot most of the time. I’m excited about the improvement he’s made in just one year.”

Sterling got on the field primarily on special teams last season and his two tackles in the Liberty Bowl against Missouri were the only tackles he recorded all year. Sterling totaled a career-high nine tackles in this year’s season opener at Oregon State. He has 30 tackles, including four tackles for loss, and three pass breakups on the season.

“I think I’ve done my job well,” Sterling said. “I’ve moved up and was given an opportunity and I think I’m making the most of it so far. I’m going to try to continue to do that to the best of my ability.”

Sterling is going to have a different challenge at Texas Tech on Saturday than he did against K-State. The Wildcats are a run-heavy team, while the Red Raiders like to air it out a little more.

Gundy said Sterling processes information well, which allows him to think fast and react. That should serve him well in Lubbock, Texas.

Sterling said things in the secondary have become more comfortable than they were to start the season.

“The first game is really hectic and chaotic,” Sterling said. “Just going everywhere, getting used to the speed of college football. Since I’ve played a couple games, it’s definitely slowed down a lot. I’ve definitely learned to control my mind and stuff like that and just kind of read keys and watch my person and watch my back.”

Sterling said Rodriguez shared some wisdom with him to help him with the transition.

“He’s given me some advice and some tips on how to slow the game down, and I’ve been really working on it,” Sterling said. “Like I said, just focusing on your keys. If I focus on my man I can’t see everyone running around and stuff like that, so the game really slows down.”

The OSU defense is allowing fewer yards and points than it was last year. The total yards allowed are down by nearly 72 per game. The Cowboys are allowing 24 points a game, 8.5 points per game fewer than last season. Both Rodriguez and Sterling have contributed to those improvements.

Frank Bonner II

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Frank joined Tulsa World as the Oklahoma State University sports writer in June 2019. He is an Indiana native who attended graduate school at IUPUI after receiving his bachelor’s degree at Indiana University. 918-581-8387