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Vanilla May Be Gravy For Oklahoma State Defense

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Defensive tackle Calvin Barnett and company have the best chance to improve under internal hire and new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.
Defensive tackle Calvin Barnett and company have the best chance to improve under internal hire and new defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

If you believe the Big 12 is the Utopian society for quarterbacks, receivers and offensive coordinators, you must also imagine the opposite is true for the other side of the ball.

And you’d be right.

Consider that there have been eight Big 12 teams in place since before the start of the 2011 season. Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech have changed defensive coordinators. Kansas hired a new coach before the start of the 2012 season to make its change and Texas Tech would do the same before the start of the 2013 season.

That's every school but Iowa State making a major move, but the issue transcends tenure.

West Virginia was a newcomer last season. The coaching staff was basically all new, including a defensive coordinator pulled from the Oklahoma State staff to help with the Big 12 transition. The defense stunk in 2012 and the Mountaineers will have another new coordinator next season. 

In the midst of defensive coaching changes, offensive coordinators at Oklahoma and Texas and two at Oklahoma State have gotten head coaching jobs.

This is not coincidental. As easy as it is to get a job with an offensive pedigree rooted in the Big 12, it’s as hard to keep a defensive job.  

TCU’s Dick Bumpas is the longest-tenured defensive coordinator in the Big 12 with 10 seasons in purple, though the 2013 season will be just his second in the league. Iowa State’s Wally Burnham is second to Bumpas as he readies for his fifth season. Everyone else under the Big 12 umbrella has been in place no longer than two seasons; the fall will see new faces at Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys are an interesting bunch. Southern Miss’s Todd Monken, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen and North Carolina’s Larry Fedora (by way of Southern Miss) have turned their time as offensive coordinator into a head coaching job. Illinois’ Tim Beckman was the defensive coordinator before he was hired as the Toledo head coach.

Mike Gundy has built a program with explosive offenses and talented coaches and he himself has been wooed in recent years, but never well enough to pull him from his alma mater. Where Oklahoma State has lacked, though, has been on defense and Gundy parted ways with coordinator Bill Young this offseason.

Given the profile of the program and the way assistants have used Stillwater as a springboard, it made sense that Gundy might be able to hire a big name, or at least a winner from a defensively distinguished program. Imagine the future appeal and negotiating power of the defensive coordinator who wins games and championships in the Big 12 — and don’t pretend that’s not part of every candidate’s thinking. Oklahoma State can be that good in 2013 and the right pick by Gundy would only help.

The Cowboys instead moved quickly to elevate linebackers coach Glenn Spencer, the guy who ran the defense that got smoked by Arizona early last season when Young was away for medical reasons. Put against Gundy’s decision a month later to hire his new offense coordinator from Division II Shippensburg, it looks a little vanilla.

Yet it makes sense and for all the reasons that might suggest it does not make sense.

Nobody from the outside was going to know more about the players and their strengths than Spencer. Only somebody on the inside could have the intimate knowledge about the weaknesses that forced Gundy to make the change.

“This being the year for me to step in is a good one,” Spencer said on a conference call last month. “I’ll be the first one to admit I’ve got a lot of older guys, a lot of seniors on defense who have played a lot of ball. You can’t coach that.”

The Cowboys return seven starters on defense and are thick on experience with a chance to start eight juniors or seniors and use a bunch more for depth. Nose guard Calvin Barnett is one of the league’s best defensive linemen. Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lavey give the defense experience outside and inside at linebacker. Cornerback Justin Gilbert has first-round pick potential. Safeties Daytawion Lowe and Shamiel Gray are both seniors on the back end in a passing league.

They’ve practiced for years against the Oklahoma State offense and the speed with which it plays and they’re at least used to that more than the other Big 12 teams. They’ve also seen things go wrong, never worse than they did last year. Oklahoma State led the nation in turnover margin and forced turnovers in 2011, but plummeted in those categories and others in 2012. The Cowboys finished even in turnover margin and ranked No. 58, working against the potential of a team that didn’t get enough opportunities for an offense ranked in the top seven in passing, total and scoring offense.

Oklahoma State had an 8-5 record due in large part to the defense that ranked No. 110 in passing defense, No. 80 in total defense and No. 64 in scoring defense.

“Typically older guys like that who have played a lot, when something goes wrong, they know how to fix it,” Spencer said.

Spencer is in the same position. He’s entering his sixth season at the school and he’ll be the third defensive coordinator in his time on campus. Only now is he able to take the touches he’s developed through the years and apply them to the defense that Gundy believes Spencer can save.

“We thought some things needed to be fixed from last year as far as the approach and mentality of it,” said Spencer, who will keep the 4-3 in place. “Schematically, there are tweaks here and there. We’re trying to be not as predictable in different areas on our side of the ball as far as making decisions, what we show people, picking spots for when we pressure and when we don’t pressure. I don’t know how different it is. We’ll have to wait and see, but a lot of it has to be with how the guys produce on the field.”