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OSU football: Defensive focus turns to more experienced secondary in Jim Knowles' second season

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Oklahoma State's Malcolm Rodriguez (20) forces a fumble by West Virginia's Will Grier (7) in the third quarter of the Cowboys' 45-41 win last season in Stillwater. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Oklahoma State's Malcolm Rodriguez (20) forces a fumble by West Virginia's Will Grier (7) in the third quarter of the Cowboys' 45-41 win last season in Stillwater. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

STILLWATER — Malcolm Rodriguez has always acted like a veteran, even when he was a true freshman, pulling his redshirt to help with special teams.

Now, the junior-to-be safety is among the leaders in Oklahoma State’s defensive backfield as the Cowboys’ emphasis shifts from last year’s veteran defensive line to the more experienced secondary.

Gone are the front-line protectors like Jordan Brailford, Jarrell Owens, Cole Walterscheid, Trey Carter and Enoch Smith Jr.

Last year’s group of rookie safeties — plus experienced cornerbacks A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams — has quickly evolved into the nucleus of coordinator Jim Knowles’ defense after taking some hits last season.

“School of hard knocks,” Knowles said. “They had some tough experiences, but they’re gonna be light years better. And we’ve got two great corners in my opinion. I think they are gonna be some of the best in the league and the country.

“When you can play two guys like that, you’ve got a chance to be good in the secondary.”

Having a veteran front in Knowles’ first season as defensive coordinator allowed him to attack more, resulting in the Cowboys finishing in the top 10 nationally in quarterback sacks with 39, tied for 10th-most in the country. And the Cowboys were ninth nationally in red-zone defense, allowing points on 73.6 percent of opponents’ possessions inside the 20.

But the focus has to turn this year, and spring practice is a crucial time for further development of the young safeties.

Jarrick Bernard, Kolby Peel and Tanner McCalister will be true sophomores. Rodriguez is a true junior and the oldest scholarship player in the group.

He has already begun to see the subtle changes in Knowles’ philosophy to adapt to the personnel differences.

“Now that we’re more experienced, he’s making those little adjustments that fit the plan,” Rodriguez said. “I just have to communicate with everyone back there and make sure we’re all on the same page.”

Life in the Big 12 means defensive backs will give up big plays on occasion. Limiting those moments, and learning to handle them when they happen, is the key to survival.

“Big 12 offensive coordinators are willing to constantly seek the big play and take advantage of your weaknesses,” Knowles said. “We’ll be better this year. We had a couple things we did well, and everything else has got to improve.

“We gave up too many explosive plays. I expect that to be turned around this year.”

Scott Wright

A lifelong resident of the Oklahoma City metro area, Scott Wright has been on The Oklahoman staff since 2005, covering a little bit of everything on the state's sports scene. He has been a beat writer for football and basketball at Oklahoma and... Read more ›

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