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Cornerback depth could transform Oklahoma State's defense

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Mike Gundy was answering a question about cornerback Ashton Lampkin's return from injury, but his answer was a revealing look at the difference between Oklahoma State’s cornerbacks this spring as opposed to the 2014 season.

“He’ll have to compete,” the Cowboys head coach said. “He won’t be able to walk back in and be a starter on this team.”

Cowboys fans got a glimpse at the improved depth at cornerback in last Saturday’s spring game, with Kevin Peterson and Ramon Richards grabbing interceptions in the spring finale. Peterson returned his interception for a touchdown while Richards showed the ball skills of a receiver on his pick, snatching the pigskin away from James Washington off a pass from quarterback Mason Rudolph, a sign just how much Richards has grown since the end of the season.

“That first interception [Mason] Rudolph threw, that ball was exactly where you want it to be thrown,” Gundy said of Richards' interception.

Peterson and Richards will join Lampkin and Indiana transfer Michael Hunter to give the Pokes four cornerbacks with starting experience heading into 2015. It’s a level of depth unseen in 2014. The value of having a bevy of cornerbacks cannot be underrated in a conference that sends talented receivers at defenses in waves. Very few defenses will be equipped to handle the barrage as well as Oklahoma State.

"Last year we just didn't have it,” defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer said. “It allows us to do what we couldn't do last year and what we did two years ago. Play different packages in different situations and different games. We couldn’t do that last year and it hurt us.”

The potential of four quality cover corners could be a nightmare for Big 12 offenses that will also be tasked with blocking defensive ends Emmanuel Ogbah and Jimmy Bean. Even worse, the extra coverage could free Spencer to blitz linebackers and safeties from all angles with the confidence the Cowboys cornerbacks can hold up in one-on-one matchups with the Big 12's best pass catchers.

It's a different world from what Spencer had to work with 12 months ago.

Heading into the 2014 season, it looked like things would be just fine at cornerback despite the loss of first-round pick Justin Gilbert. Peterson was ready to become the main man at cornerback as the lone proven playmaker while Lampkin entered the season poised to show his skills after two seasons as a special teams demon. Instead, Lampkin’s ankle injury left Peterson to carry the burden as the top coverman while Richards was thrown into the fire. Richards played like the true freshman he was, recording a rollercoaster debut campaign that saw him give up big plays on one snap then record a interception on the next.

Those struggles should pay off this fall, as Richards has gone from an unpolished weak link to a sturdy performer and the primary reason Lampkin can’t just slide back into the starting spot. The sophomore should be a much different, more consistent performer in his second season.

“I’m really excited about Ramon Richards,” Gundy said. “His attitude, his swag, the way he plays the game and challenges receivers.”

Hunter, who started 24 games during the past two seasons at IU, joins the mix as a graduate transfer to give OSU four quality cornerbacks with starting experience along with senior Miketavius Jones and emerging sophomore Darius Curry. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Pokes to go three-deep at cornerback in 2015 after going one-deep in 2014.

“You could tap your helmet and come out at any time and have a guy who can start over you or take your position [coming in],” Peterson said. “The competitiveness in the cornerbacks’ room is unbelievable.”