Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer has a simple explanation to describe the change in his job in the past year.
“180 degrees,” he says.
At this time a year ago, Spencer was a new defensive coordinator with a defense full of veterans. From cornerback Justin Gilbert, a likely NFL draft first-round pick, to linebacker Shaun Lewis, an All-Big 12 performer, the Cowboys defense featured several players with plenty of experience. His task required fine-tuning and allowed him to be creative, with the understanding his experienced defense could handle the extra burden of additional schemes.
This spring has been much different as he prepares for his second season running the Pokes' defense. The unit, while talented, is young and inexperienced as they try to replace a group of seniors who started 239 combined games in a Cowboys uniform.
“Right now it keeps me up at night,” Spencer said midway through the spring. “I just want them to find within themselves what they’re all about, check their heartbeat out before they come out here [to practice] and find the right motivation for what they’re doing. That’s part of the fun part, watching a kid find that, so we just have to get more people to find that.”
Instilling mental toughness was a spring focus.
“It’s been a process the whole spring; it’s not a real surprise,” Spencer said. “We have some guys running with the first unit that haven’t earned a thing yet and there’s probably a sense of entitlement right now.”
Oklahoma State does have several returning defenders with experience, including defensive tackle James Castleman and cornerback Kevin Peterson, who both say they prefer to lead by example. So there is a potential vocal leadership void, but Spencer has been pleased with the spring progress of his youthful unit, even if it hasn’t reached the heights required for success this fall.
“We got a lot done,” Spencer said. “I’m still not happy, but we got a lot done. There was some improvement made -- a lot of it -- mostly in the tough situations we put them in, some adversity that happened and watching and studying and seeing yourself on tape and realizing what you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing doesn’t match up sometimes.”
If removing what Spencer had referred to as "a sense of entitlement" earlier in the spring has been achieved, then Oklahoma State can call this spring a success.
“Our perception of what we are and then what we are accomplishing is a lot different,” Spencer said. "Those things were huge, and we took a big step toward that.”
Even with their spring progress, the inexperience of the Cowboys defense will remain a storyline until the fall.
“There were a number of years where we had Joe [Mitchell] and Shaun and those guys you know about,” head coach Mike Gundy said. “When you’re experienced on defense, they can overcome speed, and they can overcome different tempos of offense and formations and movement. When you get in a game on that side of the ball, if you’re not real experienced, things that move around a little bit and you start paying attention to that, and then they snap the ball and you get out of your gap. We have to really pay attention as a coaching staff to that and put our players in positions to give them the best chance to have success early in the season.”