In any given year, there are known quantities in the college football universe.
Oklahoma and Texas Tech will have explosive offenses. TCU will field a good, aggressive defense. Alabama will be good. Kansas will be bad. You can set your watch by these truths. In our first four installments of Enemy at the Gates, we took a look at certainties entering 2019.
But there are also unknown quantities every year, and sometimes those can turn out to be the most dangerous of all.
That’s the scenario with Oklahoma State’s secondary this year. The Cowboys were forced to throw freshmen into the fire of Big 12 football last season, which also coincided with a regime change at defensive coordinator. OSU was below average in 2018, but if everything shakes out right, the Cowboys could field a lockdown secondary in 2019.
There are two sure things for Oklahoma State in the secondary, and they reside at the cornerback position. Senior A.J. Green — not the Bengals receiver — and redshirt junior Rodarius Williams return after strong seasons in 2018. Green (6-1, 190 pounds) was a Second Team All-Big 12 selection by the coaches last year. He finished with 39 tackles and 11 pass breakups, although, strangely, he only recorded one interception. Williams (6-0, 187 pounds) had 49 tackles, eight pass breakups and two picks.
Williams and Green will be tasked with locking down the opposition’s best wideouts, with Green drawing the No. 1 receiver more often than not last year. The pair are solid, and should give second-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles the stability he needs to build around.
At safety, one spot is done and dusted. Malcolm Rodriguez (6-0, 205 pounds) was an Honorable Mention All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore in 2018 and was second on the team in tackles with 83. He’s more of a run-stopper than a threat to disrupt the passing game — he only broke up one pass all season. But he’s a converted high school wrestler that isn’t afraid to mix it up, and he’s a lock for a starting role.
Behind Rodriguez, there will be a battle to fill the other safety spot. As Athlon Sports noted, three players — Kolby Harvell-Peel, Jarrick Bernard and Tanner McCalister — were forced to play at safety as freshmen last season. Those three, if they don’t have PTSD from taking on Oklahoma and Texas Tech’s offenses in their first college year, will be ready to take the next step in 2019.
Harvell-Peel is the biggest of the three at a listed 6-0, 210 pounds. He posted 44 solo tackles last season, 5.5 of which were for losses, and broke up four passes. He’s a physical player that isn’t afraid to close down on running backs.
Bernard is the tallest of the sophomore safeties at 6-2, 195 pounds. He received Oklahoma State’s Russell Okung Award in 2018, given to the team’s outstanding newcomer. He led all freshmen with 59 tackles (49 solo), had an interception, a punt block and a forced fumble, and started the final nine games of the year. He’s as sure a bet as anyone to earn the starting spot opposite Rodriguez.
McCalister is listed at 5-11, 185 pounds. He played in all but the first game of the year, and closed out his freshman campaign with a season-high four tackles in the bowl game against Missouri. He’s behind Harvel-Peel and Bernard in terms of 2018 production, but don’t rule him out to make an impact.
The aggressiveness of the Oklahoma State secondary as a unit will depend on the approach Knowles takes now that he has a season with the Cowboys under his belt. Gueren Emig of the Tulsa World wrote the Knowles was admittedly “wobbled” by his first season in Big 12 country, and is trying to pick his spots to attack an offense.
“I want to see improvement in technique, things like man coverage and defensive linemen using their hands and linebackers being able to react to run/pass,” he said, “Those kinds of basic fundamentals of the game.”
Then he returns to his specific challenge.
“How much do I stay aggressive versus how much do I pull back and protect? Y’ know?” Knowles said. “That’s what’s constantly going through my mind.”
So it is improvement the Cowboys seek this spring, and balance Knowles must find.
He’ll have the personnel to find that balance in 2019.