OSU football: Would you rather inexperience in secondary or up front? Easy answer for Jim Knowles
STILLWATER — Jim Knowles had a defense that got to the quarterback almost as well as any team in the country a year ago.
A lot of good it did him.
Even though the Oklahoma State defensive coordinator had one of the most experienced and disruptive defensive fronts around, he ended up with a defense that gave him sleepless nights. It regularly struggled. Several times, it flat stunk.
"We were fifth in the country in sacks last year" among Power 5 teams, Knowles said, pausing and letting the weight of that stat sink in, "but we didn't have the feel like we had a good defensive year."
"That's part of the Big 12. You're better off to have the experience in the back."
Knowles is ready to try his luck with that formula, the reverse of what he had a year ago. An experienced secondary. An inexperienced front. Even though the development of the defensive line is most pressing question for as the Cowboys as they quickly approach their season opener at Oregon State, maybe it isn't the make-or-break issue it seems for the 2019 Cowboys.
This isn't to say the defensive front can do nothing. Got to pressure the quarterback on occasion and force the issue when necessarily. Giving Big 12 quarterbacks unlimited time, after all, is a recipe for epic disaster.
But pretty clearly, playing good defense in the Big 12 does not depend on the line.
Led by Jordan Brailford and Jarrell Owens, the Cowboys topped the league with 39 sacks last season. Among Power 5 teams, that total was fifth-best, tied with Mississippi State and behind only Penn State, Clemson, Syracuse and Miami.
But look at total defense or scoring defense or any number of other big-picture defensive stats, and you see a bunch of sacks did not a great defensive make in Stillwater. Among all major-college football teams, OSU was in the top 10 with three sacks per game, but it easily had the worst overall defense among that bunch. The Cowboys' total defense ranked 112th, their scoring defense 97th.
The next closest among those sack-tastic teams were Syracuse (87th total defense) and Tulane (75th).
Every other team in that sack top 10 had a total defense that ranked in the top 40.
(None of them, by the way, were Big 12 teams.)
So, why didn't OSU's great defensive line production equate to better defense last season?
Knowles believes it was because of the big plays given up by the secondary. Too many chunk plays for offenses. Too many explosive moments for opponents. That cost the Cowboys several games.
Inexperience in the secondary was the likely culprit. At safety, the Cowboys primarily played Malcolm Rodriguez, a sophomore who had true-freshman experience on special teams but limited snaps on defense, along with Kolby Harvell-Peel and Jarrick Bernard, both true freshman. When Knowles watches film of his safeties from the start of last season and compares it to what he saw at the end of the year, they look like different players.
"Absolutely," he said. "Those guys, my expectations for them this year is that they're going to play like veterans."
"I think they have a future in this game," Knowles said, referring to NFL potential. "They have the size and the skills, but they also have the football IQ. I think they're going to be great this year."
And Knowles' hope is that translates to defensive improvement. He admits he much prefers going into the season with an experienced secondary instead of an experienced front.
"We've kind of got a reversal, right?" he said. "Which I hope will bring down the explosive plays."
If Knowles had his druthers, he'd have veterans at every position — what defensive coordinator wouldn't? — but in the Big 12, this is the druther you'd rather have.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
NCAA SACK LEADERS
When it came to sacking the quarterback, Oklahoma State was one of the best in the country a year ago. But that pressure didn't equate to great overall defense. Here's a look at teams that averaged at least 3.0 sacks a game and where they ranked overall defensively:
Team, Sacks/game, Total defense rank, Scoring defense rank
1. Penn State, 3.62, 34th, 23rd
2. Clemson, 3.6, fifth, first
3. Northern Illinois, 3.57, 40th, 35th
4. Louisiana Tech, 3.46, 27th, 39th
5. Alabama-Birmingham, 3.43, ninth, seventh
6. Syracuse, 3.31, 87th, 64th
7. Marshall, 3.23, 25th, 27th
8. Tulane, 3.15, 75th, 73rd
9. Miami, 3.08, fourth, 18th
10t. Mississippi State, 3.0, first, second
10t. Alabama, 3.0, 16th, 12th
10t. Troy, 3.0, 31st, 28th
10t. Boise State, 3.0, 39th, 30th
10t. Oklahoma State, 3.0, 112th, 97th
Oklahoma State journal, special teams outlook, B3