Depth Chart Dive: LBs, DBs, Specialists
OSU’s linebacker corps presents a startling contrast.
On the bright side, with seniors occupying all four spots on the depth chart, there’s more experience and reliability at linebacker than any other position on the roster.
Behind them, complete uncertainty.
For now, let 2021 and beyond be a concern for another time. The good news remains that the Cowboys will send out four accomplished veterans to the position, led by starters Malcolm Rodriguez and Amen Ogbongbemiga, who started every game a year ago when they ranked 1-2 in tackles, combining for 203 stops, 6 1/2 sacks, 22 1/2 tackles for losses, nine quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and two interceptions.
It’s a tandem that’s tough, smart and relentless, great qualities for linebackers. Both are on the Butkus Award Watch List.
Rodriguez, a former safety, continues to grow into the role.
“I’m pushing almost 230, so I’ve gained a little bit of weight since last year,” he said. “The game goes a lot faster when you’re up there at linebacker, so now I’m used to seeing all those pulls (by offensive linemen) and everything. The feet are better.
“I had to get switched over from safety feet to linebacker feet.”
Calvin Bundage, with 20 career starts, returns from a year lost to injury, reinstating his penchant for harassing quarterbacks through premium speed off the edge. Devin Harper, whose time at OSU has been hampered by injuries, is again healthy and ready in a reserve role.
Overall, it’s a group that offers something for everyone in terms of Cowboys fans, and presents problems for anyone in enemy uniforms.
The Cowboys secondary should provide yet another strength on what stands as one of the program’s most promising defenses in recent memory.
The five-man crew is loaded with familiar names, as well as some need-to-know fresher faces. The safeties are marked by all-conference candidates Kolby Harvell-Peel and Tre Sterling, while Tanner McCalister slides into the third spot after two seasons at cornerback. Sterling established himself as one of OSU’s top defenders in 2019 and Harvell-Peel produced a breakout season, earning first team All-Big 12 honors.
A knee injury on the final play of the regular season, against Oklahoma, prevented Harvell-Peel from playing in the bowl game, but with that behind him, the junior from College Station, Texas, seems primed for stardom.
“Everybody keeps saying stuff about me being a vet now, and I'm still new,” Harvell-Peel said. “I've only been here for two years. But to see young guys come in and be able to play with them and try to give them any bit of wisdom that I've got, it's definitely fun. We've got young guys that are out there making plays, too. So it's more fun when you can go out there and fly around.”
A.J. Green is gone after a solid run at cornerback, leaving the one vacancy to be filled on defense. Yet, in three-year starter Rodarius Williams, Jarrick Bernard-Converse and transfer Christian Holmes, Cowboys coaches feel they have a trio more than capable of holding their own in the pass-happy Big 12.
Williams can be a bit inconsistent, but he also ranks 11th in OSU history with 24 passes broken up. Bernard-Converse is making the move from safety, where he was productive. And Holmes, a grad transfer from Missouri, has produced a strong preseason.
All three are capable of starting, making for some friendly competition.
“It’s real good to have that competition in the room and give me that fire not to be comfortable with my starting position,” Williams said. “It gives you that edge, not only for me, but for everybody in the room. Our competition level has been top-tier.
“This is my last go-round. There’s no coming back after this one.”
If the Cowboys have an obvious question mark, a significant weakness even, this is it.
Tom Hutton struggled in his debut a year ago, after arriving from Australia amid much hype. Mike Gundy regularly suggested he saw a different punter in practice, although that guy never materialized in games, particularly in big moments when a good punt was needed.
Will Hutton look and be different in 2020? It’s an important, and oft-overlooked question.
David Hale, another Aussie, is the new placekicker. He’s kicked off a few times, but never handled a field goal or extra point.
There’s legitimate hope for the return game, which has gone into hibernation in recent years. Braydon Johnson’s speed is well-documented, and while he’s returned kickoffs before, he seems to be breaking out in every way. LD Brown joins Johnson on kick returns.
Dillon Stoner is a reliable punt returner, who won’t make a mistake and occasionally produce positive returns.
More hope comes with the possibility of true freshman Brennan Presley getting involved. Not even on the two-deep yet, Presly is likely not being rushed into the role, but surely will get a look at some point this season.