The first big domino to drop this offseason for the Big 12 was Oklahoma State firing longtime defensive coach Glenn Spencer. Mike Gundy is always tweaking his approach and looking to find ways to create an edge for his team and Spencer’s record as DC since taking over for the deposed Bill Young wasn’t holding up.
This last year was probably the toughest one for Gundy and Spencer, the ‘Pokes were all in on a big 2017 season with Mason Rudolph and James Washington returning as seniors and the offense getting additional help from grad transfer LT Aaron Cochran. Spencer’s defense just couldn’t quite hold up their end of the deal, particularly in a 62-52 shootout defeat at Bedlam.
Spencer initially came to Oklahoma State in 2008 and served as the DL coach but then moved to LBs in 2009 while being joined by new DC Bill Young. Young transitioned the Cowboys from a disguise heavy approach to a “let’s just line up properly, play great base defense, and make ’em earn it.” The OSU defenses of those times included some strong units and some really good players like S Markell Martin, DE Jamie Blatnick, CB Justin Gilbert, S Daytawion Lowe, and a revolving door of good LBs coached up by Glenn Spencer. In particular they ALWAYS had a good “star” space-hybrid LB and it was usually the same guy, Shaun Lewis, and they always had a good Mike LB.
Then Gundy surprisingly fired Young after the 2012 season and promoted Spencer to DC. There was some sense to this since it was Spencer’s LBs who had paced the unit and evidently Spencer convinced Gundy that the defense needed to mix in more packages to take the next step. The 2013 defense, the first of Spencer’s tenure, was fantastic. They were bringing back most of their starters from 2012 and finished 11th in defensive S&P+ with a highlight win in which they shut down the vaunted Baylor Bears.
Every year since then the Pokes have continued to have good LB play and some solid D-lines (coached by former K-State staffer Joe Bob Clements) as well, but Spencer’s disguise and package-heavy defenses didn’t seem to make the most of the DB talent, or else the Cowboys just weren’t able to get enough skilled athletes back there on the field to make it work. They regularly performed well in terms of Spencer’s favorite metrics of turnover margin, red zone D, and scoring D but invariably had a few games each season where the defense just couldn’t hold up against the potent offenses in the Big 12.
So Gundy sacked Spencer and he’s looking around with some reports saying that Duke’s Jim Knowles is the most likely hire. I’ll dive into Knowles more if he proves to be the hire but he has been working under David Cutcliffe for this entire decade and they followed a very Bill Young-ish path to playing consistently good defense, relying heavily on a 4-2-5 defense with a base “sky coverage” not far from what our pal Coach Alexander preaches on his excellent website.
This is a big hire, because even before adding Bob Stitt as an analyst Oklahoma State has worked out ways to consistently punch above their weight on offense. I was debating the merits of my recent article on the 95 Cornhuskers and whether blue-chip ratio holds up in light of their achievements and Bud Elliott asked me this question:
Which team do you think will bust it btw. And will it happen in the next decade?
— Bud Elliott 🔌 (@BudElliott3) January 29, 2018
Bud is a sharp one (unlike many of the article’s other detractors), asking the question that challenges my premise and gets to the heart of the issue in a jiffy. Also for the record, Elliott agrees that blue-chip ratio doesn’t work in describing prerequisites for building a championship team in the pre-modern recruiting era but maintains that it is true in the modern recruiting era. I disagree and think Nebraska’s wins put that in greater doubt than he does, but perhaps we’ll address that in the future.
Anyways, Oklahoma State is definitely one of the more likely teams to win a national championship without hitting the blue-chip ratio. Now that they’ve locked up Mike Gundy on a long-term deal and probably ensured that he retires as the King of Stillwater, much like Bill Snyder in Manhattan, he has the time to work out the missing variables to his formula in pursuit of a title. The big one is a defensive strategy that can ensure that they are in striking distance in years when the offense is elite. This is a big hire coming up for OSU.
Meanwhile, the Big 12’s other longtime head man Bill Snyder is officially replacing both coordinators now with DC Tom Hayes retiring. There were definitely some questions about whether Snyder would stick things out if the coordinators to whom he delegates so much at this point were both to leave and I still have those questions. Is Snyder just going to find reasons to stick around until he’s physically unable to coach anymore or does he have some kind of plan for handing off K-State in good hands with the system he installed still in good working order?
Kansas State has followed the Bill Young style of defense since Snyder returned, executing a base Over quarters 4-3 defense that defaulted to a 4-2-5 nickel package on 70% or more of their snaps on standard downs and included a third down package in which they subbed out some run-stuffing DL for extra pass-rushers up front. It was working reasonably well year after year but facing diminishing returns as teams learned how to attack it, the overall athleticism of the defense wasn’t consistently strong at every spot (invariably where they’d then be attacked), and the 4-2-5 began to slip as an effective solution for Big 12 spread offenses.
Over on offense, Kansas State lost OC Dana Dimel and it was interesting to see how Snyder responded to that. Basically he just elevated the coaches that were already on staff while hiring some of his former players to serve as bottom rung assistants…essentially the same way he replaces his senior players from year to year. Continuity is obviously the goal here, Snyder has his offensive system that is based on multiplicity and development and his intention is to maintain it.
Defense though, it’ll be interesting to see what happens here. At this point in his career it seems that Snyder’s 4-2-5 Quarters defense truly is HIS system and although he may tweak things I don’t know how much he intends to change about it. The big challenge for their system, which I outlined heading into the 2017 campaign, is the outside-backer position and the way that spread offenses isolate and attack him. K-State needs a rangy athlete there for their defense to work properly.
This last year they used Jayd Kirby, who led the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and nearly in sacks as well with four. He also finished close behind inside-backer Trent Tanking in run stuffs with 12. Kirby was a pretty effective player, but his job asked him to cover a lot of ground and wear a lot of hats and the Wildcats didn’t have enough athletes around him for things to work out. In 2018 he’ll be gone and replaced by another guy of probably similar athleticism or worse and also similar development in the system or less.
What the Wildcats need is to tweak the entire structure of their defense so that their ability to coach up and field linebackers of Kirby and Tanking’s quality even while relying on walk-ons can actually be a strength rather than a means of “getting by.” They need to embrace their ability to develop players with a hybridized approach to defense in which they field 3-4 LBs at a time and protect them from getting caught in space with nickel and dime packages that flood the field behind them with coverage athletes.
They’ve been out trying to sign increasingly athletic outside-backers so they can carry on as they have this decade but they’d really benefit from making a hire that could mix up their approach and hybridize things up a bit so opponents wouldn’t be able to pinpoint and isolate their weak spots every year. Otherwise they need to hire a really good DB coach who recruits and teaches well because they haven’t had a All-B12 caliber nickel since Randall Evans left and that has left the outside-backer in increasingly tough positions. If Elijah Walker isn’t playing that position at a high level next year then something is wrong in Manhattan.
We’re starting to see some warning signs regarding the Lincoln Riley era in Norman. Let’s start by acknowledging the ways in which he’s proven to be a phenomenal coach: He’s an ace recruiter who can close and support his staff at a high level, that’s a great quality to have in your head coach. He’s also a brilliant offensive mind that knows how to push the envelope tactically while maintaining a traditional and execution-based approach to running the football and winning with superior size and talent, which is good for a school like Oklahoma.
The concerns? The first move he made as head coach was bringing back his old pal Ruffin McNeil from East Carolina to serve as a DL coach. I praised the move at the time because McNeil is a legitimately strong coach and a potential safety valve in the event that Mike Stoops wet the bed and risked the 2017 season with his terrible defense.
As a pure hire it didn’t make a ton of sense because OU already had a DL coach and two LB coaches but only one secondary coach in a league where nearly everyone has two coaches for the secondary and plays at least five DBs at all times. It made sense mostly as a “Hey Ruffin, be my eyes and ears over there in the defensive room and let me know what’s up while me and Baker do our thing over here.”
Then Riley allowed Stoops to blow the 2017 season, suggesting Riley’s either missing the awareness or the political capital to make a move there.
Now, I’ve heard a little bit on Mike Stoops since the disastrous Georgia game. What you hear about him sounds EXACTLY like what you see on the field and what you’d expect. He is an encyclopedia of football knowledge, schemes, tactics, and techniques. He’s up in the booth trying to use it while on the field his players are not well guided and don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s not that Stoops is an idiot or incapable of scheming up B12 offenses (although, the 3-4 really?) but that OU’s defensive culture seems to be rotting out and the players aren’t at all aligned or whipped into shape.
Then Riley had to replace Oklahoma’s longtime culture-setter and taskmaster Jerry Schmidt. For years Bob Stoops leaned heavily on Shipp to beef up his players and get them used to a program where excellence was demanded and complainers or guys who didn’t want to work were MADE to work. Schmidt got a great offer from Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M (who badly needs someone to come and metaphorically break Trey William’s pimp cane over the backs of some of their players) but there’s definitely some stuff floating out there to suggest that Riley was encouraging Schmidt to move on.
That’s not a terrible move in and of itself, the S&C coach is typically the most important hire in terms of setting the culture of a program and it isn’t absurd for Riley to want to have his own guy there rather than the guy who’s been doing things his way since Stoops took over.
Then Riley hired Benny Wylie…this was not a good hire. Wylie was brought in by Mack Brown at Texas to help the aging and disinterested “Maddog” Madden whip Texas’ players into shape and things started to go south. He apparently emphasized fast paced drill work over strength and was a friendly guy that the players were unafraid of. Basically the opposite of your martial, drill sergeant that most teams employ in that role. Texas endured a lot of injuries in that time and many of Mack’s assistants were horrified by how things were proceeding. You’ll note that the notoriously “I’m going to demand a lot and you’re going to be a physical team” Bryan Harsin skipped town after 2012 for the best offer available.
So now we have this Oklahoma defense that was exceptionally soft and aimless in 2017 that still has their DC entrenched, still has their staff allocated in a bizarre fashion, and now will have the culture set by a guy that was trying to run his own business in 2017 and that Riley knows (again) from their time together at Texas Tech.
This all begs the question, is Riley shaping the culture and staff at Oklahoma to benefit the offense? What made him a brilliant hire and wonderfully successful right off the bat (besides being lucky enough to have Baker Mayfield) was that Riley was able to embrace the physical design of Bob Stoops OU culture. The toughness and defensive mentality in Norman was starting to slip but they maintained their physicality on offense the last three years and were rewarded with three consecutive B12 championships. If Oklahoma goes soft they won’t hold as champions over the next few years.
So, these three schools that have been contenders this decade for league titles are all at crossroads in terms of what’s next for them on defense. Texas, Iowa State, TCU, West Virginia, and Baylor are all committed and positioned to play good defense in the coming years. If these three schools can’t figure out how to do likewise they will be left behind, even Oklahoma.