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OSU football: A positon-by-position breakdown of the 2019 Cowboy defense

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OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles coaches his unit during the AutoZone Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee on Dec. 31, 2018.

The 2018 season was one to forget for the Oklahoma State football team, especially for the OSU defense. 

The Cowboys’ defense held its own at times, but for the majority of the season it struggled under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

“I’m gonna do breakdowns, watch every play,” Knowles said after OSU’s win against Missouri about his plans for the offseason. “I’m gonna watch every bad play about 600 times. I’m gonna not sleep all offseason. Anything an offense can do, they’re gonna do it in the Big 12.”

Here’s a way-too-early look at the 2019 Cowboy defense and special teams:

Defensive Line

To say the defensive line is a question mark for the 2019 Cowboys would be an understatement.

Joe Bob Clements will have his hands full trying to piece this unit back together with all it's losing. OSU loses five of its top eight contributors on the defensive line, including all four of its starters. It's losing 21 sacks and 161 total tackles from this unit heading into next year.

The good news is all four guys likely to fill the starting spots have played in some capacity. Cameron Murray and Brendon Evers both recorded seven tackles this season, and Brock Martin showed signs of his potential this season.

However, no matter how effective the starters are, the second unit is a complete toss up. In the fast-paced Big 12 conference, playing multiple defensive linemen is a must. The rotation is something Joe Bob Clements will have to sort out once spring and fall camp roll around. 

Linebacker

Losing Justin Phillips to graduation is going to hurt this unit. Other than that, it returns everyone. But Phillips was a major piece and led the Cowboys’ defense at season’s end with 26 straight starts under his belt.

Calvin Bundage battled injuries for a good portion of this season and should be back in a big way in 2019. Who else steps up and starts in Phillips’ spot is yet to be determined. Kevin Henry, surprisingly, started the bowl game in place of a hurt Bundage. He’ll be a fifth-year player and the veteran of the group next season.

Devin Harper showed glimpses this year, while Amen Ogbongbemiga made his presence known on special teams. For the Cowboy defense to improve upon its disappointing 2018 campaign, both the linebacker and defensive back units will need players to step up and fill some big holes.

Secondary

The secondary as a whole has a chance to be a strength of this Cowboy defense going into next season. It struggled at times this season, especially with giving up the big plays, but everyone’s coming back.

At cornerback, A.J. Green and Rodarius Williams return for what will be both of their third seasons as starters. When Williams was called for targeting against Missouri in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, fans were given a glimpse of Kemah Siverand and Bryce Balous. They will be the backups at this spot.

At safety, OSU was incredibly young in 2018. At times, they had two, sometimes three freshmen starting at the safety position.

Malcolm Rodriguez will be the veteran of the group as a junior. He injured his knee against Missouri, but details of the injury have not been disclosed since then. Along with him will be Kolby Peel, Jarrick Bernard and Tanner McCallister. The latter three will all be sophomores and received playing time as freshmen this season.

Knowles’ 4-2-5 defensive scheme relies heavily on safety play. If OSU’s young safeties progress during the offseason, and continue to progress in their second year playing under Knowles, they have a chance to be a special group. If the safeties, and the secondary as a whole, doesn’t improve from this season in their second year under Knowles, the results in 2019 could look eerily similar. 

Kicking

OSU returns Matt Ammendola, who will be a fifth-year senior. Ammendola finished the season 16-of-22 on field goals, but was marred by a three-game stretch against Texas, Baylor and Oklahoma in which he went 2-of-7. His season long was from 48 yards. 

Jake McClure was the place kicker all season and returns at that spot. 

Punting

Matt Hockett filled in well for Zach Sinor punting in 2018 after Sinor was sidelined because of injury. Both players graduate, however, paving the way for somebody new to be at this spot. 

Enter 27-year-old Tom Hutton, an Australian carpenter who OSU signed in its 2019 recruiting class. Hutton comes from ProKick Australia, an organization known for grooming Australian kickers. Even with his old age, he still has four years of eligibility left. 

sports.ed@ocolly.com