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Rodriguez’s commitment to studying new linebacker duties makes transition smooth

Trey Sermon and Malcolm Rodriguez

Oklahoma State safety Malcolm Rodriguez (20) has switched to linebacker.

Malcolm Rodriguez’s uncertainty faded after a few days.

Rodriguez, a junior on the Oklahoma State football team, said his coaches shifted him from safety to linebacker with about two weeks left in fall camp. Although he was willing to learn so he could help his team, he wasn’t fully comfortable during his first reps in a new spot on the field after starting 10 games at safety the previous year.

“At first, I was kind of hesitant, didn’t know what to do,” Rodriguez said.

Then he settled into his position in practice and, after the quick adjustment period, started as a linebacker in OSU’s season opener victory at Oregon State.

“I was definitely a lot closer to the line, so you definitely gotta be a little quicker in your decision making,” Rodriguez said. “But other than that, it felt good.”

He moved in front of the secondary to replace Calvin Bundage, a senior linebacker who is recovering from a back strain and didn’t travel with the Cowboys to Oregon State. Linebackers Devin Harper and Kevin Henry also missed the opener because of injuries, so Rodriguez’s presence was vital. He logged nine tackles, including five solo stops, against the Beavers.

Sunday, coach Mike Gundy tweeted a graphic showing Rodriguez as the Cowboys’ defensive MVP. The honor was the result of Rodriguez’s commitment to studying his new responsibilities.

To adapt to the transition, Rodriguez reviewed the defense’s formations, making sure he knew where to line up and which gaps to cover. He talked through scenarios with defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and Shane Eachus, an OSU graduate assistant and linebackers coach. Rodriguez also learned from linebacker Amen Ogbongbemiga, who racked up a team-high 10 tackles against Oregon State.

Rodriguez said fending off approaching offensive linemen is the biggest change, but as a two-time wrestling state champion at Wagoner High School, he is accustomed to using shifty techniques to grapple with brawny foes.

“Definitely just that natural habit came out of me,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez explained how depth perception is a key factor.

“Your eyes gotta be in the right place,” Rodriguez said. “And if you kind of eye delay, you’re gonna miss a gap, and they’re gonna hit you for a big gain.”

When Rodriguez switched positions, redshirt sophomore Tre Sterling filled the vacancy at safety. Rodriguez praised Sterling’s ability to make plays across the field, and Sterling complimented Rodriguez’s versatility.

“He’s such an athletic dude, he can play either safety or linebacker,” Sterling said. “Coach Knowles uses that to his advantage and just switches him around constantly. It’s good for him.”

Despite Rodriguez’s willingness to move, the defense is a work in progress as OSU prepares to face McNeese State at 6 p.m. Saturday in Boone Pickens Stadium. Against Oregon State, the Cowboys gave up 448 yards and forced no turnovers. Rodriguez said on-field communication is a skill he needs to polish, but learning an unfamiliar position is no longer a concern.

“I’ve pretty much got the grasp of everything,” Rodriguez said. “There’s still a couple questions in there for funky situations, but other than that, I’m good.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com