When the Oklahoma State coaching staff moved one of its best tacklers, Malcolm Rodriguez, from safety to linebacker, it opened the door for a new hard-hitting safety to emerge for the Cowboy defense.
Tre Sterling, a redshirt sophomore safety, led the Cowboys with seven tackles and a pass breakup in Saturday's 26-13 win against Kansas State.
Sterling redshirted in 2017 and didn't really see the field last season as a redshirt freshman. With most of his action coming on special teams, he compiled his only two tackles of the season on kickoffs in OSU's Liberty Bowl victory against Missouri.
Rodriguez and the rest of OSU's linebackers have played surprisingly well so far this season, as coach Mike Gundy said.
The group is doing better than he thought it would be, but Gundy credits Sterling's improvement behind the linebackers as exceedingly important for OSU's defensive progression.
“If you move (Rodriguez) down (to linebacker) and (Sterling’s) not playing good, now you have to think about moving him back and going a different route,” Gundy said.
“(Sterling has) made some really good plays and seems to be in the right spot most of the time. I’m excited about the improvement he’s made in just one year.”
Sterling, a 6-foot-1, 202-pound, hard-hitting tackler from Sunnyvale, Texas, said he was excited for the K-State matchup because the Wildcats are famous for running the football. He also said he prefers to come downhill and try to tackle ball-carriers, compared to covering against the pass.
"That's definitely my strong point, stopping the run," Sterling said. "I like to get physical."
Sterling's performance last Saturday was a big step for the relatively inexperienced safety, who joined a highly-experienced Cowboy secondary in the offseason. OSU's defensive backs will face a different task this week than K-State's rush-heavy gameplay when the No. 21 Cowboys visit Texas Tech at 11 a.m. Saturday. The Red Raiders will try to throw the football on them.
"My weakness is definitely the passing game, my coverage game and the man skills," Sterling said. "That's something I have to work on as a player to get better and to make our defense better."
Sterling said the game has slowed down for him since his first career start six weeks ago, though he tallied a career-high nine tackles in OSU's season opener against Oregon State.
“The first game is really hectic and chaotic,” Sterling said. “Just going everywhere, getting used to the speed of college football. Since I’ve played a couple games, it’s definitely slowed down a lot. I’ve definitely learned to control my mind and stuff like that and just kind of read keys and watch my person and watch my back.”
Through fives games, Sterling has 30 tackles, which is fourth-best on the team, and four of those tackles have been for a loss of yardage.
“I think I’ve done my job well,” Sterling said. “I’ve moved up and was given an opportunity and I think I’m making the most of it so far. I’m going to try to continue to do that to the best of my ability.”