By Austin Chappell
Big12 Campus Correspondent
For a football team to establish an identity, it takes time.
Several of Mike Gundy’s recent squads have been tabbed as “offensive juggernauts,” due to the Cowboys’ explosive scoring ability, but that description usually isn’t fitted until midway through the season.
However, the 2014 Cowboy football squad was already labeled as inexperienced, young and raw, even before the team opened its seasaon against top-ranked Florida State. The numbers backed it up – three projected starters returned on the offense and two projected starters on the defense – showing the team’s lack of starting experience.
The Cowboys’ small glimpse of tenure, though, is led by a player that has been waiting for this exact opportunity – linebacker Ryan Simmons.
“Right now, nobody knows what we have the potential to be,” Simmons said. “The effort is there, and we’re all still learning day by day, but one thing is for sure; I’m ready to win, and I’m going to do my best to get the rest of the team ready to win.”
Simmons, a junior from Cibolo, Texas, entered the year after starting all 13 games in 2013, a season that saw him record the team’s fourth-most tackles on the Big 12’s best scoring defense. He's picked up right where he left off three games into the 2014 campaign, leading the OSU defense with 7.0 tackles per game.
The Cowboys closed out last season with a narrow loss to Missouri in the Cotton Bowl, but Simmons says the full season’s worth of starting experience gave him the mental edge to lead this 2014 squad.
“Last year was probably the most confidence I've ever had playing in my life, even in high school,” Simmons said. “I put it in my mind that I wanted to do some things, and then I went out and did them. Now that we’ve moved on from last year, I’ve found new things that I want to do, including being the best leader that I can be.”
Entering fall camp, Simmons, the Cowboys and the coaching staff knew there would be plenty of talent to replace, especially on the defense. Oklahoma State lost eight defensive starters from the 2013 campaign, including current NFL rookies Justin Gilbert, Tyler Patmon and Calvin Barnett.
Glenn Spencer, OSU’s defensive coordinator and one of the staff’s most vocal presences, stressed the team’s youth and inexperience, but was quick to point out the positives of the transition into the upcoming season.
“It’s totally different this year, but everybody had concerns last year, and look where we ended up,” Spencer said. “Most people are going to look at the depth chart this year, count how many starters are came back and base all of their bowl predictions on that. This year, we’ve got a lot of guys who played a lot of ball last year, but weren’t considered starters, which is actually an advantage because we played a lot of different guys throughout last season.
Spencer also noted how Simmons plays into that mix, primarily speaking of his will to win and how it will pay off for the rest of the team.
"Ryan has got that intangible ‘winning’ quality about him,” Spencer said. “Ryan has played a lot, and he's got expectations of practicing at a high level. Our guys have seen that. He’s consistently a guy I think the younger guys look to, and he’s earned that distinction because of how he approaches every day.”
One of Simmons’ many contributions throughout camp was reiterating the basic mental components to being a successful football team. He started on last year’s 10-3 squad, and despite redshirting his first year on campus, he was on the sideline for the Cowboys’ stellar 2011 campaign, which ended with Oklahoma State winning its first BCS bowl in school history.
Simmons reflected on that season, mentioning how the team was able to protect the ball, force turnovers and play a solid game, overall.
“If I learned one thing from that season, it’s that everything in college football is meticulous, and you have to be so perfect in what you do and don't do,” Simmons said. “If you don't do what you're supposed to do, it will mess up somebody behind you. You've got to be very careful.”
Overall, Simmons has combined his own experience, mental strength and leadership to pass those same qualities on to his defensive companions. The Cowboys may look untested on paper, but Simmons says they’ll be ready for whoever comes at them.
"I'd say the strongest element in our defense this year has to be our camaraderie and the want to be great,” Simmons said. “A lot of guys haven't had the opportunity to show their game and show what they can do. A lot of guys are hungry, the motivation is there and a lot of these guys are just ready to play and are excited for the first game."