OSU’s defense has drastically improved over the past three seasons under the guidance of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
From 2018 (Knowles’ first season in Stillwater) to 2019 and 2020, the defense has improved in points allowed and yards allowed per game. In 2018, OSU allowed opponents 32.5 points and 452.5 yards per game. In 2019, these figures improved to 26.8 points and 412.3 yards per game. Finally, in 2020, the defense allowed only 23.5 points and 379.0 yards per game. The opponents’ yardage allowed last season was OSU’s best mark in 12 years.
OSU’s defense has some big shoes to fill on the defensive line and at linebacker for 2021 — and three players are ready to step up for defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.
After key injuries and turnover issues plagued the offense, OSU came to rely on its defense last year, as evidenced by holding more than half its Big 12 opponents to 21 or fewer points. The defensive unit also saw corner Rodarius Williams taken by the NFL’s New York Giants in this year’s NFL Draft before several other players signed with teams as undrafted free agents, such as linebackers Calvin Bundage and Amen Ogbongbemiga and defensive lineman Cameron Murray.
Despite these losses, the Cowboys return plenty of talent of the 2021 defensive unit. Tre Sterling and Kolby Harvell-Peel might be the best one-two safety punch in the Big 12, and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez has been one of the undisputed leaders of the team.
With the attrition of four players off to the NFL and several nursing long-term injuries, the OSU defense will need several of its younger, less proven players to step up in 2021 to maintain its hard-earned progress.
Which three members of the Cowboys defense are poised for a 2021 breakout performance?
3. Collin Clay, DT
As a four-star recruit out of Putnam City High School, Collin Clay ended up choosing Arkansas over numerous big offers (including Florida, Georgia, Oregon, and Michigan). The No. 20-ranked defensive end in the country also held an offer from OSU out of high school and was selected to play for Team USA in the 2019 International Bowl.
As a true freshman at Arkansas in 2019, Clay played in every game besides the season opener and had multiple games with three or more tackles (against Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and LSU). The Razorbacks struggled in their second consecutive 2-10 finish without an SEC win, leading to the ouster of head coach Chad Morris late in the season.
Clay had just been granted eligibility by the NCAA for the 2020 season in early September right before he suffered a season-ending ACL injury.
Clay’s emergence in 2021 could help a Cowboys defensive line that loses its most consistent interior lineman from the past couple seasons in Cameron Murray, who is now fighting for a roster spot with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. If he bounces back from his knee injury, Clay will have the opportunity to grab the defensive spotlight.