NCAA Football

OSU football: True freshmen defensive backs impressing in first two appearances

OSU football: True freshmen defensive backs impressing in first two appearances

Oklahoma State safety Jarrick Bernard looks down field during a college football game in Stillwater, Okla., Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)

STILLWATER – When the senior went out, a freshman came in.

It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s one Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said can happen in his 4-2-5 defensive scheme: playing freshmen defensive backs.

Kenneth Edison-McGruder, a senior safety from Houston, was ejected for targeting in the second quarter of the Cowboys’ 55-13 rout of South Alabama on Saturday.

Enter Kolby Peel.

The true freshman from College Station, Texas, was thrust into the starting role in Edison-McGruder’s absence. It’s nothing new to Knowles.

“Pretty much everywhere I have been, in the 4-2-5 system, you’re going to play young guys,” Knowles said. “You need depth. You need at least five DBs on every play.”

Peel remained with the first-team unit for the rest of the game, racking up five tackles, the second most behind seven from Calvin Bundage.

Yet Peel is one of two true freshmen, both safeties, who have played in the Cowboys first two contests. Jarrick Bernard also played in the back end against South Alabama.

Cornerback Tanner McCalister would likely be the third true freshman to play in each game had he not gotten injured. A thumb injury forced him to miss the season opener.

“They like to compete,” sophomore safety Malcolm Rodriguez said of the freshmen. “That’s a good thing coming in. Just come in and compete and just do your best.”

Peel is OSU’s third-leading tackler thus far with six. He has also added a sack and two pass breakups in his first career games.

OSU’s pass defense has allowed only 143 yards per game, though Boise State brings a different type of offensive attack to Stillwater at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Senior quarterback Brett Rypien leads the Bronco attack, which is fourth in total offense after two weeks of play. Boise State’s passing game averages 362 yards per outing, which is 12th best in the country.

OSU coach Mike Gundy recognizes the test his secondary will face Saturday, though he knows the veterans and younger players can handle the task.

Gundy spoke highly of McCalister following the USA game. McCalister got plenty of first-team reps when starter Rodarius Williams got “dinged,” as Gundy said. He recalled one of McCalister’s high school games, where the native of Heath, Texas, played every snap on offense, defense and special teams, citing his mental toughness, intelligence and physical matureness.

“He’s mature beyond his years, Gundy said. “That gives him the best chance to compete at this level. He’s learning on the run.”

Gundy couldn’t find a comparison between McCalister and any previous Cowboy cornerbacks because of his thickness, ability to run well and his aggressiveness.

The three 18-year-olds get their biggest test yet when one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks and offenses come to Stillwater this weekend. For Knowles, he knows they will be prepared because of the unit they face in practice each day, which leads the nation in total offense.

“I think those three guys have shown a lot of maturity to us,” Knowles said. “They get in there against our offense, against some of the toughest competition in the country, and they compete. That impressed me, so I think they’re going to keep getting more playing time.”

NCAA Football

Cameron Jourdan has covered Oklahoma State athletics since January 2017. He has written for The Oklahoman, The Tuscaloosa News and the Stillwater News Press, among others. Follow Cameron on Twitter: @Cam_Jourdan

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