STILLWATER, Okla. – When defensive coordinator Bill Young looks at the 11 players he sends onto the field for Oklahoma State's season opener against Washington State on Saturday night, he won't see many of the starters who helped the Cowboys make a defensive breakthrough last season.
After putting up the best numbers in Mike Gundy's five years as head coach, it'd be only natural to expect Oklahoma State to falter after losing eight starters.
Not in Young's eyes.
"We want to be better than we were a year ago," Young said Monday. "We've got to do a better job. We've got to get more sacks, we've got to get more turnovers and we'll see how it unfolds."
In his first year, Young achieved his predecessor's goal of turning Oklahoma State into one of the top 50 defenses in the country. After never doing better than 75th in either category the previous four years, the Cowboys ranked 31st in both scoring defense and yards allowed last season.
All three starting linebackers from that unit completed their careers, although 2008 starter Orie Lemon is back in the middle after missing last season with a knee injury. Gone, too, are three-fourths of the starting secondary and top defensive tackles Swanson Miller and Derek Burton.
Then training camp brought even more attrition. Three reserve middle linebackers and safety Daytawion Lowe were lost to injuries. And Gundy said Monday he still hasn't decided whether defensive end Jamie Blatnick, a part-time starter last season, and safety Victor Johnson will play in the opener following their offseason arrests.
"We're putting the pressure on ourselves and on our players that we need to show up, we need to play," Young said. "We've got a lot of talent. We're a little bit thin and we've got to be a little bit lucky and not get anybody hurt. If we can do that, I think we can be really good."
Gundy's message from the start of training camp has been that the Cowboys may be lacking in experience, but hopefully can make up for that with athleticism. He's trying to be patient, realizing that there's no way to instantly give a young player the experience that his departed starters possessed.
"There's a lot of uncertainty this year because of guys that haven't been on the field," Gundy said. "That's just the way it is."
Gundy said the makeup of this year's team — which also had four linemen and quarterback Zac Robinson among heavy losses on the offensive side — reminds him of his early years at Oklahoma State. Like then, the seniors in starring roles are greatly outnumbered by freshmen.
"With us being young, it's made us hungry," safety Markelle Martin. "Everybody wants to play and contribute to the defense. Everybody wants a role, and I think that's going to be our strength."
Young will be hard-pressed to have his squad match last season's improvement that knocked a touchdown and 70 yards off opponents' per-game averages. Oklahoma State allowed 21.7 points and 332.5 yards.
"Last year, we set our bar kind of medium range where we just wanted to be a good defense. Now, we're setting it higher, that we want to be a great defense," Martin said.
"We want to force that many more turnovers. We want to limit the mistakes that we make."
Young said he reviewed game film of schools in the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-10 and elsewhere during the offseason looking for ways to build on his defense's success.
"Anything we can find that fits our system and gives offenses trouble, we'd like to incorporate it, as long as it doesn't involve too much thinking on our players' part," he said.
That thought process has been central to Young's approach. Instead of making players learn new terminology when he arrived, he adjusted his calls to match what players already knew. He's not planning to add a layer of complexity just because some players have had another year to learn.
"We're trying to base everything on simplicity," Young said. "We want to be where we're a little bit complicated for the opponent, but we don't want to be complicated for ourselves."