STILLWATER — Jim Knowles has a medley of returning contributors, so there isn’t much mystery to the Cowboys’ defense entering 2021.
Oklahoma State’s safeties return and should be among the best safety groups in the Big 12. The Pokes have platoons of defensive linemen. Malcolm Rodriguez returns at linebacker, and Devin Harper is a shoe-in to slot in next to him. However, there is one key position that Knowles will have to figure out before the Cowboys’ Sept. 4 opener against Missouri State: the corner opposite Jarrick Bernard-Converse.
Christian Holmes, Korie Black and Jabbar Muhammad all sound like potential options. Holmes, a senior who transferred from Missouri, got a fair amount of run last season, but Black and Muhammad, both sophomores, are fairly unknown to the outside.
“Korie, he’s got all the NFL markings in terms of height [6-foot], wingspan, speed, feet,” Knowles said Sunday. “Then Jabbar, in the couple days, he’s been impressive because he is smart. He is really smart. He knows exactly where to be, what to do, and he’s savvy. He can tell what’s coming. Those two guys are definitely gonna play this year, and they’re competing to start.”
Holmes has been praised for his leadership ability since joining the Cowboys ahead of last season. He played in all 11 of OSU’s games, starting the final two after Rodarius Williams started preparing for the NFL Draft. Listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, Holmes had six pass breakups last season and made 24 total tackles.
But it wasn’t all easy for Holmes last season, Knowles said.
“He struggled last year with learning, and he gave up a couple plays — really, I thought, struggled with his confidence,” Knowles said. “That happens because I like to say a lot of times when you watch tape … you have to ask yourself, ‘Is he not performing well because of ability or is he not performing well because he doesn’t know what to do?’ That’s a real question. That part of it is my job to let that never happen.
“But Christian, he struggled with the system and learning, as a lot of new guys do. It was his first year. Second year, I feel he put in some time this summer. I had some one-on-one meetings with him. He’s trying to take his game to the next level. He really is. He’s really working hard. Time’s gonna tell. He’s going to have to step up and do it in the game, but we’re counting on him.”
Knowles used three main corners in his first three seasons as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.
In his first two years at Oklahoma State, Knowles had the dynamic duo of AJ Green and Williams. The Cleveland Browns promptly signed Green as an undrafted free agent after the 2019 NFL Draft. The New York Giants took Williams in the sixth round of this most recent draft.
Bernard-Converse started opposite Williams in 2020, but he wasn’t a traditional role-player turned starter, as he started two seasons at safety before moving to corner.
Knowles will add a new player to that list in in 2021. But, that doesn’t mean the other guys will be left out. OSU coach Mike Gundy said Friday he hopes to be able to rotate corners more this year to help keep up with the Big 12’s offenses.
“Most of our corners have played 65 plays and the other guy played 15,” Gundy said. “We would prefer that be maybe 50-30. That would be a legitimate position we could say that there be a little bit of a battle going on, yes.”
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