No. 9 Cowboys try to fill void left by LB Lemon
At the heart of a playmaking defense that lifted Oklahoma State to a share of its first Big 12 South title, Orie Lemon was always there.
A speedy, athletic middle linebacker who gobbled up ball carriers, Lemon made 133 tackles last season - 56 more than any of his teammates. And now he's gone to the NFL.
As No. 9 Oklahoma State prepares for the season, the biggest question marks are right in the middle of the defense. The Cowboys lost Lemon and fellow linebacker Justin Gent - and both starting defensive tackles - from last year's team.
''We have to get inside linebacker play from guys that nobody knows who they are,'' coach Mike Gundy said. ''I mentioned to the team nobody really knew who (Biletnikoff winner Justin) Blackmon and (all-Big 12 quarterback Brandon) Weeden were last year either, except the local media. So, there's an opportunity for guys to step up and make plays.''
Caleb Lavey, a sophomore from Celina, Texas, is in line to take over Lemon's spot when Oklahoma State opens the season Saturday night against Louisiana-Lafayette. He played in the final nine games last season as a freshman, recording 10 tackles.
''Orie's shoes are some big shoes to fill,'' Lavey said. ''I try to do my job and make my plays. I don't want to try to do too much to where I'm out of position doing my job. But in the same way, I want to make plays like Orie did.
''I don't want it to be a big difference in the defense because Orie's there. I still want to have a presence like Orie was. There's just a lot of things I need to work on to get there.''
Lavey said he wants to get faster on the field and become a vocal leader - a role that has been filled by veterans Richetti Jones, Johnny Thomas and Jamie Blatnick with Lemon gone.
''Everyone can feel that presence gone,'' Lavey said. ''It just makes everyone work that much harder in all aspects. ... Orie did a lot of things right, and we just have to come together as a defense and really work that much harder to close that gap.''
Lavey said one of the things he'll miss from Lemon that others may not is how the senior was able to serve as an extra coach on the sideline, keeping him educated on how the game plan was changing.
Perhaps the best thing he has going for him is the chance to learn about the increased pace of college games through his experience as a backup last season.
''Right now, it's just my work ethic has to really show itself. I'm going to be questioned because it's my first year. I'm kind of in the spotlight right now,'' Lavey said.
Junior college transfer Alex Elkins is expected to fill in the other vacated linebacker spot on the weak side, and redshirt freshman Christian Littlehead and freshman James Castleman will join part-time starter Nigel Nicholas in the new defensive tackle rotation.
''The one thing that we have working for us when we have discussions as a staff is there's guys on this team that are new but have either redshirted or been around and won a lot of football games,'' Gundy said. ''Hopefully that becomes a custom and they'll start playing up to their expectations.
''We've certainly told them that they have responsibilities to play well enough for us to win a lot of games.''