As Oklahoma State continues to march through Fall Camp, linebackers coach Glenn Spencer arguably has the deepest position group to work with. He is definitely the only position coach to return all of his starters from the 2011 Big 12 championship squad. The trio of STAR linebacker Shaun Lewis, middle linebacker Caleb Lavey and weakside 'backer Alex Elkins all finished among OSU's top six tacklers last season.
Spencer sees improvement among his starting corps this fall.
"We all have deficiencies to improve on. I mention that to them every day of their life - things they have to improve on," Spencer said. "They're making strides. Shaun Lewis is being more instinctive than I've ever seen him. He has a great knack for anticipating. There's a fine line between anticipation and guessing and he pushes the limit there and it allows him to make big plays. He's done that this camp.
"Caleb Lavey is quicker. He has a great aptitude for the scheme and for getting to the spot where he needs to be and getting there quick and making up for when somebody else might lose their assignment. Somebody up front of him loses their gap and he's going to overlap and overtake it - shoot, you just don't get that out of many people.
"Alex is developing great, just like I thought he would. It's just a continual process with him. From fall to spring and now from spring into camp. Every day, I see the light come on for him for different things. It's a process, but none of them have arrived. It's a journey that we're all on, but yes, they have made improvement."
None of the trio can rest on their laurels, because Spencer loves competition in his ranks and has several young players who can deliver the goods. Redshirt freshman middle linebacker Ryan Simmons had a very strong spring and has carried that over into the fall.
"Ryan has had a good camp. The deficiency is that there are some mental errors that he'll clean up," Spencer said. "A lot of that has to do with getting repetitions - with him getting some looks over and over again. He's just got a natural flow in the box. He does a great job with his hands. He can pull the trigger once he deciphers what's going on. The game is starting to slow down for him as far as what the offense looks like to him. When you're out there as a freshman, everything is really fast. You're playing with the same amount of speed, you're going hard but what you're seeing starts to slow down and it's starting to get that way for him."
At the STAR, sophomore Lyndell Johnson also had a big spring. The long, lean (6-3, 190) Texan has proven particularly adept in pass coverage and may see a role similar to that of departed senior James Thomas.
"He's a very fluid player," Spencer said. "He has tremendous instincts. We're trying to bulk him up a little bit more so he'll be more durable. He gets banged up a little bit. He's learning to play more physically and he wants to play more physically - that part of his game is improving weekly. He has an advantage because of his mobility and his moving out there in the perimeter game. He gives us an advantage in a lot of areas, especially with the kind of ball we play in the Big 12."
Others involved in competing for playing time include sophomore Nico Ornelas (weakside), junior Joe Mitchell (STAR and weakside), redshirt freshman Kris Catlin and redshirt freshman Demarcus Sherod (weakside).
"Going back to my whole group, it's great to have guys that have different strengths than others," Spencer said. "It's up to me to get those matchups right on the field."
Elkins played well enough in his first season at OSU to earn All-Big 12 honorable mention status, but Spencer says he's seen improvement in the senior's understanding of the overall defensive scheme.
"We've had a few practices now, but he's not a finished product. I don't know if any of them will ever be," Spencer said. "We're working for perfection, but we'll accept excellence. That's what he's trying to do. He's got a further way to go than the rest of them, but as long as he's making improvements, I'm very pleased."