Tulsa World

Harper gets new role

Paired with friend Rodriguez at starting LB

- ELI LEDERMAN Tulsa World

STILLWATER — Between them, Malcolm Rodriguez and Devin Harper, the members of Oklahoma State’s starting linebacker tandem, have at least three things in common.

“We like football,” Rodriguez said, naturally. “We like to game a lot, too. We like to say (Devin) is the best one on the team or I’m the best one on the team, and we go at it in the (video) games.

“And we like some wings together.”

Specifical­ly, the pair like the blackened seasoning chicken wings at Louie’s Grill & Bar on Stillwater’s Main Street. The offmenu item covered in what Rodriguez described as a dry-rub, “hamburger-type” seasoning is a shared favorite of the two linebacker­s. And together, Harper and Rodriguez — often joined by defensive end Brock Martin — head to Louie’s to indulge in the wings on a weekly basis.

“I ain’t going to lie to you, they’re pretty good,” Harper said

of the wings. “I guess it’s on the hidden menu. I’d go try them.”

Chicken wings, gaming and football have been at the basis of a relationsh­ip that now lies at the heart of the Cowboys defense in 2021, a year in which Harper is taking on his biggest role yet in his sixth and final season at OSU. A consistent contributo­r who appeared in 34 games from 2018-20, Harper is now a starter next to Rodriguez, tasked with replacing Amen Ogbongbemi­ga

and the 113 tackles he compiled across his final two seasons with the Cowboys.

Harper looked the part in last Saturday’s 23-16 win over Missouri State, tallying nine total tackles, a fumble recovery and a share of the game-sealing sack. On Tuesday, days removed from the highest snap count of his career, Harper acknowledg­ed he has more to learn in his new role.

“I had some busts here and there, but as a whole it was pretty good,” Harper said. “I’m just looking to get better.”

As he grows into the starting job in 2021, Harper gets to do so next to Rodriguez, the fourthyear starter he’s been consuming football and wings at Louie’s with since 2017.

“We’ve grown a lot together,” Harper said. “We talk every day ... I couldn’t ask for a better friend, to be honest.”

After redshirtin­g in his first season at OSU in 2016, Harper sparked a friendship with Rodriguez when the then-safety from

Wagoner arrived in Stillwater the next year. Later, they would find shared commonalit­ies that extended beyond the field, but they first connected over a passion for talking football at all hours of the day.

“We just discussed the game and appreciate­d each other’s work,” Rodriguez said.

While the pair bonded, their

careers took different paths.

Rodriguez started 10 games as a sophomore in 2018, then moved to linebacker the next fall where he’s been the Cowboys’ leading tackler in each of the past two seasons. Harper, meanwhile, progressiv­ely saw more time on the field each season after 2017, making his greatest impacts against Kansas in 2019 and West Virginia in 2020, yet until 2021 always found himself stuck behind solidified starters such as Ogbongbemi­ga.

It’s part of why after six years with the program, Saturday marked only Harper’s fourth career start. It’s also why Harper and his ability to handle an expanded role over the course of a full season remains something of an unknown to the Cowboys, even after his performanc­e in the opener.

“We didn’t know anything about Devin except for what we saw in practice (prior to Missouri State),” Mike Gundy said on Monday. “He hadn’t played a lot. Amen is playing for the Chargers. He made the pros. So we lost a pro player. Now we put Devin in behind him and he played pretty good. But it’s early. We’ll see where we’re at in October.”

Gundy spoke highly of the way Harper used his speed, aggression and ability to get to the ball on Saturday, all traits Harper has flashed in years past. Where Harper views improvemen­t is through an increased his understand­ing of the elements on defense.

He spoke Tuesday about increasing his knowledge of OSU’s concepts, learning to better read the concepts of opposing offenses and their tendencies, levels of comprehens­ion he feels can come with time on the field and in meetings with defensive coordinato­r Jim Knowles and other assistants.

Harper’s immersion as a starter is helped by a familiar partner, too, and he has one playing next to the experience­d Rodriguez.

The ever-ongoing conversati­ons about football between the linebacker­s have persisted into their final seasons at OSU. The discussion­s now spill from the Cowboys’ team complex into meals over wings at Louie’s, and with the duo now manning the linebacker spots for the Cowboys, they spill back onto the field, too.

“It helps a lot knowing (Rodriguez) and knowing how he thinks,” Harper said. “We’re always on the game, so we’re always communicat­ing. We’re able to tell each other what to do, and it works out for us a lot.”

 ?? JOHN CLANTON, TULSA WORLD ?? Oklahoma State’s Devin Harper pulls down Tulsa’s Deneric Prince during the second half of the 2020 season opener in Stillwater. Harper, in his sixth year with the Cowboys, has taken on a starting role for OSU in 2021.
JOHN CLANTON, TULSA WORLD Oklahoma State’s Devin Harper pulls down Tulsa’s Deneric Prince during the second half of the 2020 season opener in Stillwater. Harper, in his sixth year with the Cowboys, has taken on a starting role for OSU in 2021.
 ?? IAN MAULE, TULSA WORLD FILE ?? Oklahoma State linebacker Devin Harper (16) celebrates with teammates after making a play during a game against Boise State in Stillwater during the 2018 season.
IAN MAULE, TULSA WORLD FILE Oklahoma State linebacker Devin Harper (16) celebrates with teammates after making a play during a game against Boise State in Stillwater during the 2018 season.

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