Why Mike Gundy loves finding ex-wrestlers for the Oklahoma State defense


Oklahoma State‘s Malcolm Rodriguez, one of the country’s best linebackers, walked into his locker room after a game and had to make one last takedown.

Picture this: Cowboys coach Mike Gundy is in there, working out right after a win. He sees Rodriguez, just shy of 32 years his junior, and gets up and presents a challenge. The two may have been in a football locker room, but this is Oklahoma, and these are two former wrestlers sizing up each other.

“I guess he thought I was pretty sore or whatever, and he kind of got in a wrestling stance,” Rodriguez said. “I got a hold of him and I kind of picked him up.”

You can forgive Gundy for thinking he had a shot. He grew up wrestling until ninth grade. That year, he said, he finished 35-0, but had to give it up because of time constraints.

Rodriguez, though, won two state wrestling titles in Wagoner, Oklahoma. He said Gundy hollered a little bit, so he put him down.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, Coach, I still got it,'” Rodriguez said. “I could definitely still take him. He’d have no shot.”

This would come as no surprise to opposing offenses. Behind Rodriguez and another star wrestler, defensive end Brock Martin, who won three consecutive state titles in Oologah, Oklahoma, the Cowboys are a stiff test for challengers.

Wrestling and football are both revered in Stillwater, and nowhere do they converge better than on this year’s stellar Oklahoma State defense, which ranks in the top five nationally in points per game (16.4), points per drive (1.1) and yards per play (4.4) while also leading the country with 47 sacks. Rodriguez and Martin are key players on that stellar defense, and both earned first-team All-Big 12 honors on Thursday. Next up, the No. 5 Cowboys play No. 9 Baylor on Saturday for the Big 12 championship (noon ET, ABC) with a chance to make the College Football Playoff.

Both Rodriguez and Martin said their history as grapplers is a big reason for their defensive success. It’s all about angles, physics and technique. Rodriguez said he reads defenders’ hips like he would in wrestling.

“It definitely comes from that background,” he said. “It’s second nature, just getting people down. I don’t do the big tackles — I just go for the legs and the hips.”

Martin compared his tackling style to the double-leg takedown move in wrestling.

“Me and Malcolm don’t miss a lot of tackles and I think that’s because we both were successful wrestlers,” Martin said. “I just kind of dive and take out the knees. When you don’t have any legs, you can’t run anymore. We’re not gonna make any highlight film or any highlight tapes with the way we tackle. But it gets the job done.”

The numbers back up their story.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Martin and Rodriguez are the only pair of teammates in the Big 12 to have more than 20 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage and at least a 90% tackle percentage.

Rodriguez is one of six Big 12 players with at least 100 tackle attempts, but is the only player among that group to have a tackle percentage above 90%. His 21 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage on designed runs are the most in the Big 12 and tied for fourth-best in the FBS.

Martin, meanwhile, has had only one tackle broken on 47 attempts this season and 16 of those have gone for a loss, eighth best among players who have attempted at least 40 tackles.

Together, they’ve helped Oklahoma State lead the Big 12 with an 84% tackle rate as a defense while also racking up 96 tackles for loss, second-best in the FBS. The Cowboys have allowed 28% of designed runs to go for a loss or no gain, also top five in the country.

Martin and Rodriguez are accustomed to being linked. Born just 29 days apart, both began wrestling when they were 5. Growing up about 50 miles apart, they crossed paths early on, with Martin reluctantly now admitting that Rodriguez might end up with lifelong bragging rights.

“Yeah, he’s 1-0, if you want to count when we were 6 years old,” Martin said, lamenting that there’s even a photo of him standing in the second-place spot on the podium next to his teammate. “We met in the state championship and he beat me. I kind of outgrew him from there. We never wrestled again after that.”

And despite being at rival schools, the two continued to push each other. Martin, who wrestled at 220 pounds, said that he and Rodriguez, who was at 195 pounds, would warm each other up for state championship matches.

In football, though, they were rivals. Again, Rodriguez came out on top.

“We played six times in three years,” Martin said. “They were in our district. We played him in the state championship my sophomore, junior and senior year, and he beat me every single year.”

Rodriguez was the starting quarterback, throwing for 6,144 yards and rushing for 2,449, with 115 touchdowns over three seasons while also making 238 tackles and intercepting seven passes as a safety. Martin had 400 tackles and 50 sacks in his high school career. Yet, for all their success in multiple sports, the two were very lightly recruited. Martin had offers from a few other Big 12 schools, but Rodriguez’s only other offer was from Wyoming.

But Gundy has long valued that wrestling background.

“I was wrestling 10 or 11 years and you get a feel for the type of athletes and people that compete in that sport,” he said this week. “So once when we have a chance to get our hands on wrestlers, they move up on our list real quick because I know the discipline and toughness it takes.”

Rodriguez and Martin grew up idolizing the OSU wrestling program. To be in the same athletic department and star alongside them is a thrill, but it’s paid off for OSU football, as well.

Gundy said he and John Smith, the legendary OSU coach who was widely considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time — including winning Olympic gold medals in Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992 — have been friends for 40 years and their parents knew each other.

“John and I used to travel around the country wrestling freestyle in the summer together,” Gundy said.

Now, as coaches, Gundy said both he and Smith have 100-plus-acre farms outside Stillwater about a half mile from each other.

“We share farm equipment,” Gundy said. But Martin felt the need to correct the record.

“As Coach Smith has said many times, Coach Smith is a real farmer,” Martin said. “Gundy can stay messin’ with his llamas and lambs. All the kiddie stuff.'”

But even with a heated farming rivalry, Gundy doesn’t mind also sharing his football players with Smith.

In January 2020, three years after they last competed on the mat, Rodriguez and Martin began working out with the Cowboys’ wrestling team — the one that’s won 34 NCAA titles since its inception in 1915 and has produced an average of 4.8 All-Americans every year in Smith’s 30 years as head coach.

“Me and Malcolm spent a couple of months in there and it was not easy,” Martin said. “They took it easy on us, but it wasn’t easy. The first day we were in there we had to bike like five miles for the warm up, then we went into the wrestling room and drilled and stuff like that. There’s a huge difference between football shape and wrestling shape.”

Rodriguez agreed.

“In football after a play, you get a little rest,” he said. “Wrestling is always on the go. You’re exceeding your limits and you’re exhausting yourself the whole match. Cardio is definitely a lot harder in wrestling. I was in shape for football, but that wrestling shape’s a lot different than people think.”

Rodriguez was grateful for the experience, but it helped with some closure, he said.

“Every time I get to a dual, I miss it but I know my time has passed,” he said. “So I can just watch from here on out.”

A day after the Cowboys’ 37-33 win over Oklahoma, Rodriguez and Martin attended the wrestling team’s first home dual in Stillwater this season. They were given a standing ovation by the crowd.

For the Cowboys, who are playing in their first-ever Big 12 title game this weekend, it’s been a season of tests, beginning with surviving a seven-point win over Missouri State to open the season, and two more lackluster nonconference wins. Now at 11-1, Gundy said this team has improved as much as any in his 31 years of coaching.

When he talks about what he sees in wrestlers, he might as well be talking about these Cowboys.

“Wrestling is mental toughness,” Gundy said. “It’s discipline. You’ve got to make weight. There’s times you can’t eat. You go a couple days and you’re hungry all the time. You’re in hand-to-hand physical combat. Your nose gets busted, your eyes get busted. It’s just you on the mat. You can’t point the finger at anybody else. You learn to be disciplined and tough and try to find a way to finish.

“Those are the things that you get out of wrestling.”

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