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August 29, 2010When Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young looks at linebacker Orie Lemon, he sees an orange wrecking ball.
Or is that a silver lining?
After an injury forced him to miss Oklahoma State's '09 season, Lemon has come back strong with improved technique, greater appreciation for the game and rave reviews from Young.
"If there's a better middle linebacker, I don't know who that would be," Young said last spring. "I have that much faith in him. He's going to be something special."
Young's message is clear: Lemon gives the Cowboys defense a much-needed imposing figure who would not be here now had his right knee not buckled near the end of a practice on the last day of August last year.
Ah, last year, perhaps the most anticipated season in Oklahoma State's history.
That was supposed to be the season the Cowboys, a perennial also-ran in the Big 12, threatened Oklahoma and Texas for supremacy in the South Division. They started the year in the top 10 and returned a load of experience from a team that had posted nine victories the previous year.
Lemon was one of their most experienced players. In 2008, he posted 90 tackles and was expecting '09 to be as big for him personally as it would be for the team. Then, five days before one of the program's most-hyped games ever -- the opener against SEC power Georgia -- Lemon felt his right knee give just before practice ended.
"I tripped up. There was no contact," Lemon recalled last week. "I actually missed one play, and then went back out for the last play of practice. Then, I ran gassers. But I woke up the next morning and it was tight."
Turns out, Lemon tore his anterior cruciate ligament and would miss the much-anticipated '09 season.
"It was devastating," Oklahoma State linebackers coach Glenn Spencer said. "We had three seniors [at linebacker] coming back for their last year. Between him, Andre Sexton and Patrick Lavine, we had one of the strongest linebacker corps in the Big 12, and he was the front-runner of all those.
"He was the vocal leader, the bell cow for the defense. So when he went down, it was an emotional letdown not only for what we missed physically but his presence."
Lemon's injury was an omen of sorts -- a bad one. All-American wide receiver Dez Bryant was suspended for the rest of the season by the NCAA after four games. Star tailback Kendall Hunter battled injuries and was in and out of the lineup. Senior quarterback Zac Robinson endured his worst year as a starter. The Cowboys again posted nine wins, but lost to Oklahoma and Texas by a combined 68-14 and ended up in the Cotton Bowl instead of a BCS game.
"At the beginning, I was very hurt," Lemon said. "It was going to be my senior year. I was hurt most because I came in with a group of guys that led the team to being successful. Not playing with them hurt me the most."
When Lemon arrived in Stillwater in 2006, he was more accustomed to breaking tackles than making them. He was a big, 230-pound quarterback at Houston's Yates High. Lemon wasn't sure what position he'd play in Stillwater, but he learned quickly that it wouldn't be quarterback.
"I had to move to linebacker to get out on the field," he said. "They had [quarterbacks] Bobby Reed and Zac Robinson. I actually went a couple of weeks at quarterback and then moved to linebacker. That was my best move."
Now bulked up to 6 feet 1 and 246 pounds, Lemon looks the part of the prototypical middle linebacker. And while high school quarterbacks often switch positions in college, it's unusual for one to land at linebacker.
"Usually a high school quarterback might become a skill kid, like a running back or wide receiver, because they're great athletes," Spencer said. "You don't typically see them at linebacker. Maybe it's a toughness issue because they might not be as physical.
"But Orie is just a natural striker, and now he's 240-pounds plus. He still has the athleticism of a quarterback."
Oklahoma State's defense needs every edge it can get. The Cowboys lost all three starting linebackers and three starters in the secondary. They're also replacing two starters along the defensive line.
Entering a season with eight new defensive starters can be treacherous, especially in the Big 12 South, which had four teams ranked among the nation's top 30 in scoring last season. Yet Lemon insisted that the Cowboys' defense could be better than the '09 unit, which ranked 31st in the nation in total and scoring defense.
"From the outside looking in, any school that lost a lot of seniors you'd expect to struggle," Lemon said. "We're under the radar, but we'll look at it as motivation to show the world something different.
"I expect to have a successful defense. We've got a lot of guys that didn't start last year, but got a lot of experience. I feel we're going to be better than last year."
"We've got a lot of guys who have played a lot," he said. "They may not be starters, per se, but they have a lot of game experience even though they didn't have the starter tag on them. A lot of times a kid just needs the opportunity to show he can play. But there is still a bit of uncertainty until the guys get out there together.
"We nave a new unit with a lot of guys who have not started before, but by no means are we panicking."
Of course, having Lemon back is a calming influence, especially because he says missing a year taught him to value playing even more.
"I learned a lot about the game," Lemon said. "I was missing the game. I found love for the game I didn't know I had. That pushes me to go all out on every down."
There's that silver lining again.
"He was always a student of the game, but now you can see it more," Spencer said. "[His teammates] all listen to him. He's a guy who's been through the wars, and when he speaks they listen.
"I don't know what everybody else in the country has coming back at linebacker, but I sure wouldn't trade him for anybody."
Obviously, that's the consensus opinion in Stillwater.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.