ARLINGTON, Texas — Malcolm Rodriguez, the former Wagoner star turned Oklahoma State defensive stalwart, is hopeful his decision to come back to Stillwater for a super senior season will not be the last return he makes in 2021.
Specifically, the vision is a return trip to AT&T Stadium, site of this week’s Big 12 Media Days. Rodriguez, quarterback Spencer Sanders and coach Mike Gundy represented the Cowboys.
However, if Rodriguez and his teammates are able to return here, it won’t be for the Mexican food served for lunch here Thursday afternoon. He pointed out that his mom, Shanna, set the bar pretty high for Mexican fare.
No, it’ll be for a trip to Big 12 Championship Game in December. After Oklahoma, the clear frontrunner for, ahem, a return to the title game, the field appears to be wide open.
That’s one of a number of very good reasons he decided to take the NCAA up on an extra year of eligibility they granted all athletes because of a sports school year interrupted by the Covid pandemic.
“Call me ‘old’ at 22,” joked Rodriguez, a second-team All-Big 12 selection two years running, flashing that bright smile. “No, a lot of guys were coming back. We’ll have eight of 11 (on defense) returning. I feel like we still have more to improve on.
"I wanted to come back and get that chemistry together. And I love Oklahoma State. It’s been fun since I’ve been here, making a lot of memories here.”
Rodriguez was one of six Oklahoma State seniors from 2020 who elected to play an extra season. Perhaps the best lure for returning was that his best buddy, defensive end Brock Martin, a redshirt senior, will also be there.
As has been well-documented, Rodriguez knows something about winning. Under coach Dale Condict, Rodriguez had a legendary run at Wagoner, leading the Bulldogs to three consecutive state titles as the starting quarterback. Wagoner didn’t lose a game his last two seasons. As a defensive back, he was recognized as one of the top defenders in Oklahoma. And as a wrestler, Rodriguez won two state titles.
His countenance seemed to turn bashful talking about those years.
“I had a good couple of years there,” he said, blushing.
On a bigger stage now, he returns as one of the Cowboys’ most important players in the middle of the field as a linebacker. Only offensive lineman Josh Sills has more career starts, 35, than Rodriguez’s 34, the most on the defensive side of the ball.
No Power Five linebacker had more solo tackles than Rodriguez in 2020. His 58 led all Big 12 players and ranked seventh in FBS. It’s why he will almost assuredly find his name on the Butkus Award watch list – awarded to college football’s best linebacker -- when it is released on July 26.
“He is a special young man,” said coach Mike Gundy, who’s effusive about his linebacker. “We’ve had tons of quality young men come through our organization. That’s why we’ve had so much success for 17 years. But then we’ve had some that affect the culture, the coaches, the players, the fans. Malcolm is one of those.”
During Big 12 Media Days, Rodriguez also took the time to engage youth connected with a special “Kid Reporter” program set up by the conference.
Even with his success at Wagoner and status as a four-star athlete as a high school senior, Rodriguez was lightly recruited, Gundy reminded.
“But here’s what he did,” Gundy gushed. “He’s like a coach’s dream because he comes in and works hard, he’s unselfish, he’s productive and he’s humble. He’s stayed that way over a long period of time.
"Unfortunately, some young people today — and I try to instill this to my boys at home all the time — you’re only as good as your next day. Because of social media, because of all the different areas and resources of people soliciting themselves, he’s pretty rare. He’s the same all the time. He’s reliable.”
Returning for an extra year will ensure Rodriguez earns his degree in communications. He said he is set to finish this semester. That’s a big deal to him. But an extra season will also give him another opportunity to show NFL scouts that he can play bigger than his 5-foot-11, 225-pound frame.
It is, Gundy said, one more year to mature and develop and show different skills on the field.
That’s not Rodriguez’s focus as he enters his final year. Neither, he said, are any potential endorsement deals make possible through U.S. Supreme Court decision.
His team is his only priority.
“He’s a great leader for us,” Gundy said. “He’ll vocally lead, which is important, but he also leads by example.
"A lot of people say you can be a quiet leader if you lead by example. If you study, particularly the Navy Seals, they’ll tell you that’s not true; you have to vocally lead and then by example. He falls in that category.”