Beavers Have Questions To Answer This Spring
By John Baker
Even with 14 starters and both kickers returning for the Oregon State Beavers, the start of spring practice offers a chance to answer important questions.
Coach Mike Riley returns a record-setting quarterback in Sean Mannion, quality skill people and a defense that will be bolstered by the return of 2012 starter Michael Doctor, but he knows there's plenty of work to do.
Here's a look at the burning issues the Beavers face as they open spring practice this week.
At Quarterback, Who Is No. 2?
Sean Mannion is roughly 1,900 yards away from being the most prolific passer in Pac-12 history. Even as Riley hopes the offense will be more balanced, Mannion likely will eclipse the record somewhere around the seventh game if he stays healthy. But what if he can't?
The Beavers enter spring practice with no snaps taken by their prime backups. Riley and new offensive coordinator John Garrett will need to sift through a couple of players to find a capable No. 2 and the likely starter moving forward. In sophomore Brent VanderVeen and redshirt freshman Kyle Kempt, the Beavers have unproven commodities.
Riley and his staff must accelerate the development of VanderVeen and Kempt so one of them can manage this team if the worst-case scenario plays out. For VanderVeen and Kempt, this spring is an audition for the big audition that will come after Mannion leaves. The winner likely will have to face off against Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio, who will sit out 2014, for the starting job in 2015.
Where Are The Offensive Linemen?
As spring practice starts, the Beavers' only two returning starters — center Isaac Seumalo and right tackle Sean Harlow — will be missing as they recover from injuries. That means the door is open for not only earning starting spots, but staking a claim as a player worthy of playing time.
Riley and his staff will take long looks at guys like Bobby Keenan (6-foot-6, 280 pounds), Josh Mitchell (6-2, 288), Roman Sapolu (6-2, 274), Grant Bays (6-3, 285), Gavin Andrews (6-5, 340), Nolan Hansen (6-6, 290), Will Hopkins (6-6, 265), Devan Felipe (6-2, 285), Austin Johnson (6-1, 340), Fred Lauina (6-4, 305) and Garrett Weinreich (6-6, 310).
The downside is that the cohesion so vital to making the offense hum can't be established this spring. No matter who lands where in spring, the line will be retrofitted in the fall when the two starters return. For now, it's about finding out the right parts to an engine that will be fully built in the fall.
Solving The Cooks Conundrum?
When receiver Brandin Cooks decided to tease NFL teams with his considerable talent, he punched a huge hole in the passing game. Cooks was a consensus All-American, the Biletnikoff Award winner and set Pac-12 record for receptions (128) and yards (1,730) and made key catches and big plays against defenses designed to stop him. Now he's gone.
The receivers will be expected to replace a large portion of Cooks' contributions. The faces will be new and untested. Richard Mullaney emerged from Cooks' shadow last season to make key catches. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he's a bigger version of hallowed OSU receiver Mike Haas. Mullaney has better speed than Haas, but is considered a possession-type receiver.
The competition for other receiving production will be keen. Obum Gwacham (6-5, 230) has been on the cusp since arriving at OSU. Now a senior, the opportunity to be more than a football-track type athlete has never been better. He'll be challenged by a group that includes Malik Gilmore (6-3, 210), Blair Cavanaugh (5-9, 180) and Victor Bolden (5-9, 172). Bolden is an intriguing prospect in that he has speed and resembles Cooks in potential. Redshirt freshman Walter Jones and sophomore Kendall Hill could also factor into the mix.
The Beavers have a record-setting quarterback ready to spread the ball all over the field. Finding capable and productive receivers in the spring will be huge.
Restarting The Running Game
Despite what Riley may say, he's a coach who likes a workhorse running back to spearhead his offense. From Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Yvenson Bernard, the Beavers have always been most successful when they hitched their horse to a primary running back and let him work. The Beavers have struggled the last three years to be that kind of rushing team.
Storm Woods and Terron Ward have waged a two-year battle to be that back — each with modicum of success. Ward was the guy two years ago and gave way to Woods. Woods and the running game struggled and it was Ward who put some punch in the ground game at the end of last season.
Now, the pair enter the spring as co-starters and it is time that one of them took hold of this position and made it his own. Woods is the bigger back (6-0, 218) compared to Ward (5-7, 195), but struggled as the season wound down. While fixing the offensive line is paramount to developing the kind of running game this team wants, seeing one of these guys take the job by the throat would be a good sign.
Considering each has seen success at OSU, this should be a battle worth watching.
Revamping The Defensive Line
Only Dylan Wynn returns to a line that will see plenty of competition. There are letter winners to draw upon and some new faces, but the Beavers have always prided themselves on being able to stop the run and playing strong defense.
Wynn should man the right end spot, but after that it gets murky. Sitting at the top of the depth chart are: Jaswha James (6-5, 250) at left end, Jalen Grimble (6-2, 300) at left tackle, Siale Hautau (6-1, 350) at left tackle and Wynn. But as the spring prospectus notes, there could be dramatic changes on the depth charts.
Vying for playing time at ends will be Titus Failauga (6-3, 233), Lavonte Barnett (6-2, 265), Baker Pritchard (6-3, 244) and Obum Gwacham, the receiver. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he is listed as a backup at defensive end. Each of these guys brings something to the table, with Barnett possibly offering the most overall.
At tackles, look for development from Noke Tago (6-1, 305), Brandon Bennett-Jackson (6-3, 275), Edwin Delva (6-3, 295) and Ali'i Robins (6-2, 285). All five have lettered, so it's time for someone to start opening some eyes. Playing time and starting spots are up for grabs.
Riley is 88-73 at Oregon State, but only 24-26 the last four years. Struggles with the running game have made the Beavers one-dimensional. Unfortunately, while he's got two solid backs, it's unclear whether he has a special back. And with an offensive line that will have to be refitted in the fall no matter what happens this spring, the work will be that much harder.
But that's what Riley likes — hard work. So the spring should be right up his alley.