Oregon State: How Sturdy Is The Dam?
By John Baker
Is what everyone thought about the backup quarterback battle at Oregon State off base or has there been a major shift in the competition?
That was one of the eyebrow-raisers during Saturday's Spring Football Showcase at Reser Stadium, and people are still trying to sort it out as head coach Mike Riley tip-toed around quarterback questions after the outing.
Freshman quarterback Kyle Kempt was assumed to be in the battle for the backup job behind Sean Mannion, but in trying to read the tea leaves after the game, you can come away with another scenario. Kempt essentially got mop-up duty in the spring game, watching as Brent VanderVeen and Alabama transfer Luke Del Rio took just about all the second-team snaps Saturday.
Riley declined to talk specifics about the backup quarterback battle. Instead, he asked for time to talk with each player about the current situation. However, it certainly looks as though the battle to back up Mannion is now between VanderVeen and Del Rio.
Del Rio, who was ruled eligible earlier in the spring, suddenly became a viable competitor in the derby. He has the pedigree and experience of playing in the Alabama system for a year, but VanderVeen has refused to let the door close for himself. While Del Rio seemed to run with the second team most of the spring, it was VanderVeen who repeatedly entered Saturday's action after Mannion had taken his reps. VanderVeen was picked off once Saturday and underthrew a potential touchdown pass. Del Rio hit on 9-of-17 passes for 80 yards and no picks.
Based on Saturday's effort and reps, it seems the backup job has been whittled down to a two-man battle.
What Else Stood Out In The Beavers Spring Game?
The Oregon State wide receiver corps didn't exactly win the hearts and minds of Beaver Nation on Saturday. To say the effort was a mixed bag would be charitable. Leading returning receiver Richard Mullaney has fought through illness in the last part of spring practice and has recently dealt with a sprained ankle.
Redshirt freshman Hunter Jarmon had the best day of the receivers, collecting three catches for 41 yards. Riley applauded him at times this spring and tabbed him as a youngster who could help the Beavers in the fall.
But all eyes were on Victor Bolden on Saturday. Bolden has the physical tools that most resemble those of the departed Brandin Cooks, and while he didn't have a huge day, he did make a dynamic play early on that had the fans excited. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Bolden admitted that this offseason is a big one for him. He needs to increase his strength and knowledge of the offense. Blessed with explosion, quickness and tremendous speed, Bolden has the chance to step into Cooks' spot, which is certainly on his mind.
Mannion pointed to Bolden as the kind of player who could be a key for the Beavers this season, rattling off his many attributes, including a huge improvement as a receiver this spring.
It would serve the Beavers well if Bolden did develop into that big-play guy. Based on the spring game, unless another receiver or two materializes, Mannion could see a herd of tight ends lined up for this offense in 2014.
What Happened To The Offensive Line?
In a word, plenty — and very little of it good. Already missing three graduated interior linemen, as well as projected starters Isaac Seumalo and Josh Mitchell due to injury, there were questions everywhere for Riley.
Spring did little to clarify the situation as injuries nagged the offensive linemen who were in camp. During the Pac-12 Conference coaches call last week, Riley used the word "mess" to describe the situation and he was less than pleased after Saturday's showcase.
If nothing else, the Beavers developed some depth in the form of untested Fred Lauina, Will Hopkins and Dustin Stanton. Finding a left tackle is still an ongoing process with junior college transfer Bobby Keenan or Sean Harlow possibly winning the job. Unfortunately for Riley, the spring seemed to muddle the situation more than definitively answer any question. Guys were in and out of the lineup, so the Beavers will head into fall camp looking to develop some cohesion and chemistry.
The Defense Could Be Vastly Better in 2014
Defensively, the Oregon State effort in 2013 lacked the productivity and effectiveness of previous Beavers incarnations. Judging by this spring's work and the defensive play in the spring game, the team may have found some very good answers to question marks created by departures.
Up front, where the Beavers lost Scott Crichton, Mana Rosa and several others, the worry was that the holes would be too big to fill. Gone were production, experience and depth. However, what's stepped into those spots has had coaches smiling all spring.
Saturday's outing was another solid performance by the group. Miami transfer Jalen Grimble is a playmaker at one tackle spot and the play of defensive end Jaswha James, teaming with returning end Dylan Wynn on the other side, has proven to be dynamic in pressuring the passer. They were everywhere Saturday.
Riley has mentioned James several times this spring and teammates have raved about his power off the edge and increased knowledge of the scheme and playbook. He looked the part on Saturday, applying pressure relentlessly. Siale Hautu and Edwin Delva proved they can play at this level at the tackle spot, and when freshman Kyle Peko joins the fun this fall, a position that was considered a weakness heading into spring could be very good come the season opener.
But there's been other developments. Michael Doctor, who missed the 2013 season with a bad ankle injury, has returned without missing a beat. He missed a couple spring practices late with some scar tissue inflammation, but demonstrated plenty of range, instinct and playmaking ability throughout the spring. The Beavers are blessed with linebacker depth with the return of Doctor, so much depth that Cyril Noland-Lewis has been moved back to safety. Additionally, one-time starter Joel Skotte is likely done for 2014 with neck and head issues.
Riley noted the play of Darrell Songy, Jabral Johnson, Rommel Mageo and Caleb Saulo. And with a healthy D.J. Alexander back in the mix, the Beavers will have six players who have started games at this level.
With the surprising development of the big guys up front and a linebacker corps that may be as strong and deep as any the Beavers have had in recent memory, and with three starters returning in the secondary, the Beavers defense could be back to the standards its coaches and fans are used to.
Cornerback Steve Nelson was everywhere Saturday, breaking up two passes and demonstrating the kind of athleticism and break on the ball that playmakers bring to the table. Remember, he had six picks a year ago.
Summing up Oregon State's Spring Football Showcase is simple. The defense is very much ahead of an offensive line and a group of receivers that are going to be a work in progress. Judging by the fluid nature of the offensive line situation heading into the fall, Oregon State may need to ride that defense and the arm of Mannion early to have success.