1. What were the core questions that you had hoped would be answered by Spring Practice? Were conclusions reached?
There were 4, 3 related to 3 major departures, at WR, DE, and CB, and another, the offensive line, where there were 3 more departures.
Everyone knows about Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, and so replacing his production is one of the keys to Oregon St.’s season. But the WR position group also graduated possession receiver Kevin Cummings. There was some progress in this area, but some major questions (and therefore, opportunities) still exist. Read on to questions 3 & 7 below.
DE Scott Crichton also left early for the NFL, and it will be a multi-person response to his departure. Compounding the problem, 5 other d-linemen also graduated, 3 of whom played major rotation minutes. With that much upheaval, the defensive line is going to be a concern under the best of circumstances until proven otherwise. But Jashawa James appears ready to be ready for a good season at DE. At 6’2" & 250 lbs., he’s small for the position, but he’s quite athletic.
At CB, Rashaad Reynolds graduated after 3 years as a starter, and his apparent replacement, Larry Scott (no, not the conference commissioner!) was hurt for much of spring ball. As a result, Dashon Hunt got a lot of reps, and probably worked his way into the DB rotation when the Beavers go to nickel and dime, which they will a lot. But as a result, Scott’s still a question mark.
On the other corner, Sean Martin also graduated, and Steven Nelson is the clear replacement there. Nelson played a lot last year, and frequently both Martin and Nelson were on the field together, because of the extensive use of nickel and dime packages. Nelson is also the fastest player on the defense; he was the only DB on last year’s team that could run with Cooks. That speed is what got him on the field, and frankly, it was his speed that allowed him to make up for not necessarily knowing what he was doing, coverage and technique wise, and allowed DB coach Rod Perry to put him out there. The good news from spring is that Nelson clearly has made gains in the knowledge of the position, to go along with his speed, and is now a good player as well as a fast one, and should have a very god season.
The offensive line is also an area of concern, with 3 starters graduating, and injuries to another starter, Isaac Seumalo, and a sometimes starter/rotation player, Josh Mitchell, that held them out of all of spring ball didn’t help. The hope was that JC transfer Bobby Keenan would take over at left tackle for Michael Philipp, and early in spring ball, it appeared that was the case. But by the end of spring, the coaching staff became frustrated with his pace of progress, and tried multiple others, up to and including a converted TE, all of whom are undersized for the position. The o-line remains an area of uncertainty and concern going into summer camp.
2. Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?
There won't be anything major; Coach Mike Riley is about subtle changes. And he has one of the best passing quarterbacks in the country; why mess with success.
Defensively, there are 7 seniors starters returning, so its not the time to reinvent the defense, though there will be some attempts made to address areas where break-downs have happened in recent seasons.
3. What players emerged on offense? On defense?
On offense, I don't know if Victor Bolden "emerged", because he was already a familiar entity, and the best of the WRs, but he did continue to improve and establish himself as the premier passing threat, as well as the new guy to run the WR sweep.
On defense, there was the WR to DE transformation project of Obum Gwacham. This is probably one of the most uncommon position transitions in all of football, at any level, but Oregon St. is trying it to try to get Gwacham’s athletic gifts to translate into production beyond just special teams coverage, and it looks like they may have found something here. Gwacham’s lanky 6’5", 230 lb. frame won’t make him a run-stuffer, but his speed and leverage makes him a handful to handle for opposing defensive tackles in pass rush situations. Watch for him to be used in that role at times this season as part of the solution to replacing Crichton by committee.
4. What are your biggest worries coming out of spring ball for the fall?
The left tackle position. JC transfer Bobby Keenan was expected to come in and take the position, and early in spring ball, he looked like he would. But the learning curve is steep, and Oregon St. wound up trying both Will Hopkins and converted TE Dustin Stanton at the position. Both Hopkins and Stanton are undersized for the job, both at or below 265 lbs., and if Keenan can't reclaim the position come summer camp, pass protection on Sean Mannion's blind side could become a real problem.
5. Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the pack?
Could be any of the above. Given the competitive nature of the Pac-12 and the questions about this team and others, I can see anything from 4 wins to 9 for Oregon St.
6. Any frosh you can't wait to get on campus?
This team has a lot of experience returning, so most of the freshmen should be red-shirting. One I'm thinking may not, and get to play, especially depending on whether an off-field series of events results in a loss of a rotation player, is OLB Ricky Liuchan.
The Beavers have 3 returning starting senior LBs, but its been years since Oregon St. has gone through the season without something happening to a linebacker at some point, and often more than one, so Liuchan, though still light for the position, could find an opportunity to put his speed to use.
7. Who will you miss the most from last season? Who will be stepping up to fulfill those shoes?
The obvious answer is Cooks, the best receiver in the history of the program, but it might actually be another WR, Cummings. Bolden is in line to pick up at least a good part of the job Cooks did, but Cummings as the counterpoint to Cooks was not only crucial (Oregon St. was 7-2 in games he played in, and the 2 losses were by a fg in a game the offense put up 46 points, and by a touchdown to Stanford in the game he suffered a broken hand in, which was why he couldn't hold onto the would be td pass that could have sent the game to overtime. The Beavers went 0-4 without him, and was only close in 1 of those losses.), no one has established themselves yet as the clear candidate to replace him as the possession receiver.
8. Any particular Pac12 match-up/rivalry you are looking forward to this Fall?
I’m really looking forward to Oregon St.’s trip to Seattle, for a variety of reasons. It will be the first chance for most of Beaver Nation to visit "New Husky", and I’m really looking forward to seeing the renovated stadium, and going to a game there without dealing with that infernal track. It will also be the first meeting with the Chris Peterson era Huskies, and how he does will be very interesting. The Huskies are also one of the biggest question mark programs in the conference this year because they are 1 of only 2 with uncertainty at qb. The Peterson and qb questions should be well answered well before we go up there on Thanksgiving weekend, and the weather will probably be terrible that late in the year (wish it was a mid-October trip!), but there are certainly still plenty of interesting issues to this.
And then there’s what happened last year in Corvallis. I’m sure that will be on a lot of people’s minds on both sides of the field, whether many people admit to it or not.
9. What are the specific injury concerns coming out of this spring?
Oregon St. was fortunate to not suffer any major injuries during spring ball that should linger into summer camp.
10. Based on what you've seen, who is ready to take a major leap this fall?
LB D.J. Alexander. He has never had a season free of problems stemming from stingers, and the bone spurs that caused them in his neck, and that goes back to high school. He finally had the problem surgically addressed right before Christmas, which kept him out of the Hawaii Bowl.
As with any surgery, never mind something involving the neck and neuro system, you always hope for the best but reserve judgment until you see results. The good news is he went through all of spring practice with no problems, and played well doing so. I think a healthy and confident senior will have a huge season.
11. Will QB Sean Mannion regress without a target like WR Brandin Cooks?
I don't think Mannion will regress, but his numbers might not be as spectacular, and those looking only at box scores from afar may come to that conclusion. Part of that may be due to a greater emphasis on trying to run the ball, which could take away some throws. But Mannion was very sharp this spring, and new Offensive Coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Garrett has brought both new attention to details and some advanced, professional techniques to the equation.
While he may have to use more passes to tight ends, and just generally spread the ball around more, Mannion should still have a very good season.
12. Have any running backs emerged to generate a rushing threat for the Beavers offense?
Terron Ward appears to have taken firm hold of the #1 spot on the depth chart. He has added some muscle and strength, and is the best back of the 3 (Storm Woods and Chris Brown) in heavy traffic. Woods is unquestionably the fastest in space, but the reality is much more of the time a running back is working around the line and linebackers, where contact is sure to happen.
13. Whom do you want to punch in the face?
Whomever got out-negotiated to a ridiculous degree in agreeing to the window of exclusivity on the tv contract, and then didn’t get rid of it, which prevents more afternoon games, and necessitates far too many late night games outside of Arizona. Oregon St. played in exactly 2 afternoon games all of last year.