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the Gekko Files: Previewing Oregon State Football in 2015

Change is in the air in Corvallis. That, by itself, is an unusual occurrence.

Mama said that there would be days ... or seasons ... like this.  Am I right, Gary Andersen?
Mama said that there would be days ... or seasons ... like this. Am I right, Gary Andersen?
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The first thing that comes to the minds of PAC 12 fans everywhere when they think of the Beavers and the 2015 season is the notion of how strange it will be to not see Mike Riley on the sidelines.

There won't be any snark in the opener to this preview today.

The PAC 12 was a better place with Mike Riley in it than it will be with him in the Big Ten.  While you may debate his merits and demerits as a coach all day long, Riley made his mark in this cut throat world of college athletics as a fine human being and a true mentor to young people.  When you consider how college football has evolved and you consider some of the characters that have been dubbed as successes, Riley is a true throw back.  Always the "work life balance" guy, he didn't suffer major health issues that put his livelihood in jeopardy a la Urban Meyer.  He never felt the pressure to play the shell game of offering and then walking away from recruits like a couple of coaches we know in the Los Angels area.  He didn't cuss his way out of town like his predecessor at Nebraska.  He didn't suffer lapses in moral judgment like Bobby Petrino.  He never let the pressure of the job get bigger than the obligation that he had to his family, his friends and his players like ... well ... the vast majority of burned out coaches we see littered across the college football landscape today.

Some will argue that the game had passed Mike Riley by. Maybe. But consider the starting point. Riley came back to his home town of Corvallis to coach Oregon State in 1997.  He had a little dalliance with the NFL, but amassed a 93-80 overall record with a 6-2 bowl record for a team that had suffered 28 straight losing seasons dating all the way back to 1971.  He brought a sense of respectability back to Corvallis just as he brought a sense of hospitality to every relationship he made along the way.

While his record was not always as glossy as those of the prima donna teams 30 miles to the south of him, there were precious few times that a PAC 12 team would go through a game against Riley's Beavers and not feel like they just played football against a brick wall quarterbacked by a piece of iron.  No matter how overmatched his teams were from a talent perspective, toughness and scrap defined the culture of Beaver football every time it hit the field.

What else can one hope for?

Where OSU goes from here is now the question.  A new coach, a new QB and a whole lot of new faces on defense is what this team faces going into 2015.  How will it all shake out?  Don't worry, the Gekko has you covered.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 5th
Actual Div Finish 6th
Predicted P12 Record 4-5
Actual P12 Record 2-7

Here were some of my verbatims:

The presence of Mike Riley is always cause for optimism. He's repeatedly shown an ability to develop players across the board....

...the Offensive LIne is in a state of unreadiness and one of the least stable in the Pac 12. This does not bode well for a mediocre RB corps and a QB who is amongst the least mobile ....

I do think OSU will reach six wins and bowl eligibility, but it will be another near-bottom of the North finish when all is said and done...

Given how hard I've been on the Beavs the last few years, I'm sure I surprised more than a few readers by over-ranking them going into 2014.

When the season started, there was some reason for optimism.  Riley did not pull his typical "slow start" card and he cruised with relative ease through the pre-conference part of his schedule.  But his rude awakening came in his first P12 game - a road trip to visit his old buddy Steve Sarkisian in Los Angles.  The Trojans absolutely thumped the Beavs in a game that saw Sean Mannion get exposed for his lack of ability to deal with a pass rush.  Though he got sacked only two times, USC harassed him to one of his worst games as a collegiate with a 42% completion rate and 2 INTs.

It was all pretty much downhill from there.

A gutsy home upset of then #6 ASU and a road win versus Colorado would become the only two conference wins on the schedule for the Beavers in what we now know was Mike Riley's swan song.  Along the way, the Beavers would put up some pretty discouraging numbers.  Given that they had one of the "best" QBs in team history, the Beavers ranked #7 in the PAC in passing.  Their three sacks allowed per game was third worst in the conference and their rushing offense outrushed only WSU for the season (granted, they did so by almost 1,000 yards!!!).  If you think that was bad, the offense was actually the best part of the season.  They ranked 9th in the conference in both yards given up per play and in total scoring D.  Using advanced metrics, their S&P defensive metric was 74th which was, ironically, just ahead of Oklahoma State and better than only Colorado and WSU in the PAC.

Of course, everybody knows what would happen from there.  In one of the most shocking coaching carousel moves seen over the course of the past decade, Riley accepted an offer to move to Nebraska where he will get one last shot to chase his dream of a national championship.  In addition, Oregon State AD Bob de Carolis announced his retirement.  The Beavers did well to lure Gary Andersen away from Wisconsin while backfilling their AD with Todd Stansbury.  Andersen has an extensive background on the west coast having guided the rebuilding of the Utah State program and owning a great pipeline of relationships with the pacific islands, in particular.

The legacy of 2014 did not walk out the door with Mike Riley. There are a still a lot of headaches left behind that Andersen now gets to deal with.  There is little question that Beaver fans remain anxious to see how they all eventually get dealt with.

Previewing 2015: The Oregon State Beavers

The Offense
Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Dave Baldwin OL Experience
Deep Ball
QB Play
New Playbook
RB Storm Woods
WR Jordan Villamin
OG Isaac Seumalo

QB Seth Collins
WR Ryan Nall (RS)
RB Tim Cook (JC)

True Freshman QB Seth Collins is the new face of the Oregon State Beavers

Goodbye fly-sweep.  It seems we hardly knew ya.

Gary Andersen and his new OC Dave Baldwin are bringing the Oregon State offense into the 21st century.  After what seems like decades of watching Mike Riley line up in his pro-sets with his big pocket-passing QBs and run dive play, fly-sweep and post route, the Beavers are finally giving into the madness.  The spread is coming to Corvallis.

Implementing a whole new system with a bunch of players that were recruited and developed to play in another is no small task.  Gary Andersen knows this and has decided to bite the bullet early by turning the reigns of this offense over to a QB committee that is comprised of PAC 12 unknowns.  The heavy favorite to start for the Beavers this fall is true freshman Seth Collins.  Collins was a lightly recruited athlete who had committed to San Jose State before Andersen came calling.  Once offered, he jumped on the chance right away and made it to Corvallis in time for spring camp.  Once there, his athleticism, play-making instinct and "hair-on-fire" demeanor quickly resulted in him staking out the lead for the QB competition.  Collins is hardly a finished product and will struggle against PAC 12 defenses to be sure.  But he's got the intangibles that a coaching staff with nothing to lose likes to see.  The job won't be handed to him, though.  RS freshman Marcus McMaryion, another jitterbug style spread QB, appears to be his top competition.

However the QB situation shakes out, the Beavers should have a decent offensive line for him to play behind.  Anchored by one of the top OL in the conference in Isaac Seumalo, the Beavers will be bringing back several experienced players in 2015.  The big challenge for them will be adjusting to a whole new playbook and set of blocking assignments.  A key player for them will be Rimington Award watch list candidate C Josh Mitchell.  Mitchell started every game a season ago and was recognized by the previous staff as the line's MVP.  I think Mitchell is the one guy poised for a breakout in 2015, even if it goes hardly noticed by the rest of the PAC.  However, I also expect that this line will have trouble both adjusting to their new assignments and blocking for a QB who will break the pocket much more often than his predecessor.

The Beavers do boast some decent tools for their young QB to work with.  The rushing attack will be manned by a grizzled senior in Storm Barrs-Woods (formerly Storm Woods) and junior breakout candidate Chris Brown.  Both players are very experienced.  Barrs-Woods provides the reliability while Brown provides some big-play potential.  If you are looking for a new name likely to emerge, check out JC transfer Tim Cook.  Cook is a 225 lb monster of a man that may bring some real "thunder" to the Beaver rushing attack.

Under normal circumstances, I'd say that the Beavers receiving corps could be among the best in the PAC 12 in 2015.  The QB situation hampers that quite a bit.  But the pieces are there.  Senior Victor Bolden is a versatile receiver with speed and precision.  He pairs with the physically gifted Jordan Villamin to form one of the best starting combinations in the league.  Villamin broke out a season ago when he racked up nearly 600 yards and 6 TDs in the Beavers final 8 games.  Though this duo will miss Richard Mullaney, who took a grad transfer to Alabama, depth will come from the Beavers excellent corps of Tight Ends.  This group is exceptionally deep and is led by senior Caleb Smith and includes another very interesting prospect in the versatile Ryan Nall.  Former QB Brett VanderVeen is also in this group and may turn into an Erik Bjornson-type of player before it is all said and done.  The key thing that jumps out to me as unknown when I look at all of these assets that the Beavers boast is how they fit into the new spread scheme being implemented.

I like the base stock that the Beavers have assembled and I definitely see some potential here if, somehow, the learning curve to the spread offense can be achieved quickly and the QB situation gravitates towards the "upside" side of the spectrum.  But, as we've discussed in this forum lots of times, there isn't much of a history of true freshman QBs succeeding in the PAC.  If Collins is the guy for Gary Andersen, I'd interpret that as an investment in the future kind of decision with this season being somewhat of a "throw away" on offense.

The Defense
Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Kalani Sitake Coaching
LB Talent
Pass Rush
DL Depth
DL Jalen Grimble
CB Larry Scott
LB Bright Ugwoegbu (RS)
DB Dwayne Williams (RS)

Former Utah DC Kalani Sitake, now manning the Beavers D, looks like he could still suit up.

We've talked a lot here in the 'Pound about the significance of losing 6 starters off of the front 7 of the defense.  But just in case you think Husky fans have it rough, consider what new Oregon State Beaver DC Kalani Sitake is facing.  The former architect of the salty Utah Utes D not only will be converting the Beavers from their traditional 4-3 into a more of a hybrid 3-4, but he will be doing so with a unit that has to replace 9 of 11 starters.

Daunting, even for a bad ass like Sitake.

All is not lost for the Beavers as, just like the Huskies, they do have a core of players that have PAC 12 experience.  The defensive line features a couple of those players.   The potential star of the D is big senior Jalen Grimble.  Grimble is a Miami transfer who played a bit last season as a 307lb DT in Mike Riley's 4-3.  Now appearing completely recovered from a knee injury and down to about 285lbs, Grimble figures to be catalyst for Sitake's D-Line as a 3T guy.  His partner on the other end will be 255 lb senior Jashwa James, another player with some experience but not yet distinguished at the P12 level.  Beyond those guys, things get a bit tricky for the Beavers as they'll be relying on some youth and some new players.  Kyle Peko and Lavonte Barnett - the latter who had 4.5 sacks a year ago - are key pieces.

Although I think that the d-line has the potential to be the best unit on the team, I am most interested in seeing how this LB crew develops over the course of the next year.  Almost all the names you read hear are going to be new to Husky fans, so you may have to trust me a bit.  The future is bright (pun intended, you'll see in a moment) because of the one key factor that you like to see in a linebacking corps in the PAC:  speed.

The LBs are young, to be sure.  Sophomore Darrell Songy, at 6'2" and 220lbs is one of the key young talents that will be playing a key role in 2015.  He's an outside guy that is kind of like OSU's version of Shaq - a jack of all trades.  He can cover zones and rush passers, even as he still learns the finer points of getting PAC ball carriers to the ground.  Another couple of guys I'm bullish on are Caleb Saulo and Bright Ugwoegbu.  Saulo is a bit of a thumper that couldn't get off of Mike Riley's bench after a bike theft incident a year ago.  Ugwoegbu is a redshirt frosh who, though on the lighter side at about 205 lbs, brings a ton of speed and a big motor to the table.  These guys, in my opinion, will form the core of a young group that will take their licks in 2015, but get better as the season goes on.

OSU's secondary is in largely the same boat as the linebackers.  Senior Larry Scott is back and will lock down one side as one of the better CBs in the league.  Beyond that, questions abound.  Freshman Dwayne Williams had a great spring and looks poised to start at the other CB where, I'm sure, he'll learn his lessons but also make a few plays.  Junior Cyril Noland-Lewis had 27 tackles as a reserve a year ago and will bring experience to the safety position.  These three are the key names in a unit that will see a lot of competition this fall and be manned by a lot of youth going into the season.

Summed up, OSU's D doesn't project very well as they rebuild off of a unit that was 9th in the PAC in scoring defense a season ago.  That said, this isn't exactly the same situation that Dykes inherited when he went to Cal a few seasons ago.  For starters, the OSU DC is no joke.  Second, there are definitely some tough-guy types of personalities here.  Defense starts with culture and Gary Andersen's staff brings it in spades.  I expect OSU to struggle, but I also see them growing as leaders emerge and that culture takes root.

Three Questions and a Comment: Andy Woolridge, Editor, Building the Dam

1. We must start with the coaching turnover. The previous coach was an veritable institution at the Oregon State University. Why did he leave and what was it like as a Beaver fan to watch Mike Riley opt out and walk out the door?

Coach Riley left because he knew something drastic had to be done, and a unique and unexpected opportunity presented itself that gave everyone a chance at a fresh start; him, his staff, some Beaver players in "logjam" situations, and the fan base.

For a lot of Beaver Nation, it was initially a shock; it always is when an institution for over a decade is suddenly not around anymore. But 2-12 in conference, 0-7 against Oregon, and losing 3 in a row, and 4 of 5 to Washington, wasn't going to be acceptable to the investors and customers, and a lot of people were ready for something to be done, and it could no longer be in the form of a little tinkering; it HAD to be a major change somehow or another. Even most of the staunchest Riley supporters realized that, and once the initial shock wore off, and especially once the Gary Andersen hire was announced, people moved on with some optimism...

2.  With a new coaching staff, a turnover of most of your defensive starters and a QB situation that increasingly looks like is going to fall into the hands of a true freshman, what silver linings are there with the program that Beaver fans can hang their hats on?

The silver lining is an offensive line that's intact and healthy, even if Isaac Seumalo isn't in the mix, for the first time in over 3 years. If you are going to shake up everything, and especially throw a freshman on the field at quarterback, the single best way to take that on is behind a healthy, veteran o-line.

A lot has been made about every other aspect of the program during the ups and downs of recent seasons, but 3 years ago, a healthy line got to the Alamo Bowl, even finishing the season with 2 quarterbacks that each only had 1 good leg under them. The last 2 years have seen weekly, sometimes daily, changes on the o-line, and it shouldn't be a surprise that every other issue on the team became exaggerated. Husky fans can probably relate to what inconsistent o-line play can do to a team.

3. How will Oregon State football look different under Gary Andersen?

In almost every way. I think we will still have the chainsaw, but almost everything else will be different.

Offensively, the quarterbacks ran more in the spring game than they did in the last 7 seasons put together under Riley. They also threw from outside the pocket more than any previous Oregon St. team ever.

Defensively, the base defense will be a 3-4 instead of a 4-3.

But more than just these kinds of schematic changes, there is a change in philosophy that goes beyond formations. With Coach Riley, Oregon St. emphasized precision execution, a logical extension of Riley's pro-style, which was both a scheme and also a philosophy.

It's not that there won't still be predefined routes and specific responsibilities, but its already apparent that Coach Andersen's approach is to put athletes on the field, and have them make plays.

Coach Riley's system leveraged talent (see Brandon Cooks, Jordan Poyer, and the Rodgers brothers), but expected to beat superior talent with better execution when things worked right. Coach Andersen has a simpler system that hopes to facilitate the talent he has making as many plays as possible..

The one player on the Beaver roster that nobody knows about but everybody should look out for is ...

... ... RB Chris Brown and DB Cyril Noland-Lewis.

On offense, Brown, a junior, will be in the mix along with senior Storm Woods. Based on spring results, he might even emerge as the Beavers' best back. Oregon St. fans who have kept tabs on Brown were already calling for a larger role for him, and now that Terron Ward had graduated, the opportunity is wide open. Woods at least initially is the #1 back, but he's never been able to stay totally healthy anyway, and one way or another, I expect Brown will be starting at some point this season.

Defensively, Noland-Lewis has steadily been working his way into the rotation in the secondary, and played in all 12 games last year. This spring, he looks like all the hard work over the last 3 years have paid off, both physically and mentally. As a red-shirt junior, he just appears to have grown up, and I think he will have a pretty solid season this fall.

Predicting 2015: The Beavers

Hold on to your hats and glasses, Beaver fans.  2015 is going to be a wild ride .. and I'm not talking about the Disneyland kind.  I'm talking about non-stop turbulence at 35k feet with babies screaming, seat mates puking and the old lady across the aisle screaming "I'm not ready to die".

It's never easy to go into a full roster rebuild like the Beavers are doing.  It's even harder to do it with a new coach who is not only throwing out the old playbooks on either side of ball but is implementing a completely new playing strategy.  The roster that Mike Riley has been building and cultivating with his pro-style philosophies over the years is not one that lends itself to a read-option spread team that prefers an athletic 3-4 flex style on defense.

In short, nothing about what Gary Andersen inherits in Corvallis naturally lends itself to what he wants to install.

This isn't to say that the Beavers don't have pieces to start with or that they lack a few weapons to build around.  We've detailed above some of the more interesting components that Andersen and co have to work with.  The thing is that there aren't nearly enough of them.  Layer in the fact that many of those pieces will also be busy perfecting the details of their new system and it's not difficult to project a struggle.

Complicating the change in format even more is the wide-scale restocking of starters across the roster.  Gone are most of the defensive starters, the record-breaking QB, steady RB Terron Ward and productive WR Richard Mullaney.  In their places come a new wave of former reserves and young players who haven't achieved much distinction at the PAC 12 level.

The schedule will provide the Beavers no relief.  Five conference road games, an early season road game to Michigan to face former P12 nemesis Jim Harbaugh and a BYE that comes very early in the season are all tough blows for a young team to absorb.  If there is a break in there, it is that OSU will miss USC and ASU, probably the two best teams in the South.

With a young roster, a true freshman QB and a new playbook, this thing could get sideways on Oregon State pretty quickly.  Looking at the schedule and trying to project how they'll advance against their learning curve makes it tough to project more than one or two conference wins.  A home game against Colorado and a road contest against WSU look like their best bets. I'm projecting OSU as the #6 team in the North in 2015.