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the Gekko Files: Previewing Oregon State in 2017

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Orange, anyone?

NCAA Football: Boise State at Oregon State Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

I’m speaking specifically about the transition of one coach to another in a program like Oregon State. Whatever you think about Mike Riley, it is hard to argue that he didn’t do pretty well with the pieces that he had. As Bill Connelly points out in his SB Nation preview of the Beavers, it was just five years ago where we were watching the Beavers operate at a Top 10 level and challenge for a PAC 12 championship.

Fast forward to today. The Beavers, arguably, have upgraded their coaching situation with former Utah State and Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. Yet they are further away from a winning record - much less a top 25 ranking - than they’ve been since before Mike Riley left.

Obviously, we are talking about Oregon State and the college town of Corvallis. Winning there is never a guarantee, even if Nick Saban were to take over the program. Recruiting to Corvallis can be difficult and the level of competition presented by both the traditional powers of the PAC - USC, Washington, etc - and it’s upstarts - Oregon, Utah, etc - is daunting.

Still, is this the way it has to be. Do programs always have to take a step so far back by ripping the program down to the studs in order to rebuild it? Or does such a shock to the system of the program do nothing more than give the competition such a head start that the prospect of competing with them in the future requires other programs to quite literally fall back on their own?

It is a question that I’m sure will trigger debate in the comments. Regardless, we are where we are at with Oregon State which, in my view, is a team that has some interesting upside compared to each of the past two years. But is it enough to get back on the right side of .500?

The Gekko digs in.

OSU’s Offense

Beavers Offensive Breakdown

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
OL experience QB uncertainty OT Blake Brandel RB BJ Baylor (RSFr)
WR playmaking RB depth TE Noah Togiai WR Aaron Short (Tx)
Big play potential RB Atavis Pierce RB Jermar Jefferson (TFr)

The conversion of OSU from a traditional pro-style to more of a spread team has been a painful one for Beaver fans. It’s not so much that the strategy is flawed. It’s really more about the talent available. When Andersen took over, some quality players simply didn’t fit.

Oregon State v Colorado
Seth Collins can fly. Literally.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

You see this most notably at the QB and WR positions where there has been a dizzying array of personnel and position changes over the past two seasons. The case of junior Seth Collins is a case in point. A lightly recruited athlete comes to Corvallis and takes over as a QB thanks mostly to his athleticism. As the season goes on and Andersen comes to realize that Collins will never be able to execute a passing game that highlights the talent of his receiver base, he relives his QB of his duties. Fast forward to today and Collins, who briefly left the program, projects as OSU’s best receiver playing in front of a bevy of QBs who each have a questionable ability to execute the passing offense.

Answering that QB question will be key. The contenders are incumbent Darell Garretson, veteran Marcus McMaryion and newcomer Jake Luton. As I noted in my spring recaps, Luton - who was previously a starter at Idaho - seems to have taken the lead in the competition.

If Luton - a big-armed pocket passer - earns the job, I could see OSU playmakers really getting a chance to shine. Collins has turned himself into a fine playmaker while senior Jordan Villamin - who virtually disappeared in 2016 - continues to present a tantalizing set of physical skills just waiting for the right QB. I’m bullish on this unit, especially when you consider the presence of savvy veteran Timmy Hernandez, incoming freshman Isaiah Hodgins and the return from injury of TE Noah Togiai.

The RB situation also looks to be in good shape with stud Ryan Nall leading the pack. Nall is a pure football player, effective in both the passing and rushing games. He’s easily OSU’s best all-around player. The depth is provided by sophomore speedster Artavis Pierce and TCU grad transfer Trevorris Johnson. A come back by former Oregon star Thomas Tyner is a development to watch that had not concluded at the time of drafting this article.

OSU’s O-line is a question mark, but not necessarily in a bad way. There is some experience and talent there. The name everyone is watching is sophomore Gus Lavaka, a preseason all-conference selection by Athlons. This is a young unit, but one that has seven players with PAC 12 playing time logged. It’s fair to expect this unit to be decent, again, in run blocking. It’s the pass blocking where the challenges lie.

OSU’s Defense

Beavers Defensive Breakdown

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
DB potential team speed LB Bright Ugwoegbu DL Thor Katoa (injury)
interior rush defense pass rush DB David Morris DE Bradley Bickler (TFr)
big play prevention DB Jalen Moore DE Jeromy Reichner (Txfr)

If OSU has any designs of winning more than they lose in 2017, they must produce a decent defense. 2016 was not the kind of performance that engenders huge confidence, but it wasn’t a disaster. In fact, the stats from a year ago tell us that OSU was altogether mediocre across the board. Their pass defense - fourth in the PAC on yards per attempt - was generally serviceable while their rush defense - 10 in the PAC on yards per attempt - not so much. 2017, however, is a new year. There are new and young faces all over the place - including in that secondary where they are replacing a couple of their best players in Treston Decoud and Devin Chappell. The good news is that Andersen and his DC Kevin Clune have been playing the Pete Kwiatkowski strategy of rotating young players liberally the past two years. As such, the Beavers young roster does sport quite a bit of field experience.

Oregon State v Minnesota
Bright Ugwoegbu is a blinding flash on the field.
Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

The bigger question is whether or not the baseline talent is there. This is especially true along that defensive line - a unit that was just about as bad as you could imagine a year ago. Expect Clune to feature a three man front anchored by a couple of beefy NT types in transfer Craig Evans, junior Kalani Vakameilalo and sophomore Elu Aydon. The ends are more experienced and deeper. Napoleon Phillips and Baker Pritchard highlight a group that features seniors across the entire two-deep.

I’m more confident in the back seven. I like the LBs - in particular the disruptive Bright Ugwoegbu. I highlighted Ugwoegbu in last year’s preview as a smallish Tasmanian devil kind of OLB. He delivered on that with a great year in which he racked up 11 TFLs and 5.5 sacks. Along with Andrzej Hughes-Murray, Bright is part of a youth movement that is complemented with upperclassmen leadership in guys like ILB Manase Hungalu and OLB Jonathan Willis. This is a good unit.

The secondary might be go through a bit of a transition, but still ought to be good enough to at least keep big plays from breaking out. Senior Brandon Arnold is the statesman of the backend. He’s a solid leader who will help a couple of upside players - sophomore CB Xavier Crawford and sophomore S Jalen Moore - reach their potential.

One Breakout Player

Craig Evans - Junior DT

There are some good offensive players just looking to get unleashed when paired with a halfway decent QB. In fact, I was determined coming into this preview to write about TE Noah Togiai here as I think he stands to benefit the most from more production out of the QB position.

But it is hard to ignore the kind of impact that a guy like Evans can have right away. Evans is a former Michigan State player who arrives at OSU via the JUCO route. He’s a big body - 6’3” and 305 lbs - who is unquestionably the most athletic interior lineman on the Beaver roster. If he’s half as hard to block as OSU fans are hoping, he’ll immediately be a factor in that porous OSU run defense. Keep in mind that simply moving the Beavers back into the middle of the NCAA rankings would be a huge achievement.

Projecting the Beavers

The pieces are starting to come together in Corvallis. I hope that I’ve painted a picture as to how Andersen is going about putting the components of his program in place and how well that it is going when viewed from 30k feet.

It isn’t so much a question as to whether or not OSU is getting better - they clearly are. It is more about whether or not they are keeping up with the competition. The answer to that question is less clear.

I like the playmaking potential that the offense is beginning to flash and it is hard to argue that there isn’t now an establishment of depth in the defense. However, the lack of a clear answer at QB is disconcerting - at least at this point in the summer. Husky fans can also identify with how debilitating an issue a poor to barely mediocre offensive line can be. This might still be an issue for a growing OSU unit.

I’m also not too keen on the OSU schedule. The OOC features a 50/50 home game against Minnesota. Their PAC 12 schedule is a 5-road game affair in which only a late-season matchup against Arizona looks relatively safe. Half of their home games are Washington and Stanford ... so that sucks. They do catch a bit of a break with their misses as they would not match up well against either of UCLA or Utah.

I think that OSU is looking at a two-win season for the in-conference with another two-wins on the OOC. To get bowl eligible, they are going to have to take a couple of the 50/50 games like @ Cal, @ Arizona and @ Oregon. That could definitely happen - OSU isnt that far away. But until the QB situation dramatically improves, I’m having a hard time seeing that happen.