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the Gekko Files: previewing Oregon State football in 2018

Former UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith has a major rebuild on his hands.

Welcome to the new orange era.

The hiring of favorite son and former UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith ushers with it yet another shift in fortune for the beleaguered Oregon State faithful. The optimists point to Smith’s background as a home grown, glory days kind of character who brings with him a pedigree earned while under the tutelage of UW’s very own Chris Petersen. The pessimists will point to some choppy offensive performances and the utter lack of experience as a head coach and wonder aloud if he can have the affect required to make Oregon State a contender.

We shall see. This Oregon State team is coming off a truly awful season. One that was punctuated by the abandonment of his post by former head coach Gary Andersen. Andersen left the team in early October leaving the Oregon State community “totally shocked” and triggering a nose dive of epic proportions.

The numbers say it all. 43 points per game surrendered. 21 points per game scored. A PAC 12 worst 248 points. A PAC 12 worst -14 turnover margin. A PAC 12 worst opponent 3rd down conversion percentage (53%). A PAC 12 worst 14 sacks converted.

While things look dire, I’m here to tell you that all is not lost in Corvallis going into 2018. There were reasons for what happened last year and there are reasons to be optimistic this season. Jonathan Smith does have access to some talent, he’s built up a really good coaching staff and, well, there is no direction but “up” when you are at the base of the mountain.

Let’s get our hiking boots on. It’s time to break down the Oregon State Beavers.

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)

Last year was an offensive disaster for Oregon State. With injuries decimating the QB room and taking big chunks of time away from their best RB, the Beavers struggled to move the chains and to avoid turnovers. The net result was a remarkable dearth of big plays, a tragic turnover margin and an S&P+ offensive rating of 24.6 - 103rd in the nation.

Jonathan Smith is doing two things with the offense that will result in immediate and noticeable differences from what PAC 12 fans saw out of Oregon State a year ago. First, he has brought in a crew of experienced coaches to help re-establish fundamentals and player development. Mike Riley (yes, that Mike Riley) is the most notable name on the coaching roster. He’ll be a special assistant to Smith and coach tight ends. Jim Michalczik has been coaching for over 25 years and has been all over the PAC 12 in his time. He’ll be coaching the offensive line. Finally, new OC Brian Lindgren has nine years of experience as an offensive coordinator, most recently with Colorado.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Oregon State
OSU receiver Isaiah Hodgins looks ready to take off (literally) in Jonathan Smith’s offense.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Think what you want about Smith’s readiness as a new head coach, but you cannot argue that he hasn’t packed his staff with some serious experience.

The other thing you’ll notice is the play style. Smith will be moving Oregon State away from a spread philosophy that fit neither the OSU offensive line nor its backfield to something that more resembles what he ran at UW: a varied-tempo, pro style, protect the QB, generate some big plays kind of offense.

This is great news for the OSU QB room. That group has been eviscerated by injuries over the past two years thanks in part to all of the hits that they’ve taken when outside of the pocket. Senior Jake Luton is back and projects as Smith’s starting QB. Luton started last season but was dinged up early on. The 6’7” former Idaho transfer has a big arm and above-average accuracy. But his mobility resembles that of an elephant running through a pool of silly putty. He must have protection in the pocket if his arm strength is going to translate into big plays.

His competition will come primarily from Conor Blount. The RS sophomore used his redshirt last season after suffering a knee injury while playing as a true freshman. Blount is more mobile than Luton and had a really nice spring leading many to think that he will overtake Luton. In addition to Blount, JC transfer Jack Colletto (shout out to you Camas folks!) put his hat in the ring with a strong spring. The sophomore has three to play three and possesses the kind of measurables (6’3”, 220 lb) that make him impossible to ignore.

Whomever gets the QB nod will inherit a pretty good passing game situation. The Beavers boast three legit PAC 12 receiving talents: TE Noah Togiai (6’4”, 245), WR Isaiah Hodgins (6’4” 200) and WR Timmy Hernandez (6’0”, 200). Togiai, if he can stay healthy, is one of the best pass catching TEs in the conference thanks to his superglue hands and his ability to work in traffic. Hernandez is “Mr. Steady” also displaying great hands. Hodgins has big play potential on the outside and looks like a great breakout candidate.

There isn’t a lot of depth here, but Smith is already starting to stock the shelves with young talent. I’m sure Husky fans will be shocked to learn that there is a strong emphasis on big, tall TE types and that two incoming freshmen - Teagan Quitoriano (6’7”, 250) and Isaiah Smalls (6’5”, 230) - are candidates for early playing time.

The run game features a well-known tailback in senior Artavis Pierce and a very experienced offensive line. Pierce inherits the mantle from Ryan Nall, but plays with a style more similar to Myles Gaskin than to the “Wrecking Nall”. He’s a capable back who might be able to generate more from nothing than Nall, but is far less likely to break through a pile. His backups are inexperienced, though redshirt freshman BJ Baylor, a second cousin to former Beaver stars Jacquizz and James Rodgers, caught some eyeballs this spring.

The offensive line is the strength of the team and the one reason that Beaver fans might carry some optimism around the offense. LT Blake Brandel is probably the best player on the team right now. He leads a rotation of linemen that is nine-deep with seniors and juniors and returns 38 starts from a year ago. A quick look at the advanced stats for this group reveals that it is decent in run-blocking and a better-than-you-think team in pass blocking (they finished 2nd in the PAC in fewest sacks allowed). If Michalczik can goad just a little improvement from the existing talent, OSU could have a top half of the conference offensive line before you know it.

The big secret in making this all gel is getting more big plays out of the offense. They ranked 126 in the NCAA last year in offensive explosiveness. When you look at the pieces that Smith has to work with, there is a legitimate argument that a scheme that better fits the talent can add a couple of more explosives per game resulting in a points per game improvement of 5 to 7 points. Should OSU achieve that, they would have an offense ranked somewhere in the 50’s or 60s in the NCAA. That would be a huge improvement.

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)

There is no way to sugar coat this: the Beavers were absolutely awful on defense a year ago. Injuries, youth and distraction all combined to result in Oregon State surrendering a staggering 43 points per game last season. That’s obviously a record for the Beavs besting their previous worst season by almost a whole touchdown.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington
Jalen Moore looks like a future star in the Oregon State defensive backfield.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

When you try to pinpoint exactly where the bleeding began, the answer is obvious. It was everywhere. Chunk plays surrendered? Check. First downs surrendered? Yes. Red zone weakness? Uh-huh. Field position surrendered on special teams? Of course. It was all a mess.

2018 doesn’t project much better. One of their best players, OLB Bright Ugwoegbu, has been suspended indefinitely. Even without him, OSU is expecting to bring back seven starters from that disaster of a 2017 lineup. And there don’t appear to be any clear-cut difference makers joining the roster this year.

The good news is that there are some legit coaches in place to help the existing talent along. Defensive Coordinator Tim Tibesar has been a DC a handful of times before and arrives at OSU by way of Wisconsin. He’ll partner with former Pete Carroll DB coach Greg Burns to help guide this OSU defense back to respectability.

The first order of business is restoring the secondary into the strength that it was in 2016. This could very well happen given that OSU’s two best defensive players (IMO), sophomore S David Moore and junior S Jalen Moore are both available. These two form a duo of grind-it-out kinds of players who don’t really catch your eye until you look at the overall productivity of the unit after a game.

At cornerback, four regulars - Jay Irvine, Dwayne Williams, Xavier Crawford and Isaiah Dunn - all return from various state of injury from a year ago. There is some talent here. I’ll be watching both Williams and Crawford, in particular, given that both were starters before injuries took them out.

The front seven is in a little bit more disarray. I would have been somewhat optimistic about the linebackers before the Ugboegwu news (and, who knows, maybe he’ll be back) given that the senior has developed into an acceptable OLB with some unique blitzing talents. Without him, the depth is severely crimped. ILB Jonathan Wills is back - which is good - as he is a relatively productive guy who has a shown the ability to stand tall in the middle and take on blocks from interior linemen. OLB Andrzej Hughes-Murray is also back, though he excels more in rush defense as opposed to pass rushing. Beyond that, I just don’t know. OLB Kee Whetzel has some interesting upside, but he still looks undersized for the position. Generating a pass rush is going to be a huge challenge for these guys.

Unfortunately, I don’t expect that they will get any help from their defensive line. This unit is in pure rebuild mode. I’m not sure that I can even really comment on the players as most of those that make up the rotation are unfamiliar to me. If there is some good news, there is size available. Four guys - Kalani Vakameilalo (320), Elu Aydon (380), Thor Katoa (300), Chris Mengis (320) - tip the scales. Katoa, a redshirt sophomore, is the most interesting player in this group to me. He’s battled injury each of the past two years, but has Elijah Qualls kind of athleticism. If he’s healthy, he might emerge as an upside player.

When you put it all together, you could make the argument that OSU might have enough depth to put up some decent run defense efforts. But the lack of athleticism in the front seven makes that an iffy proposition. I’d be more optimistic about a resurgence of the secondary in helping to reduce the number of big passing plays against. Even a little improvement in that regard could result in a significant decline in points per game surrendered.

One Breakout Player

Thor Katoa, Defensive End / Defensive Tackle

Last year, WSU had a Hercules. This year, OSU has a Thor. it might feel like to our competitors that recruiting gods is necessary to beat the Huskies.

In seriousness, I admit that calling out Katoa as a breakout might be a stretch. The truth is that he is a complete unknown going into the season.

But the reality is that Oregon State has no other player quite like him. He has the size to line up on the inside and the versatility to switch out to 3T or true DE role. This kind of versatility ensures that he’ll be given the chance to take snaps if he’s healthy.

I also like that Katoa, though he is technically sophomore, is a full grown dude. Originally a Utah commit, Katoa served a Mormon mission before he arrived at OSU. He’s lost two seasons to injury, but has been banking valuable development and maturation time.

Given his experience and his versatility, I expect him to see a lot of snaps and to become a name more fans become familiar with this year.

Projecting the Beavers

The Beavers are a better team than most people will give them credit for. You have to love the fact that that Smith has inherited a pretty decent situation on the offensive line and that he has some baseline talent to work with on defense. The coaching staff he has assembled should pay dividends in the form of an immediate upgrade in terms of competitiveness. Think along the lines of what we saw from Cal under Justin Wilcox in year 1.

Their schedule might be an asset. Sure, they open up on the road with Ohio State. But I consider that contest a gut check game. If OSU can demonstrate just a little competitiveness, it might set them up with some confidence going into a manageable remaining out of conference slate and an in-conference schedule that features five home games. OSU misses both UCLA and Utah this year and has its BYE right smack dab in the middle of October. Not bad. If there were a concern it would be about how back-loaded the last four games look.

Regardless, this is a rebuilding year. Bowl eligibility has to be the goal, but I don’t see a clear line of site to it. There aren’t four wins in the PAC for Oregon State, even under the ideal circumstances of a healthy offensive line, huge productivity out of the passing game and the discovery of some unexpected gems on defense. It is just too tall an order to ask from a group of players who had such a bad 2017 and who are enduring a complete makeover under a new staff.

But the pieces are definitely there to pull off a surprise or two during the season. The hidden potential backed up by an experienced staff make OSU one of the more interesting teams to watch in 2018.