Thursday scrimmage looms big for OSU defense
Banker looks for proof Beaver front seven can stop run
CORVALLIS - There are many questions on offense, some of them due to injuries that have limited the early training camp participation of such as flanker James Rodgers, tight end Joe Halahuni and tailback Jordan Jenkins.
The bigger questions about Oregon State's fortunes for the upcoming season, though, will come on defense.
And we'll know much more after Thursday's practice, which features the Beavers' first full-contact scrimmage of camp.
'It's going to be huge,' OSU defensive coordinator Mark Banker said of the scrimmage session. 'We haven't had any tackling so far other than in drills. It'll be huge for us in terms of measuring aggressiveness and finding out how we are at finishing plays. I'm excited to see that. It will be a true measure of where we're at.'
Oregon State returns only three defensive starters to positions at which they finished last season - tackle Kevin Frahm, cornerback Brandon Hardin and safety Lance Mitchell. Frahm dinged a knee and ankle during Thursday's practice, Hardin has missed three days as a precaution with a shoulder injury, and Mitchell has taken injections to deal with an abdominal injury.
'There's not a position on the field,' Banker said, 'where we have a ton of experience. That's before the injuries.'
Cameron Collins - ticketed to start at outside linebacker after a switch from safety last season - is still slowed by surgery for an injury similar to that of Mitchell. Head coach Mike Riley expects Collins to be ready for the Sept. 3 opener against Sacramento State. Will Mitchell be OK, too?
'He has to be,' Banker said.
Hardin and the two projected backups at corner - Sean Martin and Rashaad Reynolds - were all on the sidelines due to minor injuries Tuesday. It's not disastrous, but as Sept. 3 draws closer, the lack of practice time grows more important.
'In camp, you want to develop some cohesiveness,' Banker said. 'How the linemen and the 'backers interchange with one another in the run game ... how the 'backers interchange with one another in the run game ... how the 'backers work with the secondary ... how we set up on third down ... our sub package.
'We need to get some guys back and get better. We need a lot of work.'
Assuming the principals return to action, Oregon State's pass defense should be solid, with veterans Hardin and Jordan Poyer at corner and Mitchell and Anthony Watkins at safety. A linebacking corps that includes burner Michael Doctor, Collins and converted inside 'backer Rueben Robinson on the outside and physical Kevin Unga in the middle has looked capable of defending the pass.
'Speed helps with that,' Banker said.
But the D-line remains a work in progress, even with tackle Dominic Glover's expected imminent academic eligibility and tackle Castro Masaniai's return after the opener from a one-game suspension for a domestic misdemeanor charge.
It appears position coach Joe Seumalo will have a rotation that includes as many as 10 players, with ends Scott Critchton, Taylor Henry, Rudolf Fifita, Mana Rosa and Rusty Fernando and tackles Glover, Masaniai, Frahm, Andrew Seumalo, Ben Motter and Mana Tuivailala vying for time.
So far, Banker isn't convinced in the ability of the front seven to stop the run.
'I'm not very pleased as to where we are in our run defense,' he said. 'That's critical. You can't stop anybody and get to third-down situations unless you can stop the run.
'We have a way to go in terms of jelling together and communicating. We need a lot of work on being physical in attacking the run game.'
Even so, the D-line situation is better than a year ago, when the Beavers went into camp minus five tackles from its rotation of the previous spring.
Junior Josh LaGrone and redshirt freshman Ryan Murphy are the backups at safety, but they'll get some competition from true freshmen Tyrequek Zimmerman and Peter Ashton. Zimmerman, a receiver, and Ashton, a quarterback, both converted from the offensive side this week.
'When we recruited Zimmerman as a junior, he was an all-state safety,' Banker said. 'We know Ashton can run and be physical. I'm excited to have both of those guys.'
Riley said both players sought a position change, in part due to seeing a possibility of playing earlier at the safety position.
'Tyrequek sees it as a pretty good opportunity, and he's talented,' Riley said. 'We're not very deep at safety. He's starting late, so the initial question may be, can he get mixed up on some special teams (this season)?
'I almost tried to discourage Peter, because I really like his ability at quarterback. But he has a desire to play defense. He said he'd been thinking about it for a while, and he sees a quicker opportunity to play there than at quarterback.'
It's a smaller, speedier defensive unit than usual at Oregon State. Riley hopes it can develop into one reminiscent of the teams that featured such as Victor Butler, Slade Norris, Keaton Kristick, Keith Ellison and Derrick Doggett.
'There are a lot of new faces, but it's fast,' Riley said. 'In athletic ability, we're in good shape. It's a matter of getting lined up and executing the defense as a group. That will be our biggest issue. And camp is really important in that regard, to grow and develop.'
On offense, Thursday's scrimmage will be most important to the seven competitors battling for the starting tailback post vacated by Jacquizz Rodgers.
Veterans Ryan McCants, Jovan Stevenson, Jenkins and Malcolm Marable have more experience, but true freshmen Terron Ward, Malcolm Agnew and Storm Woods will have ample opportunity to show they have the stuff to win the job.
Rodgers is moving around well enough on his repaired left knee that he could probably play against Sac State. That won't happen.
'With James, it's about building blocks and gaining confidence,' Riley said. 'He looks good to me. But he won't be cleared (for full practice duty) until Sept. 1, and his return probably won't be until after the bye.'
That would mean the Pac-12 opener at home Sept. 24 against UCLA.
That is also the likely return date for Halahuni (shoulder) at tight end.
The Beavers are in a dilemma at that position. With Halahuni still working back into shape and promising freshmen Connor Hamlett and Tyler Perry facing one-game suspensions for recent minor-in-possession charges, they could be left with only junior Colby Prince at the position for the opener.
Hamlett and Perry can both sit down for any game. Riley will probably have to use one of them against Sac State, since the Beavers typically also employ a tight end at the H-back spot frequently during a game. Fullbacks Clayton York and Tyler Anderson can fill in there, but it's less than an ideal situation.
The OSU coaches are hard at work, trying to prepare their forces for a schedule that begins to get rigorous Sept. 10 at Wisconsin.
Thursday's scrimmage will be the first major step toward providing some answers.