Returning DBs aim to give OSU more consistency
CORVALLIS - Areas of weakness - tailback, the offensive and defensive lines in particular - have been the items of media focus as Oregon State prepares for its Sept. 3 opener against Sacramento State at Reser Stadium.
The Beavers have positions of strength, though. The secondary ought to be one of them.
Gone from last year's back four are safety Suasei Tuimaunei, the team's No. 2 tackler, and the top cornerback, James Dockery. Both are now in NFL camps - Tuimaunei with Atlanta, Dockery with Cleveland.
Returning, though, are four veterans who saw ample playing time a year ago - senior cornerback Brandon Hardin and senior safety Lance Mitchell, both starters, and junior cornerback Jordan Poyer and junior safety Anthony Watkins.
Last season, Oregon State went 5-7 and ranked eighth in the Pac-10 in total defense (407.9 yards per game), seventh in pass defense (228.4) and ninth in pass-defense efficiency. Another stat: OSU was last in preventing third-down conversions (opponents converted 46.6 percent).
True, all this came while playing the nation's most difficult schedule, with five opponents ranked among the nation's top 10. Still, those figures were uncharacteristic for the Beavers, who through the Mike Riley/Dennis Erickson eras have fielded one of the top defenses in the conference - the past nine years with Mark Banker as defensive coordinator.
'One of our goals is to have that consistency this year, and especially getting out on third downs,' Hardin says. 'Coach Banker mentioned a few things in our meeting (before training camp) about what we need to work on.
'We have a lot of goals this season. We're trying to be that solid defense that Oregon State is used to having.'
The 6-2, 205-pound Mitchell, in his third season as a starter, is a co-captain and team leader. The 6-2, 215-pound Hardin is one of the most physical cornerbacks in college football.
The 5-11, 190-pound Poyer is one of Oregon State's top playmakers - he will likely return kickoffs and punts this season. And the 6-1, 220-pound Watkins has emerged after serving as the Beavers' No. 3 safety a year ago.
'It's nice to have those guys who have played,' Coach Riley says. 'There's good experience there.
'With that group, the confidence is there, and that's so important in a secondary.'
Hardin has been picked on at times by opposing offenses - and disgruntled Beaver fans - with deep throws. Many believe he is better-suited for outside linebacker or safety.
'If somebody can tell me who is going to be better than him at corner, we could do a lot of different things,' Banker says. 'If he's not our best corner, he's pretty close.
'If Brandon would just own it on every snap, there'd never be any question about him.'
Hardin has never sought a position change.
'I love playing corner,' he says. 'I have played corner my whole life. The size aspect is something I bring that not too many corners bring. If I can work with that and use that to my advantage, there's nothing stopping me from being a top Pac-12 corner.'
Mitchell says the Beavers want to establish early this season that opponents won't be able to pick on the OSU secondary.
'I want us to be a strong point on this team,' he says. 'I want (opponents) to be discouraged from throwing against us. I don't want them thinking they're going to attack our secondary. We can't allow (opponents) to pass over the top, to make big plays against our defense.'
There is some depth behind the starters. Sophomores Rashaad Reynolds and Sean Martin, special-teams stalwarts a year ago, are starters-in-waiting. Junior Josh LaGrone, the No. 4 safety a year ago, backs up Mitchell. Promising redshirt freshman Ryan Murphy is No. 2 behind Watkins.
'Ryan has the potential to be a star,' Banker says. 'He's very explosive and has speed and good athletic ability. He also has a lot to learn. In the spring game, he gave up a 50-yard TD on play-action fake in a third-and-one situation.'
Banker considers the secondary a work in progress.
'There are guys with really good tools and a chance to be good players,' he says. 'There are players in starting roles who have had quite a bit of work and have performed well at times, but the depth is very inexperienced. Capable? We're hoping.'
Poyer figures there is nothing to worry about.
'We're all playmakers on the back end,' he says. 'Even the guys who didn't get a lot of playing time last year are ready to go.
'We have a lot of work to do, but we have the potential to be great, to be one of the leaders in the Pac-12 in pass defense. We just have to put it on the field.'