Oregon State poises for opener against I-AA Hornets

CORVALLIS - Four days before Oregon State's opener against Sacramento State at Reser Stadium, Mike Riley said it will be good to shed the practice routine and play a game that counts.

'We'll find out a little bit about who we are, where we are,' said Riley, beginning his 11th season at the OSU helm. 'We're looking forward to playing a game. It feels like it's time to do that. We need to play a game and get things started.'

In some ways, the timing isn't great. The Beavers could be without five starters due to injury - flanker James Rodgers, tight end Joe Halahuni, defensive tackle Kevin Frahm, cornerback Brandon Hardin and split end Markus Wheaton. All but Wheaton - dealing with a hip flexor strain - are out for sure.

It means that as many as 15 OSU players will start their first game Saturday against the Division I-AA Hornets. And that as many as 10 true freshmen will be on the 70-man active roster and will play. The Beavers will still redshirt more than 20 freshmen, but it will be baptism by fire for more young, inexperienced players than Riley would prefer.

'This team has some mystery,' Riley conceded. 'That's why I'm anxious to get going and see where we are.

'It's a long season. A lot of things can happen. There's a particular different excitement about this team for me.'

There are other regulars dealing with injuries, including senior outside linebacker Cameron Collins (abdominal surgery), who will start; junior outside linebacker Rueben Robinson (back) and sophomore offensive guard Josh Andrews (concussion), both likely to start.

And safety Lance Mitchell, who chose not to have surgery for an abdominal problem not unlike Collins, has sat out practice sessions but will start and may have to deal with it all season.

'I feel pretty good,' Mitchell said. 'I may have to sit out (practice) now and then because of soreness, but I plan on being healthy.'

Then there is defensive lineman Dominic Glover, still not cleared academically for participation against Sacramento State.

'He cleaned up some stuff he had to do for school,' Riley said. 'I'm very hopeful everything will be fine by the end of the week.'

Riley admitted 'it might be' a scary situation for the Beavers.

'But I'm kind of excited about it,' the OSU coach said. 'I'm really anxious for our first game and see what we need to focus on. You learn a lot through game experience.'

• Sacramento State is a program on the rise under fifth-year coach Marshall Sperbeck, a one-time Oregon State quarterback. The Hornets - who hadn't had a winning season since 2000 when Sperbeck took over in 2007 - went 3-8, 6-6 and 5-6 his first three years.

They were 6-5 and finished third in the Big Sky Conference a year ago, but it could have been better. Four of their losses were by four points or fewer - 17-16 to Cal-Davis, 28-24 to eventual national champion Eastern Washington, 28-25 to Montana and 64-61 to Montana State. The other loss was 52-17 to Stanford in the season finale.

Returning are 16 starters, including seniors Jeff Fleming, a 6-4, 200-pound quarterback who threw for 2,044 yards and 23 touchdowns and was second-team all-league last year, and 5-11, 215-pound tailback Bryan Hilliard, who rushed for 883 yards and 12 TDs in nine games.

'They have a lot of productivity back on offense, and defensively, they give you a lot of stuff,' Riley said. 'They use multiple defenses, both three- and four-man fronts, and they come at you. Last year, they blitzed Stanford 15 times. If they're having success, they'll just keep coming. You have to be able to handle that part of it with them. And they blocked five punts a year ago.

'We're going to be tested. It's going to be good that way for us, with pressure on our offense and our kicking game.'

Given Oregon State's injury situation, the Hornets are likely to come to Corvallis with more confidence than most D-I-AA opponents.

'It's an exciting opportunity for them,' Riley said. 'They have a good thing going there, no doubt about it. They're building that program. They've improved dramatically.

'But as is always the case, we have only to be concerned with how we do. The game is about our preparation.'

Mitchell was asked if it's hard not to overlook Sacramento State for Oregon State's next opponent, nationally ranked Wisconsin.

'It's hard, but we have to do it,' the senior safety said. 'You don't want to be the team that lets a I-AA team come in and beat you. (The Hornets) are a really good team with good athletes. We'll prepare for them like any other opponent.'

• True freshmen will start at two glamour positions for the Beavers - Malcolm Agnew at tailback and Brandin Cooks at flanker.

'Both of those guys came in ready to play,' quarterback Ryan Katz said. 'They put in the work in the offseason. They prepared well in high school. They came in polished and ready to go.'

OSU sports information officials believe Agnew and Cooks will be the first starters as true freshmen at their position in school history.

'I'm nervous, but it's good to be a little nervous,' said the 5-9, 170-pound Cooks, a Stockton, Calif., native. 'I'm also excited. I can't wait. It's been my dream to play college ball, and now it's around the corner.'

'I'm pretty sure every freshman comes in trying to start,' said the 5-8, 190-pound Agnew, out of St. Louis. 'Camp didn't start off that great for me, but I kept trying to do my job and work as hard as I can.

'I just want to help the team. I want to make the first college game something special. I want a victory - a decisive victory, too.'

Agnew was asked if he feels pressure to be the next in a succession of great OSU running backs that includes Ken Simonton, Steven Jackson, Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers.

'No pressure, but there have been a lot of good backs here,' Agnew said. 'It's expected to have greatness at this position. I understand all of that.'

Are the rookies getting pumped for their introduction to college football?

'I dream about it every night,' Cooks said. 'Sometimes I can't sleep. The first thing I'm thinking about is running out of that helmet (by the OSU locker room) with (43,000) in the stands. I think about it every day and night.'

'I'm going to cry from emotions when I run out the tunnel, and I'm an emotional guy,' Agnew said. 'But I'll be all right after that.'

• Riley, on Agnew:

'It's way to early to say where he fits in (among great Beaver tailbacks). We'll continue to evaluate. There is nothing set in stone here. He hasn't been ordained to be the next guy in that picture, but he has been our most productive runner (in training camp). He has that ability to make that real quick cut and not lose speed. It's vision and acceleration and a lot of stuff that stood out. And he is one of our strongest players. You're not going to arm-tackle this guy.'

Backing up Agnew will be true freshman Terron Ward, junior Jordan Jenkins and sophomore Jovan Stevenson.

'It could be that all of them will play,' Riley said.

• Oregon State has five players facing a one-game suspension - defensive tackle Castro Masaniai for a domestic abuse arrest, and freshmen Connor Hamlett, Tyler Perry, Will Storey and Joe Lopez for minor-in-possession-of-alcohol charges.

Storey and Lopez will sit out Saturday's game. Masaniai and Hamlett will play - Masaniai because he is coming off knee surgery and 'we need to get him back playing football,' Riley said, and Hamlett because of a depth problem at tight end.

The only tight ends OSU will have available against Sacramento State are junior Colby Prince, redshirt freshman Hamlett and sophomore Grant Enger, a converted tackle. As is the case with Masaniai and Hamlett, Perry must serve his suspension later - he is out for three weeks following knee surgery last week.

• One of the true freshmen who will play Saturday is Dylan Wynn, a 6-2, 240-pound D-end from Concord, Calif.

'He'll be in the rotation,' Riley said. 'He's a tenacious, high-motor player with talent, and he has been able to gain a good understanding how to put his talent into the scheme we run. It became obvious over a week ago he would be playing for us this year.'

• Obum Gwachum, a 6-5, 225-pound redshirt freshman, will start at split end if Wheaton is unavailable. Gwachum, a 7-2 high jumper, reminds Riley of ex-OSU receiver Damola Adeniji.

'I learned through Damola it's nice to have that big receiver,' the OSU coach said. 'Boom is young and still learning, but he has done some of (the things Adeniji did) in camp, to where you say, 'This is a pretty good picture.' '

• Special-teams coach Bruce Read will choose between Jordan Poyer, Rashaad Reynolds, Terron Ward and Malcolm Marable to return kicks. Poyer will return punts.

The gunners on the punt team will be Gwachum and Marable.

'Boom is pretty hard to press, with his size,' Read said. 'We'll find out if he can tackle.'

Even with promising special-teams player D.J. Welch (elbow) out for the first two games, Read will use four true freshmen for punt and kick coverage.

'We'll have a lot of guys learning on the fly,' Read said.

• The OSU offensive line hopes to start quickly after an inconsistent 2010 season that saw the Beavers rank ninth in the Pac-10 in rushing.

'They look pretty good,' Katz said. 'It's a veteran group. Those guys are ready to get after it. They've heard all off-season about not performing like they could have (last year). I think they took the challenge. We'll see come Saturday.'

• Katz, on what he most hopes to improve on as he enters his junior season:

'Playing faster, making quicker decisions getting the ball out of my hands. We have a lot of playmakers on the outside. I just have to get the ball to them.'

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