Riley likes what he sees so far; OSU could be Pac-10 contender

Spring game shows Beavers have depth and skill players

CORVALLIS Ñ The team that coach Mike Riley inherited at Oregon State expects to contend for the Pacific-10 Conference football championship.

And nothing in spring practice, which concluded with the spring game Saturday, gave Riley reason to think the Beavers can't contend.

He knows that the Beavers have some of the Pac-10's best players at four positions Ñ quarterback Derek Anderson, running back Steven Jackson, receiver James Newson and middle linebacker Richard Seigler Ñ to go with several good tight ends and experienced offensive linemen, defensive linemen and safeties.

The holes are filling in nicely, the depth building at key positions, Riley says. The chief concern heading into August camp? Backup quarterback, where freshman Ryan Gunderson, the former Central Catholic star, will get an opportunity to play right away.

'I wouldn't close the door to anything. It's wide open,' Riley says. 'Ryan's well on his way to learning (the system). He's been here five times and had the playbook with him' to study at home.

Backups Adam Rothenfluh, Danny Southwick and Anton Clarkson 'have had their moments,' Riley says. They were a combined 3 for 30 for 22 yards (Rothenfluh completing all three) in the spring game; Anderson was 13 of 27 for 194 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

If there is one position where the Beavers cannot suffer an injury, it would be quarterback, because the drop-off would be dramatic. So, the coach will put an emphasis in preseason camp on developing a No. 2 QB.

No doubt, the top target will be Newson, the 6-1, 208-pound senior who had 74 catches for 1,284 yards and 12 TDs last year. Newson will rival USC's Mike Williams and Washington's Reggie Williams as the Pac-10's top receivers in 2003. Newson had seven catches for 138 yards and two scores Saturday and was easily the star of the spring game.

Another starting receiver still must emerge opposite Newson, and sophomore Josh Hawkins appears to be the leading candidate. He had a stellar spring, although he dropped some balls and did not make a catch Saturday.

'I'm not going to count that for him,' Riley says of Hawkins' spring game.

Kenny Farley, Jayson Boyd, George Gillett and Travis Brown give the Beavers some depth at receiver, a concern that Riley had this spring.

'I'm more encouraged that there are real (good) guys now,' Riley says.

At least four tight ends can play in the Pac-10, Riley says, and 6-8 freshman Joe Newton will be one of them. Tim Euhus holds the starting role, but the Beavers will feature many two-tight end formations, and not necessarily for blocking purposes only. Riley wants to spring the tight ends off the line more than his predecessor, Dennis Erickson, and make them constant threats in the middle of the field.

Defensively, the Beavers may suffer some growing pains, a la Oregon 2002, with two new starting cornerbacks. Riley feels comfortable with junior Aric Williams, 'the established' cornerback, and redshirt freshman Brandon Browner wreaks of potential on the other side.

Imagine Dennis Weathersby about 4 inches taller and you have the 6-4, 193-pound Browner. He loves to bump-and-run, just like Weathersby, and has the speed to stick with receivers in one-on-one coverage.

'When he gets his hands on you, you're done,' Riley says.

The concern: foot speed at the line of scrimmage and technique in the open field. Browner can't let quicker receivers get by him. 'I got the hands, but the feet gotta come with it,' he says.

Riley says the corners weren't tested in the spring. 'It's been hit or miss with them,' the coach says. 'And, with corners, it can't be 50-50. It remains to be seen how effective they'll be.'

The Beavers appear to be blessed with depth at safety, especially with the emergence of Harvey Whiten, who had an interception for a touchdown and a fumble recovery for a near TD Saturday. Mitch Meeuwsen, who sat out the spring (knee), and Lawrence Turner will start at the safety spots, but Whiten and Sabby Piscitelli appear to be capable backups.

OSU's stock of defensive linemen could be as deep as any in the league. Sophomores Henry Anderson and Alvin Smith have battled for the vacant tackle position alongside Dwan Edwards. Their position is really the only question mark. Jonathan Pollard appears to have locked down one of the two vacant linebacker spots.

As in past seasons, the Beaver defense has 'a lot of speed in the front seven,' Riley says.

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