Several freshmen could fill important roles next year for Oregon State
CORVALLIS Ñ At the end of each Oregon State football practice in the days leading up to Wednesday's Las Vegas Bowl, coaches have been turning their attention to the cherubs Ñ about 20 true freshmen who haven't played a second of football in games this fall.
These young men are the future of OSU football, recruited by Dennis Erickson before he left for the San Francisco 49ers. The 12 extra practices since the Southern Cal game have allowed coach Mike Riley to develop his rookies and get a closer look at the prospects who will begin to fill in the spots vacated by departing veterans.
There's Ryan Gunderson, the quarterback from Central Catholic and the heir apparent to succeed Derek Anderson after next season.
There's Yvenson Bernard, the fire hydrant of a tailback out of Boca Raton, Fla., who will be in the running for playing time as early as next season.
There's Roy Schuening, the mountain of an offensive guard from Pendleton who might wind up a starter when the Beavers open the 2004 campaign.
You can see the progress in Gunderson, watching him throw the football. The 6-5, 220-pound right-hander has been working on technique since the summer, and his motion looks more fluid, more overhand. His deep ball is better. His command of the offense is better. He won't be the starter Ñ that's Anderson all the way Ñ but Gunderson will be an injury away from taking over the OSU offense.
'It has been a great fall for Ryan,' Riley says. 'He has a good grasp of what we're doing now.'
When Gunderson arrived, fresh from throwing for 3,713 yards and 49 touchdowns with only seven interceptions at Central Catholic, his throwing motion was kind of sidearm.
'It was like he was throwing a slider,' Riley says. 'It affected his deep balls. He has improved. Are we finished working on it? No. But he will continue to progress. He has all the arm strength you need. And he's very smart, very much a leader, very much a guy every player on our team can relate to. He has all the great qualities you love in a quarterback.'
Not playing a down for the first time in his life has been hard for Gunderson. He has redirected his energies.
'In high school, the games were the thing,' he says. 'You really looked forward to Friday nights. This season, it was the opposite. I looked forward to practice during the week. That was my time to go all-out. I still prepared myself as if I were going to play Ñ we weren't sure I was going to be able to redshirt until late in the year Ñ because that's when you play your best.'
Gunderson's challenge each week has been representing the quarterback that the Beavers would face in the next game. One week he was Washington QB Cody Pickett. Another week he was Washington State's Matt Kegel. Then he was Matt Leinert of USC.
'The week before the Civil War game, they let me wear No. 11 to represent (Oregon's) Kellen Clemens,' he says, chuckling at the thought of donning Terry Baker's retired number. 'It felt a little different. It was an honor. I don't think I'll be wearing that number again, though.
'It has been great experience going against our defense. I've learned a lot playing against a guy like Richard Seigler, and from trying to throw against Brandon Browner, one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-10. Challenging, but fun. I've gotten stronger, built my body up, and it has allowed me to take my game a little farther.'
The next Simonton?
Bernard has had one of the biggest transitions in the freshman class. From the East Coast to the West Coast. From SEC country to the Pacific-10 Conference. From the Sun Belt to Rain Central.
'Oh, God, the weather,' he says, raising his eyebrows. 'I'm from Florida. I'm used to the sun. I guess it just keeps me focused on the things I need to be focused on Ñ school and football.'
Don't get the idea that Bernard is unhappy.
'I am having a good time,' says the 5-9, 200-pound tailback, who will challenge Dwight Wright and Ryan Cole for playing time if Steven Jackson leaves for the NFL after this season. 'Going up against our defense every day has made me a better player. I don't like sitting, but hopefully I will be in the mix next year.'
Bernard has never seen Ken Simonton play, but he has heard comparisons between the former Beaver great and himself, and he doesn't mind at all.
'I have heard a lot about Simonton from fans and people around here,' says Bernard, who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and bench-presses 305 pounds. 'I wouldn't mind doing the things he did.'
Gunderson calls him 'a shifty little runner who gets through holes and is tougher than nails. He's a guy who puts his head down and gives the tackler a headache.'
'Yvenson is strong, tough, with great quickness, and he catches the ball well,' Riley says. 'He's a good blocker, too. We're all waiting to see what he does in spring practice.'
Schuening is the offensive lineman who has stood out this fall. The 6-4, 305-pound guard will be given the opportunity to win the starting job vacated by senior David Lose next season.
'I have had a lot of fun this season,' Schuening says. 'I feel confident right now. I have a chance to put myself in position to start or get a lot of playing time as a (redshirt) freshman. I'm going to work hard to get there, and I'm not going to stop until I get there.'
Riley says Schuening will get his chance.
'I love Roy,' the Beaver coach says. 'He has a lot of ability and a great lineman's personality Ñ tough, aggressive, competitive.'
Schuening is working his body fat down to the 15 percent level. He's strong and well schooled after going up against the OSU defensive front every day.
'I got here and started going up against (tackle) Dwan Edwards,' he says. 'I wasn't making my blocks, and things weren't going well, but I've learned a lot.
'In high school, you just jog off the ball. Here, it's a dead sprint every play. Those guys across the line are quick. You have to beat them to the punch and be a little stronger and have better position and move them.'
OSU coaches are awaiting word on four recruits from last year who didn't qualify academically: tailbacks Charles Burnley from Valencia, Calif., and Clinton Polk from Phoenix; defensive end Keith Robertson from Lake Oswego; and tight end Zach Hagermeister from Lebanon. Each is attempting to gain entry into school via test scores or junior college credits. The ones who make it will enroll in school winter term.
Oregon State has a verbal commitment from Brian Hilderbrand, a 6-2, 190-pound quarterback from Corona (Calif.) High who was an Elite 11 quarterback last summer. Hilderbrand is ranked 12th in the country among pro-style high school quarterbacks by Rivals.com, one spot behind Glencoe's Erik Ainge, who will sign with Tennessee.
The Beavers will seek junior college help at offensive tackle, wide receiver and punter. They have a line on punter Sam Paulesco of Fullerton (Calif.) JC. Fullerton coach Gene Murphy says Paulesco 'has the strongest leg in my 11 years' at the school. They also have a great shot at landing ace receiver Marcel Love of San Francisco City College. É Riley believes that sophomore place-kicker John Dailey, a Jesuit grad, will be able to replace Kirk Yliniemi next season. 'John had a bad back through the first half of the season, but he had a great second half,' the OSU coach says. 'He has great pop in his leg and appears to have better consistency. I think he can be a big-time kicker.'