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Beavers put together pieces of puzzle at tailback

McCants in pole position, but senior has plenty of competition
by: L.E. BASKOW Oregon State's Ryan McCants drives toward the goal line in a 2008 game versus Hawaii.

CORVALLIS - When news dropped in early January that record-setting junior tailback Jacquizz Rodgers was leaving Oregon State to try his hand at the NFL, the lives of his understudies instantly changed.

'My first thought was, I'm going to miss him as a leader and a teammate,' Ryan McCants says. 'My second thought was it's an opportunity that I have to make the most out of.'

'I was shocked that he was leaving, but I didn't change my approach to the game,' Jovan Stevenson says. 'I was going to work hard whether he was here on not. We're all working hard. The only thing that's different is there's a spot to be filled now.'

And plenty of candidates to fill it.

The list includes:

• McCants, a 6-1, 230-pound senior-to-be who started the first game of his redshirt freshman season against Stanford, only to give way to Quizz.

• Jordan Jenkins, a 6-1, 210-pound junior from West Salem High who underwent shoulder surgery Monday and is out for the remainder of spring practice.

• Stevenson, a 5-11, 190-pound sophomore who redshirted last season following shoulder surgery.

• Terron Ward, a 5-7, 190-pound grayshirt freshman from the fabled De La Salle High program in Concord, Calif.

• Malcolm Marable, a 5-7, 165-pound freshman who redshirted last season.

• True freshmen Malcolm Agnew, 5-10, 180 from St. Louis, and Storm Woods, 5-11, 205 from Plugerville, Texas, who won't arrive until the summer.

Jenkins was at least a co-favorite with McCants to win the starting job before he got hurt.

'That really is disappointing,' OSU coach Mike Riley says. 'He'll be back, but it will be (August training) camp before we see him again.'

For now, it's McCants, Stevenson, Ward and Marable battling for positions as spring drills enter their second week.

Battling is probably the wrong adjective. Working together is more like it.

'We have a big running-backs family,' Ward says. 'The older guys are helping me when I need help.'

'Our goal as a running-back group is to come out every day and get better,' McCants said after Monday's first workout in full pads. 'Today was a good starting point, but we still have a ways to go.'

McCants - who rushed for 337 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman but played only a bit role the past two seasons - probably has the inside track.

'He's the big bruiser of the group,' Stevenson says.

The 22-year-old Corona, Calif., native 'brings the power,' OSU coach Mike Riley says. 'Ryan is very intense on this thing now. He's running hard and has prepped himself for this opportunity.'

McCants, still working back off of April 2009 knee surgery, is 'probably in the best shape I've been in my life,' he says. 'We did a great workout regimen during the winter, concentrating on nutrition, little things I didn't pay attention to in the past. I feel like it's paid off.'

If McCants is the leader in the clubhouse, he's not taking anything for granted.

'This whole group, everybody's hungry,' he says. 'Everybody is trying to be that guy. We're going to push each other and be at our best by the time camp comes around.'

Stevenson was Rodgers' backup as a true freshman in 2009, rushing for 137 yards and a TD, before suffering his shoulder injury on the second day of training camp last August.

'It feels OK now,' he says. 'The doctor says it's stable. Now it's just training the muscles and getting my mind straight about it.'

Stevenson added 15 pounds to 200 over the winter, but has lost 10 of it in recent weeks.

'I play to play at 200 in the fall, though,' he says. 'I was moving the same way with the extra weight. It doesn't affect my get-off.'

'Initially, I thought of Jovan as a third-down back,' Riley says. 'But if he's playing at almost 200, there's no reason he can't enter into being the every-down back.'

Stevenson understands the competition for playing time won't really heat up until August.

'We all do different things,' he says. 'It's going to be fun to see how the coaches put this all together.'

Ward, the East Bay Player of the Year while rushing for 2,050 yards and 28 TDs as a senior in 2009, bears a resemblance to Rodgers on the football field, 'except for the (dreadlocked) hair,' the close-shorn Ward says with a smile.

'We have similar parts of our game, but he's more power, I'm more elusive,' Ward says.

"Muscle with shoulder pads," is the way trainer Barney Graff describes the put-together rookie.

'I'm really excited about Terron,' Riley says. 'He packs a punch. He's a very good athlete, and he can catch the ball.'

Ward is still assimilating knowledge about the Oregon State offense.

'I don't have it down like I want to,' he says. 'I want to know the offense like the back of my hand. I'm not there, but it's coming.'

Could he win the starting job?

'I think I could,' he says. 'Whenever I get in, I have to show my best capabilities. We'll see how it goes.'

Marable, who boasts 'outstanding quickness and speed,' Riley says, is probably ticketed as a situational performer due to his size.

If one of the quartet playing this spring doesn't step up and win the job, don't count out the possibility that either Agnew or Woods earns the chance to play right away in August. Remember what happened with Quizz in 2008.

Riley has indicated he may choose to go with a tailback-by-committee plan next season.

'We'll have to let these guys play this spring and in camp to sort things out for what looks good for us,' the veteran coach says.

NOTES - Monday was alumni day as the Beavers worked out on a dry but cold and windy afternoon at Reser Stadium. NFL players Sabby Piscitelli and Sammie Stroughter, CFL tailback Yvenson Bernard, former kicker Alexis Serna, Montana offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith and Quizz Rodgers were all in attendance. Piscitelli and Stroughter - on NFL lockout at the moment - took an active role in helping coach their positions. 'It feels great to have these guys drop by,' Riley says. 'It is really fun. With Sabby and Sammmie, it's a result of them being locked out right now, but regardless, we're happy to have them.' ... Smith's grandmother lives in Corvallis and his mother lives in Eugene, so he brought his family along for a vacation during the Grizzlies' spring break. ... Bernard, who played for Winnipeg last season, has signed with Montreal for next season.

Starting QB Ryan Katz, who underwent surgery on his right wrist in January, took part in all the drills Monday and didn't even have the wrist taped. 'I'm taking it slow, but I'm feeling pretty good,' Katz says. 'I'm avoiding taking shotgun snaps. I know it would probably hurt. But there's no pain when I throw. It's coming along well.' ... Sophomore Cody Vaz remains ahead of redshirt freshman Sean Mannion and sophomore Jack Lomax in the battle for Katz's backup job. All were erratic throwing the ball Monday on a day when gusting winds made everything difficult. ... There should be more depth on the defensive line than last season with the addition of JC transfers Blake Harrah and Rusty Fernando at end and grayshirt freshman Fred Thompson at tackle. Harrah, Fernando and junior Taylor Henry got the work with the first unit at end Monday. Converted end Dominic Glover, senior Kevin Frahm and the 6-4, 320-pound Thompson had the most turns at tackle. 'Fred is a really exciting prospect,' Riley says. 'He can move for a big man.' ... projected starter Castro Masaniai, a 6-2, 340-pound senior, is sitting out the spring after shoulder surgery. ... Juniors Markus Wheaton and Geno Munoz stood out at receiver Monday, with Munoz making a couple of long circus catches.