Mike Riley had discussions on three occasions with Sean Mannion over his NFL future in the days leading up to the quarterback's decision to return to Oregon State for his senior season. Two came via telephone, one through a sit-down in Riley's Valley Football Center office.
The veteran OSU coach understood how adversely the effects of losing Mannion would be to his 2014 team. He can't deny that was a part of his thinking.
But Riley has advised three of his players -- Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Brandin Cooks -- to leave for the NFL after their junior seasons. Riley came to the conclusion in Mannion's case that he would be wise to stay put.
Says Riley: "I told Sean, 'You have to weigh everything in what is going to be best for you, your future and what you want to do in your career.' "
Though he was on vacation with his family in Honolulu after the Hawaii Bowl, Riley -- who coached three years in the NFL, including three as head coach in San Diego -- did some research. He sought out a couple of former NFL general managers, including Bill Polian. He learned what NFL scouts were thinking about Mannion.
"Quarterback is different than a lot of positions," Riley says. "Sean was given a nice grade in his NFL evaluation (a third-round projection). But at quarterback, it's about being at your best when you get your opportunity. Part of it is getting into the league; part of it is staying there. The better prepared you are, the better off you'll be.
"Bill said in most cases, a young quarterback is not going to play much football for three years. The starting QB takes all the turns in practice. Your chances to grow and develop can be limited."
Mannion is still growing, both physically and mentally. Polian thought another year at Oregon State would better aid Mannion's development in both areas than sitting on a bench for an NFL team.
What does Riley want to see from Mannion from now through his senior season?
"He can make big improvement in his knowledge of what you do as a quarterback compared to what defenses are doing to stop you," Riley says. "I call it 'quick decision-making.' Sean made a big jump last year; he can make another jump next year.
"Sean is still a pup. He's going to get stronger physically. He can improve his athletic ability and work on getting the ball released quicker, as well as the mental aspect of the game. I don't know if Sean's ever going to be a great runner, but he can get to where is is more able to take advantage of a situation where he can get a first down with his legs."
And improve his draft stock for 2015?
"Absolutely," Riley says. "That was a big point involved in the advice from the people I spoke with. There's a business part to the draft. The higher you're taken, the bigger investment that team has in you. I think Sean has a great NFL future. Yes, you're always risking injury. But given good health, he'll be better prepared to launch his career after next season."
Riley was disappointed he didn't get a chance to speak with defensive end Scott Crichton, who will forego his senior season to make himself available for the May draft.
"Scott is a great player, but it's going to be very important for him to land with the right team," Riley says. "The question will be, what (position) is he going to play? He's not going to be drafted by a team that uses a 3-4 defense. It has to be 4-3.
"Scott had his mind made up pretty soon near the completion of the season that was what he was going to do. We will support that decision and root for him. I would have liked to have been a part of the discussion. I could have added some advice. But when a young man has his mind made up, that's what he is going to do."
The Beavers will return 17 starters, including kicker Trevor Romaine and punter Keith Kostol, to next year's team.
"I'm really excited about it," Riley says. "We have a good core of returners and some young guys who will enter into the picture. We redshirted three receivers (Jordan Villamin, Hunter Jarmin and Walter Jones) who have the potential to add in right away. We have (defensive linemen) Titius Failauga and Jalen Grimble, (linebacker) Manase Hungala and (defensive backs) Dashon Hunt, Brandon Arnold and Justin Strong who will content for playing time. There's a real excitement about some of the young guys in last year's class."
Riley will spend the offseason thinking about how he will handle play-calling next season.
The OSU coach took over calling plays from offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf a couple of years ago.
But after the Beavers' 69-27 loss to Washington on Nov. 23, Riley switched gears, handing the play-calling back to Langsdorf.
"I thought with where we were as a team, I needed to step back," Riley says. "As far as the whole team and what I needed to do coming off the Washington game, I thought it was a move it would be wise for me to make. The preparation for calling plays is enormous. I thought we'd be better served with Danny doing it and with me focusing on all the other things we need to do in terms of game-planning. And Danny did a great job."
In the last two games -- a 36-35 loss at Oregon and the 38-23 win over Boise State at the Hawaii Bowl -- the Beavers were more balanced than they'd been all season, running the ball very effectively.
On the surface, it would seem as if Langsdorf was more willing to run than was Riley. It's true, to a point. But Riley was between a rock and a hard place. Poor run-blocking had left the Beavers in too many second- and third-down and long situations. Plus, the passing game, led by Mannion and Cooks, was so productive, Riley knew he could count on moving the ball through the air.
"The last two games were a culmination of our linemen growing and our persistence to run the ball and planning to do it finally coming to fruition," he says. "We weren't going to let that die. Now we're going to take that and build on that moving into next season."
Recruiting is foremost in the minds of Oregon State coaches through the rest of January in preparation for the Feb. 5 letter-of-intent signing date.
The Beavers have 20 verbal commitments, plus Jesuit linebacker Christian Martinek, who also intends to play baseball and could wind up as a signee in that sport.
They are limited to 25 signings and are actively pursuing at least nine other players, including offensive linemen Kaleb McGary (Tacoma, Wash.) and Kolton Miller (Roseville, Calif.), defensive linemen Antonio Guy (College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita, Calif.) and Lamone Williams (Kahuku, Hawaii), defensive backs DeVaughn Murray (Spring Valley, Calif.), Denzel Fisher (Compton, Calif.), Khalil Oliver (Meridian, Idaho) and Glen Ihenacho (Gardena, Calif.) and receiver Xavier Hawkins (Fulton, Tenn.)
All of the coaches will head on the road for home recruiting visits next Thursday. There will be major recruiting weekends in Corvallis on Jan 17-19 and Jan. 24-26. Ten players are ticketed to visit the first weekend, including six commits -- defensive ends Shane Bowman and Glyeb Ewing, receiver Datrin Guyton, cornerback Kevin Hayes, quarterback Nick Mitchell and offensive tackle Trent Moore -- along with Guy, Hawkins and Oliver. Also expected to come is offensive guard Kammy Delp, who has committed to Arizona State.
NOTES: Kyle Peko, the defensive tackle commit from Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., has one more class to complete this winter. OSU coaches anticipate him being on campus for spring ball. The move of 6-5, 225-pound receiver Obum Gwachum to defensive end for his senior season "has everybody excited about the possibility," Riley says. "Maybe one day we'll regret we didn't do it earlier. He has athletic ability and size, which is a very good thing at defensive end. He enjoys the physical part of the game and wants to find a place to play." Gwachum's body type reminds of Matt Lagrone, the former Nevada basketball player who started at D-end during his one football season at OSU in 2009. "It's a similar deal," Riley says, "but Boomer has more football experience than Matt did." Villamin is still working through the NCAA Clearinghouse for his eligibility. OSU coaches hope to have him eligible for spring ball but seem certain he'll be available by August training camp. Riley will meet with Joel Skotte and his father Friday to discuss the linebacker's football future. Skotte was limited with a concussion suffered last season.