Players will compete to fill key positions on offense, defense

CORVALLIS -Four areas will get the biggest focus during Oregon State's spring football practice, which runs from March 31 through the May 3 Spring Game at Reser Stadium.

• The entire defensive front seven from last year's Emerald Bowl champions is gone. Who will replace them as starters?

• Center Kyle DeVan and offensive guard Roy Schuening - stalwarts the past three seasons - also have moved on. How do those positions shake down?

• Who will step into Yvenson Bernard's position at tailback?

• If Sammie Stroughter gains another year of eligibility as expected, he and sophomores Darrell Catchings and James Rodgers will be the starters at receiver. But at what positions?

Breaking down those questions:

The defensive front: Seniors-to-be Victor Butler and Slade Norris return at defensive end. Butler is a likely starter, but Norris probably will remain in his role as a speed-rush specialist. Several other players will get looks this spring at claiming a on-field duty, including sophomore Tom Hansen, redshirt freshmen Kevin Frahm and Carl Sommer, senior Keith Robertson and perhaps sophomore Keo Camat, a linebacker.

The only returning rotation player at defensive tackle is senior Pernnell Booth, who is penciled in as one starter. Junior Soelli Nau, sophomore Mitchel Hunt and junior college transfer Steven Paea will get regular turns there this spring in competition for playing time.

Junior Keaton Kristick and sophomore Keith Pankey step into starting outside linebacker spots, and senior Bryant Cornell occupies middle linebacker. But there is plenty of competition behind them. Seniors Dennis Christopher and Isaiah Cook, sophomores Camat and Dwight Roberson and redshirt freshman David Pa'aluhi are at the outside positions, and redshirt freshman Will Darkins and sophomore Walker Vave are inside.

'We're looking at that whole picture,' coach Mike Riley says. 'Who will be the starters? Who will be the guys who step up and fill roles?'

Offensive line: Three of the five spots are secured. Seniors Jeremy Perry and Adam Speer will start at guard, and senior Andy Levitre will be one of the tackles. That leaves competition at center and one tackle.

Senior Marcus Henderson will face a challenge at center from sophomore Ryan Pohl, who started two games at tackle as a freshman. Plenty of candidates will begin the battle for a starting tackle job this spring, including senior Michael Cole and JC transfers Una Smiley and Vili Nau.

Bernard's successor: Redshirt freshman Ryan McCants will open spring ball as the No. 1 tailback, followed by junior-college transfer Jeremy Francis. They'll get competition from Jacquizz Rodgers when the Texas high school hotshot arrives for August training camp.

'Ryan is a tremendous prospect, a player we're very excited about,' Riley says. 'Jeremy is an experienced guy with character and talent. The picture (at tailback) will be enhanced when Quizz comes in the summer.'

Receivers: Last season, Catchings spent most of the season as the Beavers' starting split end. If Stroughter returns, he'll man the split end post.

James Rodgers played flanker as a freshman but could move to slotback in a Wes Welker-type role, leaving Catchings at flanker.

'We'll look at that situation the entire spring,' Riley says. 'One of the main goals will be to determine how we distribute our receiving corps.'

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OSU Beavers

Coach Mike Riley and his wife, Dee, returned refreshed two weeks ago from an all-expenses-paid trip for Nike coaches to Manzanillo, Mexico. Among the 20 coaches were Oregon's Mike Bellotti, Penn State's Joe Paterno, Florida State's Bobby Bowden, Clemson's Tommy Bowden, Rutgers' Greg Schiano, Wake Forest's Jim Grobe and Virginia's Al Groh.

Riley says he had a lengthy chat with Paterno, whom he'll meet Sept. 6 when the Beavers play at Penn State.

Riley says he loved the Mexico trip.

'I respect what Nike does for Oregon State and what they do for sports,' he says. 'It's just a tremendous treat to be around those coaches in that atmosphere. It's a lot of fun and interesting to hear everybody talk shop in a very informal setting.'

• Riley has a list of candidates to replace running backs coach Lee Hull, who left last week to take a job coaching receivers at Maryland. The new assistant will be black - Keith Heyward currently is the only black coach on the Beavers' staff.

Hull, 42, left to return closer to home. He grew up in New Jersey and played at Holy Cross, and his wife, Stacey, is a Massachusetts native.

'I loved it in Corvallis,' Hull says. 'I enjoyed the fans and the community. The guys on the staff are great. Coach Riley has been a big influence in my life. It's hard to say goodbye to him as well as the players I worked with. I made some friends I'll have forever. It was a good five years. I'll always cherish the opportunity to coach in front of Beaver Nation.'

• Al Afalava has been suspended for Oregon State's Aug. 28 opener at Stanford and will have community service requirements as a result of his Feb. 9 drunken driving hit-and-run arrest in Corvallis. The senior safety's Corvallis Municipal Court date is set for Thursday. If Afalava is absolved of charges, Riley says, 'we could reconsider (the penalty).'

'Al has had four years of good conduct in our program,' Riley says. 'This is very much out of character, but it's a serious mistake that's costing him dearly.'

• OSU coaches expect to learn Friday about the eligibility of receiver Sammie Stroughter, who has appealed for a medical redshirt season.

'I remain totally optimistic,' Riley says. 'I've been told by people who know it's a slam-dunk, though I've seen slam-dunks bounce off the back rim.'

• Oregon State has no scholarship punter. Sharing duties this spring will be last year's backup, redshirt freshman Kyle Harper, and Sean Sehnem, a junior transfer from Western New Mexico who also will provide competition for sophomore kicker Justin Kahut. This summer, walk-on freshman Johnny Hekker of Bothell, Wash., will be added to the mix at punter.

-Kerry Eggers

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