Dwindled rotation gives new players a chance to stand out

CORVALLIS — Near the end of Wednesday’s spring practice session at Truax Center, Brennan Olander, a walk-on sophomore defensive tackle, sought out veteran D-end Victor Butler. “How’d I do today?” Olander asked. Butler offered encouragement and a few words of advice. Such a scene isn’t unusual in Oregon State’s tight-knit football program. “Victor has been a team leader for three years,” senior cornerback Brandon Hughes says. “His knowledge of the game is remarkable, and his leadership skills are far more than just on the field. He’s a leader in the weight room and in the classroom. The guys look up to him.” “I just try to set a good example,” says Butler, a 6-2, 235-pound senior who was third in the Pac-10 with 10 1/2 sacks last season. “We don’t have a whole lot of (D-linemen) back, so we have to set the bar, set the standard for the young guys.” Of the 10 players Oregon State used in its front-four rotation a year ago, only three — Butler, end Slade Norris and tackle Pernnell Booth — return, and none were starters. Booth has missed spring ball while recuperating from knee surgery, so plenty of new faces have been given the opportunity to prove their mettle. With all three starters at linebacker departed as well, it’ll be an entirely different look up front when Oregon State opens at Stanford on Aug. 30. For now, hope springs eternal. “The better time to truly evaluate will be in (August training) camp,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker says. “A few guys are still learning our system. Once they get the parts, then the real competition will begin. But you can see some things starting to come together over the last week.” Butler and Norris, both seniors who were pass-rush specialists a year ago, man the starting end spots, though junior-college transfers Simi Kuli and Ben Terry are expected to offer immediate help once they arrive this summer. Banker says he’s expecting a little more out of Kuli — the No. 1-ranked JC player in the nation by — than Terry, at least to begin. “We feel like (Kuli) needs to come in and play.” Redshirt freshmen Kyle Bell, Kevin Frahm, Carl Sommer and true freshman Taylor Henry are getting reps behind Butler and Norris, “and there’s some good potential there,” coach Mike Riley says. There will be greater depth at tackle, Riley says, after Booth joins up in August. Transfer Steve Paea — a 6-2, 295-pound sophomore from Snow College in Ephraim, Utah — and sophomore Mitchel Hunt are running first team this spring. “Stephen is explosive, with a strong, good body,” Riley says. “He looks like what we need.” Olander, redshirt freshman Tonu Tuimalealiifano, juniors Sioeli Nau and Latu Moala, and freshman Jesse Fifita are providing competition, though Tuimalealiifano suffered a knee injury Wednesday. “As a whole, we’re looking good,” Butler says of the line. “We have a lot of guys who have gotten limited time in the past, but they have some good talent. There’s potential to be the group we were last year.” Senior middle linebacker Bryant Cornell and junior outside backer Keaton Kristick have solidified starting spots. “Those guys look comfortable — it’s business as usual,” Riley says. The battle for the other outside spot rages between sophomores Keith Pankey and Dwight Roberson, with redshirt freshman David Pa’aluhi just behind them. “I’ve always thought Dwight was a really good player,” Riley says. “He just needs to play now. Pankey has made a really good push to compete for that spot, too.” Redshirt freshman Will Darkins is backing up Cornell in the middle. Seniors Isaiah Cook and Dennis Christopher and sophomore Keo Camat are battling for time on the outside. “Keo has a lot of upside and will be an active player in the fall, whether on special teams or as a backup linebacker,” Riley says. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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