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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Biggest surprise has been former Centennial High star Keobounnam at center

COURTESY PHOTO: KARL MAASDAM/OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Nous Keobounnam (69), from Centennial High, emerged this year as the regular center for the Oregon State Beavers.The offensive skill positions are for show, and the defensive players get to make the gaudy hits. But the offensive line is the heart of a football team.

The line has paved the way for the improvement this season in Oregon State's offense in Year Two of the Jonathan Smith era.

Going into Saturday's 1 p.m. Civil War contest at Autzen Stadium, Oregon State has averaged 33.1 points, 414.6 yards total offense, 158.5 yards rushing and 256.2 yards passing. In 2018, OSU's averages were 26.1 points, 404.8 yards total offense, 155.6 yards rushing and 249.2 yards passing.

"We came into this season with high expectations," said Jim Michalczik, the Beavers' O-line coach. "We've done some really good things. We haven't been consistent enough with what we need to do. I'm real happy with the guys and their effort, but I want to keep going higher.

"There's really only one stat that counts for us; that's the number on the scoreboard (the Beavers' point total). But the way we're playing is a whole lot better. We're much improved from a year ago. Guys have bought in and have worked hard."

The leaders have been the seniors on the left side, 6-7, 305-pound tackle Blake Brandel and 6-4, 345-pound guard Gus Lavaka. They'll have 89 starts between them after the Oregon game.

"They've been the most consistent guys on the line this year for a reason," Michalczik said. "They're veterans who been around, know what the battles are about and how to prepare."

Brandel has been selected for participation the Hula Bowl in Honolulu in January.

"Blake has earned it," Michalczik said. "He's a special young man in every way. I think he'll play in the NFL. He has the size and athletic ability and is very intelligent young man."

The other senior starter, 6-5, 315-pound right guard Clay Cordasco, has started every game after playing sparingly as a junior transfer from Los Angeles Valley JC.

"Clay brings a little edge, a little toughness," Michalczik said. "He's a get-after-it guy who brings an attitude that been a wonderful addition to the group."

In his first year as a starter, 6-6, 305-pound sophomore right tackle Brandon Kipper has shown the kind of promise that could eventually make him one of the all-time best OSU O-linemen.

"Early in the year, Brandon got out of whack with his pass protection, but he has worked hard on it," Michalczik said. "He has gotten better every week."

The biggest surprise and unsung hero of the O-line has been Nous Keobounnam, the 6-2, 285-pound junior center out of Centennial High. Arizona junior transfer Nate Eldridge was expected to assume the starting job, but he has been injury-plagued this season, opening the door for Keobounnam — a walk-on — to start against every opponent but Hawaii.

"Nous has been awesome," Michalczik said. "He works hard, he's a tough kid, and every day he gets a little bit better. That's all you can ask.

"Center is a hard position to play. It takes a lot of effort. Every play is a battle. The heart Nous has shown, along with his brain in being able to direct the offense, has been pretty good."

Oregon's defense shifts between a three- and four-man front. The Ducks have allowed only 16.1 points, 326.9 yards total offense and 103.3 yards rushing to opponents this season.

"It's pretty close to the same group they had a year ago," Michalczik said. "They're strong and athletic, and they're veteran guys. They've shown some pressure, but they generate a good pass rush without the blitz."

Oregon State's offense has had huge numbers in several games this season, but not against the Pac-12's best defenses. In a 52-7 loss to Utah, OSU managed 217 yards total offense, 48 rushing yards and 169 passing yards. In a 21-17 win over California, the Beavers totaled 282 yards, 107 rushing yards and 175 passing yards. In a 19-7 defeat by Washington, OSU had 119 yards total offense, 31 rushing yards and 88 yards passing.

That's an average of 11.7 points, 206 yards total offense, 62 yards rushing and 144 yards passing against the three opponents. Is that a concern going into the Oregon game?

"It's a concern, because Oregon has a great defense," Michalczik said. "But every game is a different game. The key for us will be going out and executing. Football is 11 on 11, but it comes down to a lot of one-on-ones battles. We have to win the majority of those battles."

Oregon State will take a big hit to graduation, with Brandel, Lavaka and Cordasco leaving after this season. Michalczik said the best five players regardless of position will be the starters next season. Of the returning group, that means either Keobounnam or Eldridge will likely shift to guard, probably to pair with current sophomore Onesimus Clarke. Freshman Joshua Gray is the leading candidate to inherit Brandel's starting tackle spot and play opposite of Kipper.

Behind that group will be freshman Jake Levengood and sophomore Jaelen Bush, both second string this season, along with understudies Rob Vanderlaan, Travis Mackay, Thomas Sio, Brock Wellsfry and

Kelsen Hennessy.

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