KERRY SAYS: Beavers' next season is the offseason
The offseason for Oregon State football has already begun.
Head coach Jonathan Smith and his staff is knee deep into recruiting a full class of 25 high school seniors and transfers — including four from the latter group who enrolled in school in January and are eligible to play next season.
Strength and conditioning coach Mike McDonald has a detailed offseason program already tailored for each of the Beavers' returning players.
As he met with the media in the minutes following Oregon's resounding 55-15 Civil War victory last Friday at Reser Stadium, Smith was direct when asked about the Beavers' biggest position needs for next season.
"The line of scrimmage on both the offensive and defensive side," Smith said. "That's something we'll continue to build on in recruiting, but also in the weight room during the offseason. We have to flat-out do it. You could see that we weren't able to match up (with opponents) at times."
O-line coach Jim Michalczik loses four of his top six players from a group that paved the way for Jermar Jefferson to run for a school freshman record 1,380 yards this season: center Sumner Houston, guards Kammy Delp and Yanni Demogerantis and tackle Trent Moore.
Returning are starters Blake Brandel at tackle and Gus Lavaka at guard along with promising tackle Brandon Kipper, who transferred from Hawaii and saw some duty late in the season. Also back are freshmen Jake Levengood and Brock Wellsfry and JC transfer Clay Cordasco, all of whom got some action in 2018. OSU has a verbal commitment from Robin Vanderlaan, a 6-5, 270-pound offensive tackle from Diablo Valley JC in Pleasant Valley, California, who could compete immediately for a starting job.
Oregon State's defense gave up more points (45.7) and total yardage (536.8) per game than any team in school history. Every Power Five opponent had at least 500 yards total offense against the Beavers, who yielded 77 points and 721 yards to Ohio State, 52 points and 558 yards to Arizona State, 56 points and 538 yards to Washington State and 48 points and 596 yards to Stanford.
Run defense was the biggest negative. OSU gave up 281.8 yards per game on the ground, including 442 to Arizona, 396 to Arizona State, 392 to Oregon and 375 to Ohio State.
During the Civil War game, Tampa Bay running back Jacquizz Rodgers delivered this tweet:
"Oregon st defense is every RB dream to run against."
Quite the indictment coming from a former Oregon State standout who, to be fair, also tweeted out his congratulations to Jefferson for a stellar campaign.
The Beavers do return their top nine tacklers from this season, including junior safety Jalen Moore, who was eighth in the Pac-12 this season with 102 total tackles and sixth with 70 solo tackles.
The defensive line loses starting tackle Kalani Vakameilalo and rotation end Lamone Williams but returns end Isaac Hodgins, who started all 12 games as a true freshman this season. Also back are rotation players Elu Aydon, Jeromy Reichner and Miki Fifita along with reserve ends Isaac Garcia and Jaelen Bush. Addison Gumbs — a transfer with Oklahoma — has the skill to become a starter at end. And commit Evan Bennett, a 6-3, 315-pound tackle from Santa Ana, California, may be ready to compete for a spot right away.
If there is a position area that should improve the most next season, it might be linebacker, where eight players — including true freshmen Isaiah Tufaga, Matthew Tago and John McCartan — saw ample duty and showed promise. Veterans Hamilcar Rashed, Andrzej Hughes-Murray and Kee Whetzel on the outside and Doug Taumoelau and Shemar Smith on the inside provide depth for next season.
OSU is also adding Avery Roberts, a transfer from Nebraska who is expected to compete for a starting linebacker job.
Cornerback Jay Irvine missed the 2018 season and safety David Morris sat out most of it with injuries, but both figure as likely starters next season. Isaiah Dunn, Jay Irvine, Kaleb Hayes, Jaydon Grant and Jaden Robinson return at corner and Moore, Shawn Wilson, Jeffrey Manning, Omar Hicks-Onu, TraJon Cotton and Moku Watson are back at safety.
The offense could get a potential boost if senior quarterback Jake Luton is granted a medical redshirt sixth season. Luton — who played only four games for the Beavers as a junior before sustaining a season-ending thoracic spine fracture at Washington State — has filed the necessary paperwork with the NCAA appealing for an extra season.
NCAA rules require that it be a season-ending injury that occurs during the first half of a season, and that the player has competed in no more than 30 percent of the season or four games, whichever is greater. Luton, who threw for 1,572 yards and 10 touchdowns in the six games in which he finished this season, would seem to check all the boxes for the 2017 campaign.
"The people at Oregon State tell me it sounds as if my situation falls within reason to get a medical year," Luton told me after the Civil War game. "It's not a sure thing, but we're hopeful."
If Luton returns, he'll get a push from Tristan Gebbia, a 6-2, 195-pound transfer from Nebraska who ran the Beavers' scout team this fall. Gebbia, who has three remaining seasons of eligibility, has the skills to compete for the starting job. Word is Conor Blount is looking to transfer, which would leave redshirt Nick Moore, Jack Colletto and Aidan Willard on the QB depth chart.
The other offensive skill positions are well-stocked for next season, especially at running back. Jefferson, who is coming off an epic true freshman season, will be joined by returnees Artavis Pierce, Kase Rogers and B.J. Baylor on the position. Also back will be Calvin Tyler, who redshirted following ACL knee surgery in August training camp.
The top three tight ends — Noah Togiai and true freshmen Isaiah Smalls and Teagan Quitoriano — all return. The Beavers lose Timmy Hernandez but have all other receivers back, including Isaiah Hodgins and Trevon Bradford. Jesiah Irish, who redshirted as a freshman this season, and Tyjon Lindsey, another Nebraska transfer, should compete for starting spots. Also back are Champ Flemings and Kolby Taylor.
Oregon State loses long snapper Connor Kelsey but returns punter Daniel Rodriguez and place-kicker Jordan Choukair, though the latter's job may be in jeopardy after a shaky junior season.
Smith inherited a group of players who had gone 1-11 the previous season, with little depth at many positions and holes all through the defense. The former Beaver quarterback can't wait to begin his second season at the OSU helm, though he knows better than to expect a quick turnaround.
"We have some optimism, but we have a lot of work to do," Smith said. "I knew what I was coming into. The staff knew it, and these kids know it. We have to improve.
"We're building something. We weren't going to go with the quick fix, (to try for) quick answers with a bunch of transfers who were only going to be here a year. This year was disappointing, for sure. But there will be some positives if we continue to work, so we can look back on this year (and know) we've left a solid foundation."
Hernandez, who caught a pair of touchdown passes in his swan song in a Beaver uniform, believes that has happened.
"They got the right guy in Coach Smith," the senior receiver said. "He's the guy to turn this program around. They have to be patient with him and let him do what he has to do. I think Coach 'Mac' (McDonald) is one of the best strength coaches in the country.
"Next year, after everyone has a whole year in the system, they'll come out a stronger team and be able to play football the way Beaver football is meant to be played."