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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Spring football at Oregon State to feature QB competition, work on upgrading defense immediately

CORVALLIS — A look at Oregon State football, focusing on recruiting and the March 5 start of spring (actually late winter) practice ...

• Oregon State added three scholarship players, a grayshirt and eight preferred walk-ons during Wednesday's second letter-of-intent signing period.

That brought the total of scholarship signees for the Class of 2019 to 23, including the 20 players added in December.

That number includes center Nathan Eldridge, a graduate transfer who remains at Arizona through spring term to complete his academic requirements. He will be on hand for August training camp.

The three scholarship players signed Wednesday were Akili Arnold, a 6-foot, 175-pound safety out of Mission Viejo High in Lake Forest, California, who flipped from Utah State; James Rawls, a 6-3, 265-pound defensive end from Fullerton (California) JC, and Thomas Sio, a 6-4, 330-pound offensive guard/center from Anchorage, Alaska.

Jacob Ferenczi, a 6-4, 280-pound offensive tackle from North Bend, will grayshirt and enroll in school next winter.

The preferred walk-ons announced Wednesday included three in-state players — tight end Cam Sanders of Crescent Valley High, linebacker Kade Hustler of Southridge and offensive tackle Nick Suing of Kennedy (Mount Angel). A fourth in-state walk-on, place-kicker Jeffrey Nelson of Clackamas, declared his commitment this week.

Preferred out-of-state walk-ons were quarterback Jackson Chryst of Palo Alto, California;; long snapper Dylan Black of Reno, Nevada; linebackers Jackson Cloyd of Orange, California, and Cade Brownholtz of Sacramento, California, and offensive guard Tanner Miller of Valencia, California.

All totaled, 15 of the 23 scholarship players are slated to play on defense, including six linemen and five linebackers.

"We've addressed our immediate needs," coach Jonathan Smith said of his second recruiting class, and first full one.

• The transfers on the defensive side should all help immediately. They are Rawls, Jordan Whittley (Laney JC in Richmond, California) and Simon Sandberg (City College of San Francisco) on the line and linebackers Avery Roberts (Nebraska) and Addison Gumbs (Oklahoma).

Incoming freshmen Evan Bennett, a nose guard from Sacramento, California, and linebacker Omar Speights (Crescent Valley High by way of Philadelphia) are among those who should contend for immediate playing time on the front seven.

Oregon State's defense was statistically one of the worst in the FBS ranks last season. OSU coaches expect that to change in 2019.

"It's important that we do," Smith said. "We have to improve on that side. Everybody knows it. There were a bunch of young guys we were running out there last year. Those guys improving gives us a chance. Enter in some roster additions and more familiarity with the (defensive) scheme in Year 2 — we should improve."

"I'm expecting dramatic improvement," D-coordinator Tim Tibesar said. "If we can improve in our run defense and takeaways, that will really help us out. ... I'd be very disappointed if we didn't make a very big jump in our performance on defense next year."

• Returning on the D-line is sophomore Isaac Hodgins, who started every game as a true freshman last season.

The 6-foot Hodgins has gained 10 pounds from a year ago and now weighs 275.

"I'm stronger, plus I feel way faster," he said. "We're doing speed stuff every day with our strength coaches. My speed has definitely gone up from last year."

As a group, Hodgins said, "we're going to improve. We have faith in our D-line that it's going to be a big jump from last year."

Senior outside linebacker Andrzej Hughes-Murray — a good bet to be one of the squad co-captains — has 19 career starts under his belt.

"We're going to be good," he said of the OSU defense. "Addison brings a lot to the table. So does Avery. Those are two guys who will really help us out. Spring ball is going to be big for us, just to see where guys are at."

There is excellent depth at linebacker, with Gumbs and Roberts joining Hughes-Murray, Hamilcar Rashed, Shemar Smith, Matthew Tago, John McCartan and Isaiah Tufaga as returnees with significant playing time in 2018.

Another linebacker, junior Kee Whetzel, will be given a shot at safety in the spring. The 6-3, 210-pound junior "has the speed and the savvy to play the (safety) position," Smith said.

If he stays at safety, Whetzel will join seniors Jalen Moore and Shawn Wilson, sophomore David Morris and junior Omar Hicks-Onu to provide some depth at the position.

• Plenty of eyes will be on the quarterback position during spring ball, with sixth-year senior Jake Luton returning and "getting the first snaps" but facing a challenge from Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia. The 6-3, 205-pound sophomore ran the scout team with sophomore Nick Moore — younger brother of ex-OSU QB Matt Moore — last fall.

"We got to see a lot of (Gebbia) during the season with the scout team," O-coordinator Brian Lindgren said. "We're thrilled to have him in the program. He has ability. He plays with a sense of urgency back there in the pocket. He is able to get the ball out of his hands. I like his arm. He distributes the ball and sees the field.

"He's a really competitive kid who loves football. Those are the guys we're trying to bring in and build the program around. I'm excited to get a chance to coach him more this spring."

Like Luton, Gebbia is a pro-style quarterback.

"Running is not his biggest strength," Lindgren said. "He and Jake both do a good job of sliding in the pocket to avoid the rush, but we're not going to run a ton of zone read with either of them."

• Gebbia was recruited by Mike Riley to Nebraska, but he also has ties with Smith, the offensive coordinator at Washington when Gebbia was in high school at Calabasas, California.

"I had a great relationship with Coach Smith during the recruiting process," Gebbia said. "I was really close to going to Washington. (The Huskies) were in my top two or three (schools). He was somebody I wanted to play for.

"I'm excited to be a part of this transition into being a winning program. I think we have the pieces to do it."

Oregon State will go into the spring with five quarterbacks — Luton, Gebbia, Moore, junior Jack Colletto and sophomore Aiden Willard. It shapes up to be a battle between Luton — who started nine games through an injury-riddled two seasons — and Gebbia for the starting job.

"They're two competitive kids," Smith said. "The competition will improve both of them. They get along really well. They're going to help each other."

"Jake is a great leader in the locker room, and he has been a great teammate already to me," Gebbia said. "We've developed a relationship over the six months that I've been here. It's great for the team.

"Quarterback depth is something that's good to have. You look around the country at Alabama and other programs that have a bunch of good quarterbacks on their roster. I'm just going to work on myself and push myself to be the best I can be and let the chips fall where they may."

But Gebbia fully intends to win the starting nod. He looks forward to what he hopes is an opportunity to connect through the air with such receivers as Trevon Bradford, Isaiah Hodgins and transfer Tyjon Lindsey (Nebraska) and tight end Noah Togiai.

"The good thing about my position is to play point guard, and guys like Trevon and Isaiah and Tyjon and Noah will go out there and make plays," Gebbia said. "That's the fun part of about it. It doesn't fall all on my shoulders. There are a lot of good playmakers on this team who can do a lot of great things for us.

"I'm going to go in working my tail off every day, trying to earn the trust of my coaches and teammates. We have a lot of really good players here and some really good quarterbacks. It's not just me. We'll be working to make each other better. We'll be competing. It's going to be a great thing for the team."

Lindsey and Gebbia were together at Nebraska.

"Tristan is a very good quarterback and an amazing leader," Lindsey said. "I'm very excited to see where we go as teammates at Oregon State, and I'm looking forward to seeing all the accolades he's going to get here."

• The 6-foot, 190-pound Moore — who was at OSU last fall after a transfer from Eastern Washington — shared duties with Gebbia running the scout team. Gebbia and Moore also took part in the scout scrimmages on Sunday nights through last season.

"I like Nick," Lindgren said. "He has really gotten better since he arrived last spring. I liked what he did in those scout scrimmages. We moved the ball with him. He's a scrappy, competitive kid."

It's possible the Beavers will continue using packages in short-yardage and goal-line situations with the 6-3, 220-pound Colletto running a Wildcat-like offense. Colletto ran for five touchdowns last season.

• The 5-9, 190-pound Lindsey could be an immediate impact player.

"We're really excited about Lindsey," Lindgren said. "He can play in the slot; he can play outside. He's one of those dynamic players who has the opportunity to create an explosive play every time he touches it. He's not real big, but he's thick and plays bigger and stronger than he is."

After making the decision to leave Nebraska, Lindsey — who led Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas to the Nevada 4A championship and a 15-0 record as a senior, earning state Player of the Year honors — got plenty of interest nationwide.

"I considered Arizona State, USC, Ohio State and UCLA — those were the main schools," Lindsey said.

Two factors — the chance to play immediately and at a school close to home — steered him to Oregon State.

"My family is in California, and they didn't get many opportunities to see me play in Nebraska, being halfway across the country," Lindsey said. "I pictured myself playing at Oregon State in a lot of ways."

One of the reasons Lindsey chose Nebraska out of high school was Riley, now an analyst at OSU who is serving as head coach with the San Antonio Commanders of the new Alliance of American Football.

"When I first got here, I saw him and I ran straight up to him and gave him a big hug," Lindsey said. "It was nice to reunite. He always gives me a word of advice and encourages me and influences me a lot. Mike Riley is family to me, for sure."

Lindsey is fast, but said, "I don't ruminate on 40 times."

"I feel like me being on the field with the ball in my hands is way different than me running in a straight line," he said. "I'm always going left, right, sideline to sideline, end zone to end zone. I love being all around the field, moving all over the field."

Lindsey, who has been at OSU since the fall, said winning a starting job in August camp "is my goal."

"I never see myself playing behind somebody else," he said. "I always see myself playing with somebody. I would label myself as a starter. That's how my mind is. I'm a go-getter. I go get whatever is at hand. I accomplish all my goals.

"I think we're going to accomplish something that many people didn't believe in here at Oregon State. We'll be able to do that with these fantastic coaches and the players they're bringing in."

• Oregon State's offense was potent through much of last season. With Jermar Jefferson — the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year — and senior Artavis Pierce at running back, a load of returning receivers and senior tight end Togiai, the Beavers will have plenty of weapons in 2019.

"I think we're going to be pretty dang good," Luton said. "I think we're going to put up a lot of points. We'll be explosive. The big thing for us is we're going to be consistent, too. We'll get there.

"The transfers we've brought in are going to bring a lot of immediate talent and depth. Some of the freshmen are talented, too. Getting to work out with them this winter, they have some athletic ability. That's been exciting. The program is going to be on the rise."

• Togiai played all of last season but was never at full strength as he recovered from offseason leg surgery. Serving primarily as a blocker, he caught 10 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns after 34 receptions for 461 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore in 2017.

"I envision a lot more productivity out of myself (in 2019)," Togiai said. "Last year, I took on the job of blocker. I knew I wasn't going to get the ball as much. I didn't really have my feet under me. I took responsibility in my role and enjoyed it. But knowing that I'm healthy now, if Jake or Tristan or whoever gets the (quarterback) job decides to throw me the ball, I'll go out there and catch it."

On the quarterbacks, Togiai said this:

"Both of them are great guys. I've been around Jake longer than Tristan. Jake is the older guy — he's an old man now — but I've watched both of them sling it around. This morning, I ran routes for both after our workouts and man, they both can sling the ball pretty good, pretty far. We were running deep routes, and I was surprised how long the ball was floating in the air. I'm not sure who will come out on top, but whoever it is, he'll be successful."

On Gebbia: "He has an arm. The first thing you notice when he's throwing the ball, whether it's a short route or a deep route, is the ball is slinging fast. I didn't get the chance to catch many of his balls last fall, but since the end of the season when the coaches weren't around, we started running routes again, and he can throw it. I'm excited to see how both of them do, and to see how Tristan can do in our offense."

• Maybe the biggest question mark on the offensive side is the line, which lost four of its top six players in seniors Sumner Houston at center, Kammy Delp and Yanni Demogerantas at guard and Trent Moore at tackle.

Senior tackle Blake Brandel and senior guard Gus Lavaka, both returning starters, will anchor next year's O-line. Eldridge figures to be the starter at center, and sophomore Brandon Kipper — a transfer from Hawaii who played in three late-season games last year — is a good bet to win a starting tackle slot opposite Brandel.

• The other new addition is secondary coach Blue Adams, who played four NFL seasons for Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati from 2003-07. Adams, 39, coached last season at South Florida.

"The guy is top-notch," Smith said. "I'm impressed with his ability to teach. He knows the game inside and out and is very familiar with the scheme we run. Coaching five guys (two cornerbacks, two safeties and a nickel back), we need an elite coach who can teach. He can do that. He's also a good recruiter ... recruiting is a lot about relationships and the ability to evaluate. He'll relate really well with the kids. I think he's a home-run hire."

Said Vince Guinta, the Beavers' player personnel director: "Blue could go to the moon and recruit — he's that good a recruiter. He's a dynamic personality. ... He can recruit anywhere."

NOTES — Spring practice will last five weeks and will be split between three weeks before winter term finals week and spring break, and two weeks after, ending with the Spring Game on April 20. The Beavers will also stage a practice at Beaverton's Mountainside High on either April 6 or April 13. ... The only incoming freshman QB will be Chryst, the nephew of former OSU offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, now head coach at Wisconsin, and son of Geep Chryst, tight ends coach for the Denver Broncos. "We're excited about that addition," Smith said of the 6-2, 200-pound Chryst. "He has good pedigree. The guy is a good player." ... Sanders is the son of Crescent Valley coach Scott Sanders and brother of ex-OSU player Tanner Sanders. ... Nelson will get a chance to compete for place-kicking duties with senior Jordan Choukair. ... Rawls' uncle, Lee Davis, played with Smith at OSU as a starting offensive tackle in 2001. "He had a really good year at Fullerton and created some havoc in the backfield," Smith said. "He'll have three years left to play." ... Smith has awarded a scholarship to sophomore cornerback Jaydon Grant, the son of ex-Trail Blazers forward Brian Grant. "Jaydon played some for us last year and proved himself," Smith said. "He'll help us in the secondary and on special teams." ... A dozen players from this year's recruiting class are on campus and enrolled in school — Gebbia, Lindsey, Roberts, Gumbs, Sandberg, Whittley, Bennett, Speights, receiver Anthony Gould, running back Taron Madison, cornerback Wynston Russell and offensive tackle Rob Vanderlaan, the latter a transfer from Diablo Valley JC in Miramonte, California. ... Gumbs, Sandberg and running back Calvin Tyler will miss or be limited for spring ball as they recover from knee injuries.

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