From worst to first? OSU defense seeks major improvement
CORVALLIS — Oregon State's defense was bad to epic proportions last season.
Among 129 FBS programs, the Beavers were 128th in rushing defense (281.8 yards per game), total defense (536.7) and scoring defense (45.7) and last in turnovers gained (eight).
By comparison, their pass defense was terrific, ranking 101st while yielding 254.9 yards per contest.
It was the worst defensive season in OSU's long football history, the biggest contributing factor to a 2-10 record in Jonathan Smith's maiden voyage as head coach.
"It was very embarrassing," said safety Jalen Moore, who ranked eighth in the Pac-12 with a team-high 102 tackles as a junior last season.
Smith and defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar have pulled out all stops to ensure that it doesn't happen again. They've added a host of transfers for immediate help. The defensive staffers visited Louisiana State to pick up some pointers from the coaching staff of a traditional Southeastern Conference power. They've tweaked schemes to best take advantage of their players' strengths. And they've worked overtime to develop a young group that lost only two starters — tackle Kalani Vakalaleilo and cornerback Dwayne Williams — from a year ago.
"There's a lot of room for improvement," Tibesar said. "Almost every single area was not where we want it to be. We have to take a big step forward this year.
"The nice thing is, we have a blank slate. We can go out and try to improve in all areas.
"We have to be better at run defense, we have to create more takeaways and we have to apply more pressure on the quarterback. If we do those three things, we'll be a much better defense than we were last year."
Linebacker and safety should be Oregon State's best positions.
The Beavers return seven linebackers with significant experience from a year ago — outside 'backers
Andrzej Hughes-Murray, Hamilcar Rashed and John McCartan and inside 'backers Shemar Smith, Doug Taumoelau, Matthew Tago and Isaiah Tufaga.
Also aboard at linebacker are transfers Avery Roberts (Nebraska) and Addison Gumbs (Oklahoma) and promising true freshman Omar Speights of Crescent Valley High by way of Philadelphia.
"We've got a good group, and we have enough talent that it's going to create competition at every position, which at times we didn't have last year," Tibesar said. "We'll be better there (in the Aug. 30 season opener against Oklahoma State at Reser Stadium) than we were at any point last season."
The 6-4, 240-pound Gumbs is recovering from ACL surgery just prior to Oklahoma's 2018 opener. Gumbs, who played four games for the Sooners as a true freshman in 2017, was ticketed to be a starter for them before his injury. He transferred to Oregon State in the fall and sat out the season. Tibesar said Gumbs will be on a "pitch count" as training camp opens, but coaches are hopeful he'll be ready to go for the Oklahoma State game.
"When the trainers tell us, we're going to get him out there and let him go," Tibesar said. "Addison was a great high school player (in Hayward, California) and did a nice job for Oklahoma as a freshman. He's excited. It's been a long time since he's been able to put a helmet on."
The 6-1, 230-pound Roberts was one of two true freshmen to play for Nebraska in 2017, playing in all 12 games. He transferred to OSU last fall and participated in drills and on the scout team.
"He had the offensive coaches complaining — in a good way — about what kind of job he was doing on scout," Tibersar said. "We're excited about the contribution he can give this year."
Moore, senior Omar Hicks-Onu and sophomores David Morris and Jeffrey Manning lead a strong group of safeties. Moore started all 12 games and Manning started two and played in 12 games a year ago. Morris (foot) and Hicks-Onu (knee) both missed last season, with the exception of some special-teams duty by Morris the final two games.
After an outstanding season as a true freshman in 2017, Morris has had a rough go with injuries. He broke a foot during the winter of 2018, then broke his other foot just before last season. He was sidelined for most of spring ball with a hamstring strain.
"I've been living in the training room," said the 6-3, 210-pound Sherwood High grad. "But I'm 100 percent now. I did all the workouts and conditioning this summer. I'm feeling really good and trying to get my strength back in my lower half."
The Beavers are more thin at cornerback, with senior Shawn Wilson, who started all 12 games last year, and junior Isaiah Dunn and sophomore Kaleb Hayes, who were both part-time starters, leading the way.
The defensive line has been bolstered by reinforcements. Sophomore Isaaac Hodgins, who started 11 games last season, and seniors Elu Aydon, Lamone Williams and Jeromy Reichner are back. Added to the mix are transfers Jordan Whittley, Simon Sandberg and James Rawls along with true freshman Evan Bennett.
Whittley, a 6-1, 325-pound senior from Richmond, California, is a former running back who played two seasons at Laney JC in Oakland. He's an engaging youngster who stepped in during spring ball and chose to show some leadership with his D-line mates.
"I get offended when a team runs over 100 yards on me," Whittley said. "In Juco, not a team we played against got over 100 yards. If they got 100 yards, we're not doing something right. Offenses can run any time they want on us? That's not OK.
"They can pass all they want, because we got great secondary. But if a team gets over 100 yards on the ground, then we've failed."
Whittley said after watching game video from last season and a couple of days into spring ball, he exhorted his D-line mates to do better.
"At first, they didn't like it," he said. "They talked back, but that's what we needed. We needed somebody to be able to say something when things aren't OK. We came to a respect for each other. We started getting somewhere instead of going backward.
"Now the guys have taken it to heart. It has to start with us. We have to make sure we pose a threat to our opponents. We have to be way more physical. We have to show them that we can be bullies and not just get bullied."
Whittley weighed as much as 390 pounds at Laney. He said he lost weight because "I didn't want to be fat anymore. I was tired of lugging myself around and making excuses for myself.
"I'm in good shape now," he said. "I'm ready for camp; I'm ready for the season. I still need to get in a little more in-season shape. D-I football is way different from JuCo football."
Whittley said he chose Oregon State in part because "I like being the underdog."
"I like having a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I don't want to come into a big program and get lost and just be a player on the roster. I want to make a name for myself and turn people's heads, like, 'What is Oregon State doing this year? Oh, Jordan Whittley — that guy is amazing.'
"I want people to say that. I want to show people I'm good. My mind is laser-focused right now. I'm going to try to be an All-American and the best defensive lineman in college football."
Tibesar just hopes Whittley can play well enough to be a starter at end.
"If he's healthy and can go, he's going to be a difference-maker for us," the OSU D-coordinator said. "We saw that in the spring. He's a hard guy to block, and he can make some plays. He has some of that short-space quickness. We're hoping he can play a lot for us."
Moore, too, takes offense at the rushing numbers opponents put up on Oregon State last fall.
"For a team to run the ball on you like that? That's disrespectful," he said. "They know they're going to run the ball and they're going to get some yardage. That can't happen this year."
But the 6-foot, 215-pound Moore isn't pinning everything on the D-line.
"We have to stop the run first, but the secondary has to make more plays on the ball and needs to stop giving up touchdowns," he said. "It's a collective effort. I know I missed some plays that could have changed the game at times last season. We have to make more plays and create more turnovers."
Moore said "it crossed my mind" to leave OSU and attempt to make it in the NFL after last season.
"But I want to get my degree, and this team has so much potential," he said. "I just experienced my first road win last year (at Colorado). That's something we need to change ASAP. I wanted to stay to experience more of that.
"We need to change this program around. I'll feel better leaving this place knowing we changed this thing around. Our coaches deserve that; everyone in this program deserves that."
Rashed senses the opportunity for a major change with the OSU defense, too.
"We're going to be better," said the 6-4, 240-pound junior, who started 10 games at outside 'backer last season. "We're not going to be the type of team that opponents can walk down on this year. What happened last year is not going to be the average Oregon State Beavers defense.
"Why can't we be the No. 1 defense in the Pac-12? We put all this work in — why not? People are going to talk about us — 'Oregon State, they're terrible,' and all that. We just have to prove people wrong."
Morris said he hopes he can stay healthy and be productive enough to earn all-Pac-12 honors.
"But the bigger thing is get out there and help us win some games," he said. "This team can do it. I'm really confident we can do it.
"I know the DBs are more motivated than ever. We've been in this losing situation for so long. We're all like, 'It's time to go.' This is the year we have to make some noise and prove ourselves."
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