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By Kerry Eggers/Portland Tribune/Potential excites Beavers as players battle for positions

CORVALLIS — Oregon State was pretty good on offense last season.

With a strong nucleus returning and some solid reinforcements waiting in the wings, there's reason to believe the OSU offense will be even better in 2019.

The Beavers lost three of their top six linemen and steady possession receiver Timmy Hernandez, but return almost everyone else. And they have added a couple of key pieces in center Nathan Eldridge and receiver Tyjon Lindsey.

"I'm excited about the crew we have back," head coach Jonathan Smith said. "We got some production from last year, a lot of guys making some plays and did some things. And we have a chance to take another step with the offense this year."

The Beavers had some excellent performances at the offensive end last season but also put up only seven points against California, 14 against Arizona and 15 against Oregon.

"There are spots to improve all over the place," offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren said. "At times, we were able to move the ball and do some good things. But we left a lot out there, too.

"We have so much potential this year. I'm really excited, because there are a number of guys returning who have experience in the system. But we have a lot of work to do."

Quarterback Jake Luton, the 6-7, 225-pound senior who started 12 games through his injury-plagued first two seasons at OSU, is getting a strong push from Tristan Gebbia, a 6-2, 195-pound sophomore who sat out last season in Corvallis after a transfer from Nebraska.

"They're going to get almost equal reps going into camp," Smith said. "Both of those guys had great summers. We really liked the step Jake took in the spring. We expected him to be ahead because of all the experience. But I'm anxious to see Tristan in camp, having all of spring ball and then summer behind him. That's why I want to let them continue to compete for a while.

"We're not setting a time line (for a decision on a starter), but at some point when one is clearly ahead of the other, we'll announce it."

GEBBIAGebbia said he has filled three notebooks with takeaways from meetings with Smith and Lindgren since spring ball ended.

"I'm trying to pick up as much as I can, taking as many notes as I can," said Gebbia, who would have started last season as the No. 2 quarterback at Nebraska had he not transferred. "I'm trying to learn everything I can from them. They've both been very successful coordinators at their respective schools — Coach Smith at Washington, Coach Lindgren at Colorado. They've been around the game for a lot longer than I have. They have a lot to teach me."

Luton — who threw for 1,660 yards and 10 TDs with four interceptions in his eight games last season — is healthy and in what he considers the best shape of his life.

"I feel better than I ever have since I first put on a Beaver uniform," he said.

Luton said he's a different quarterback than he was when he arrived at Oregon State in 2017.

"You always feel like you're good in the moment," he said. "But going back and watching the last two years to where I'm at now? It's not even close. I've improved so much. That can be attributed to Coach Smith and Coach Lindgren and being comfortable with the offense."

A year ago, Oregon State QBs led the nation by getting sacked four times per game. By comparison, Washington State averaged one, Oregon 1.69 and Washington 1.71 per contest. Lindgren said the biggest thing he has emphasized with his players is eliminating the negative-yardage plays — primarily on sacks — that hurt drives a year ago.

"That starts with the pass protection, but it's not just on the offensive line," the Beavers' O-coordinator said. "I've challenged the quarterbacks that this number is on them as well. They have to understand the protections, know where we're weak, be able to play with a sense of urgency and get the ball out of our hands. Receivers need to be able to break routes off and win on the outside, and running backs need to be on the same page with the O-line and step in there with some pass protection."

Smith said reserve quarterback Jack Colletto has been converted to linebacker, though it's likely the 6-3, 225-pound junior still will be involved in the Beavers' short-yardage and goal-line packages on offense. Colletto scored five touchdowns in that role last season.

The deepest position on either side of the ball is at running back, where 5-10, 215-pound sophomore Jermar Jefferson — a Freshman All-American and Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year while rushing for 1,380 yards and catching 25 passes in 2018 — leads the way. Also returning are 5-11, 210-pound senior Artavis Pierce, who had touchdown runs of 80 and 78 yards in last year's opener against Ohio State before an injury curtailed his season; 5-11, 210-pound sophomore B.J. Baylor and 5-8, 205-pound sophomore Calvin Tyler, who missed last season after ACL surgery.

"It's as deep a group as anywhere I've been," Lindgren said.

Jefferson will be the starter, but Pierce will play, and Baylor and Tyler may get their chances as well.

"Jermar is the first guy who goes in there, but we'll roll both (he and Pierce) with the first group," Lindgren said.

"They complement each other with two different running styles. 'AP' is downhill, strong, physical. Jermar has that element to him, too, but he also has really good vision and the ability to make lateral cuts.

"They'll both get plenty of chances. Any time you have two quality backs like this, it's important to keep the defense always having to tackle a fresh back."

Might the Beavers go with a two-running back set at times?

"There will be some stuff we'll do with both of them in there," Lindgren said. "But if we do, one of them is going to have to block or be used as a receiver. We'll work through some things where that has some potential, but the basis of what we do is the one-back (system)."

The receiving corps is topped by 6-4, 210-pound junior Isaiah Hodgins, who led OSU with 59 catches for 876 yards and five touchdowns last season. Hodgins has big plans for this season, both individually and team-wise.

"We have two good quarterbacks," Hodgins said. "The running back corps is extremely deep. Our receivers are ready to step up. We have leaders like Gus (Lavaka) and Blake (Brandel) on the line, and now we add Eldridge at center. We have good pieces literally across the board.

"And we're a much older team now. That's what held us back the past two years, being so young and inexperienced."

Actually, the Beavers are still quite young, with 43 freshmen and 45 sophomores.

"We have as many sophomores as any team in our league," Smith said.

Twelve juniors and 22 seniors are on the 122-man training-camp roster.

Hodgins said he is "a great 210 pounds."

"I'm faster than I've ever been in my life, and I'll be more elusive," he said. "I can hardly wait to make big plays and prove it to everybody else. I want to get over 1,000 yards receiving. I'd love to win the Biletnikoff Award and make Brandin Cooks proud.

"Me doing that will bring the team more production and more wins. That'll set the tone. I want to be that spark-starter, to be a leader, day in and day out, for this team."

Senior Trevon Bradford out of Oregon City — he'll start training camp limited by a foot injured in the spring — and Lindsey, the ballyhooed transfer from Nebraska, will also be featured targets at the receiver positions.

Tight end should be a position of strength, too, with a healthy Noah Togiai in line for a productive senior season and sophomores Isaiah Smalls and Teagan Quitoriano behind him.

The 6-3, 300-pound Eldridge is as big an addition as anyone on the offense. The grad transfer from Arizona, who started 10 games as a freshman in 2016, missed all of last season after undergoing patella surgery on both legs.

"After going through the recovery process, I can confidently say I'm 100 percent and ready to go," said Eldridge, who arrived in Corvallis in June. "I feel the best I've ever felt."

Eldridge transferred to OSU in part because of O-line coach Jim Michalczik, who recruited Eldridge to Arizona when he was coaching for the Wildcats.

"I missed his barking," joked Eldridge. "He's a mentor to me as well as a coach. We get along well. We discussed the potential to play right away. Coach Smith and all the other coaches were also welcoming to me and made me feel like this was going to be my next home."

Eldridge said he has already bonded with his O-linemates.

"It's a really good group of guys," he said. "We have a lot of potential. The guys are football-smart. We're going to have a good year."

One player who has caught Eldridge's eye is sophomore tackle Brandon Kipper, who has added 25 pounds to his 6-6 frame and weighs 305.

"We watch film together a lot," Eldridge said. " He's a perfectionist. He's always taking it seriously. He's going to do some big things."

Luton said he is happy to get a medical redshirt sixth college year "to help send this team out with some wins and a bowl victory."

Say what?

"I think it can happen," he said. "Our offense is so much more experienced. We were good last year, but we return almost everybody. The defense has definitely improved and added some guys who will help them be good and keep us in some games.

"In the Pac, there's such a small margin of error between winning and losing, but we're a lot closer than people think we are."

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