Beavers start to believe in their rebuilt defense
CORVALLIS — The feel is better. The look is better. The depth is greater. The confidence runs deeper.
And, man, were members of the Oregon State defense in high spirits during Saturday night's scrimmage at Reser Stadium.
A year ago, the OSU defense was one of the worst in the FBS ranks — and the poorest statistically in school history. As the Beavers prepare for their season opener against Oklahoma State on Aug. 30 at Reser, there are indications that the defense might be ... respectable.
That's right. Let's not get carried away. If Oregon State were to be decent on defense this season, it would be a quantum leap from last season, when the Beavers yielded at least 500 yards of total offense to every Pac-12 opponent.
The OSU defense looked more than decent Saturday, thwarting the run as often as not, making some plays and celebrating as if the national championship were on the line when they did.
"It's important to play with some energy, to play together, to cheer each other on, to make a play and whoop and holler," second-year coach Jonathan Smith said. "It was nice to see."
It's always hard to tell much from an intra-squad scrimmage, though the OSU defenders were claiming victory.
"One touchdown out of about 10 drives?" linebacker Avery Roberts asked. "It's a win (for the defense)."
There were two other TDs during the 90-minute scrimmage, and the offense had its moments.
"There was some back and forth," Smith said, "but I was pleased with (the defense's) energy and the way they tackled. I was pleased with a lot of it."
The offense went 99 yards on the first possession, the big play a 54-yard aerial from Jake Luton to Isaiah Hodgins, who burned true freshman cornerback Alex Austin with a double move.
"It was a wakeup call," Roberts said. "You have to come out fast. We didn't do that. The offense did. But we bounced back. That's what you do."
Five opponents rushed for more than 300 yards against Oregon State last season. It would be fair to say that will be harder to do against the Beavers this season.
"We're 10 times better than last year," senior linebacker Shemar Smith said. "We stopped the run tonight. Everybody locked in. Everybody communicated on the field. We executed at a very high level in this scrimmage.
"We're getting a push up front with the D-linemen. We have new pieces to the puzzle. We have angrier guys, hungrier guys ready to make plays in the backfield.
"Last year, we had one of the worst run defenses in the last 15 years at Oregon State. We have higher goals now. We feel like we have to prove it in two weeks."
Sophomore Tristan Gebbia, the scout-team quarterback last fall as he sat out the season after a transfer from Nebraska, sees a different OSU defense, too.
"They're much improved," Gebbia said. "You can feel that they're buzzing and playing with an intensity and a fire that you need on the defense. You need to have 11 animals out there, just hunting all the time. That's what the best defenses do. You saw some of that energy tonight."
Reinforcements on the defensive line — JC transfers Jordan Whittley, James Rawls and Simon Sandberg — will help, though Rawls injured an ankle late in the scrimmage and Sandberg has dealt with a knee injury during camp.
Whittley, a 6-1, 325-pound senior who already is a media favorite for being loquacious, has speed and a motor for such a large specimen. He stuffed Artavis Pierce on one run up the middle and burst past offensive tackle Blake Brandel and chased down a ball carrier on the other side of the field on another play.
"That's what people can expect — a lot of tackles-for-loss, a lot of sacks, a lot of big plays when it counts," he said. "If it's third quarter, fourth quarter, and we need a stop, you can look for me to make a play."
Whittley loves to talk up his defensive teammates, too.
"It was a great night for the defense," he said. "We were moving around, going fast. It feels like we're way better than last year, even though I wasn't here. The team has bonded. Everybody wants to play. Everybody wants to move fast. It was a great night to experience what we're going to be having for the rest of the season.
"We were able to run to the ball faster, make a lot of big plays. We have a lot of depth now in a lot of positions. If the first guy comes out, the second comes in and does a lot of good plays. This is a great scrimmage for people to realize what we have.
"This builds a lot of good confidence. You need confidence to play. You need confidence to move fast. Anything that takes you out of moving fast is a bad idea. We don't think about assignments. We just play. That's a good idea for us. We're moving in the right (direction) toward Oklahoma. It's going to be a great game."
Whittley will surely figure out the Beavers are facing Oklahoma State, not Oklahoma, just as they're representing Oregon State, not Oregon. Maybe he was just rummy after nearly three weeks of training camp.
"Scrimmages are something to look forward to," Roberts said. "(Practice) is hard. Days get long. We got to play some actual ball tonight."
Oregon State's deepest position is at running back, with four veterans — sophomores Jermar Jefferson, B.J. Baylor and Calvin Tyler and senior Pierce — carrying the load. The next deepest position may be linebacker, where about 10 players will be battling for four positions, all with some talent, experience and credentials.
"Only one (Shemar Smith) is a senior, and most of them have two years (of eligibility) left," OSU linebackers coach Trent Bray said. "I'm excited about the possibilities the next couple of seasons."
Said Coach Smith: "We have some depth at linebacker, which creates competition, has the guys pushing each other to play better."
Like Gebbia, Roberts sat out last year after a transfer from Nebraska, seeing scout-team duty and watching a very ineffective defense.
"Guys have improved at every level this year, from D-line to linebacker to secondary," he said. "Everyone is more on assignments. Honestly, I think guys genuinely care more. That's what it comes down to. Guys are trying much harder, not just on the field but after, trying to get better."
And: "We want to show we're a lot better than we were. A lot of people are overlooking us. We just want to put that on notice, that's all."
Roberts, and the OSU defense, are on notice. Beaver fans want to believe, but most are going to have to see it on the field first before they fully buy in.
A few notes, quotes and observations ...
• The battle for starting quarterback continued between Gebbia and 6-7, 225-pound senior Luton, the latter taking the first snaps as always. Both looked sharp throwing the ball — Gebbia sharper than I've ever seen him.
"The more you do something, the better you get at it," the 6-2, 195-pound Gebbia said. "I got a lot more reps this camp and all through the summer. The timing is going to show up this season."
Coach Smith hasn't shown his hand so far, but I have to believe the much more experienced Luton will start against Oklahoma State. For the first time since 2009 — when Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao shared duties — the Beavers have a pair of Pac-12-caliber quarterbacks.
Asked if he'll make a decision on a starter during the upcoming week, Smith said, "We think so. Not dead set on it, but we're going to digest this (scrimmage video), look at the whole body of work from camp and make a call at some point."
Gebbia scrambled for three yards and a touchdown, diving across the goal line and planting the ball in the end zone before it popped loose. Does he fancy himself as a runner?
"If it's my choice, I'd rather have Jermar and B.J. run it in," he said. "I like throwing from the pocket better than running the ball.
"We had a similar play to that yesterday, and they told me I didn't get in. I had a chip on my shoulder for that one."
• The quarterback who will be running the ball in short-yardage situations will be Jack Colletto, the junior who scored five touchdowns off the "Beavercat" goal-line play a year ago. Colletto went 3 for 3 scoring in goal-line drills Friday night.
The Camas, Washington, native also is playing some inside linebacker, and he has impressed Bray. The 6-3 Colletto is listed at 224 pounds, "but he's closer to 235," Bray said. "He's athletic and he's physical (at linebacker). He hits people. He's going to help us."
Said Smith: "The guys are into him. He's playing defense. He's doing special teams. He comes in and plays some quarterback. They get energized when he's in there and running the ball."
• Rawls and offensive guard Gus Lavaka suffered what Smith termed ankle injuries late in Saturday's scrimmage.
"We don't think (either injury) is long-term," Smith said.
Lavaka — surrounded by concerned offensive linemates — was down for a couple of minutes and had to be helped off the field. He gingerly walked it off on the sidelines and stayed for the team's autograph session.
• The secondary could be a trouble spot, especially if safeties Jalen Moore and/or David Morris are slowed by injuries. Moore (knee) didn't participate in the scrimmage but is expected to return soon. Morris, who missed almost all of last season with a foot injury and then strained a hamstring to miss most of spring ball, got action in the scrimmage. "We have to get that guy going," new secondary coach Blue Adams said of the sophomore from Sherwood.
Adams had junior Isaiah Dunn and sophomore Jaydon Grant at cornerback and sophomore Jeffrey Manning and senior Omar Hicks-Onu at safety in the starting group Friday.
"With the injuries, it's a hodgepodge," Adams said. "I'm trying to see who works well with who. You have to be able to have some interchangeable pieces."
The player who probably got the most duty in nickel packages was Nashon Wright, a 6-4, 185-pound sophomore JC transfer who reminds physically of former OSU cornerback Brandon Browner.
"He's still young," Adams said. "He's a big, long kid. We just have to get him to use that length, to understand how blessed with talent he is. He's been doing a great job at it."
The other corners who saw extensive duty with the 1s and 2s were sophomore Kaleb Hayes, redshirt freshman Jaden Robinson and senior Shawn Wilson, the latter also playing some safety.
"We're making some strides," Adams said of the secondary. "The kids are competing. That's one of the things that continues to show up. They want to get better. They want to be coached. I coach them hard and expect a lot out of them. It's never good enough, but they continue to come back and ask for more."
• Smith said by midweek the Oregon State practice sessions will focus on the season opener. "We'll practice pretty hard on Tuesday, and then moving forward, it will be heavy Oklahoma State," the coach said.
• Jefferson got more extensive duty than I expected, scoring one short-yardage touchdown while being flipped by a defender into the end zone.
"It was nice to see him get rolling again," Smith said. "He's healthy. He was excited about getting some carries. That was a nice scoring play."
• Receiver Trevon Bradford, who had off-season foot surgery, did not participate in the scrimmage and hasn't done much yet in camp. I asked him if he expected to be ready for the opener. "I do," he said. "(Sitting out) has been just playing it safe. I have one more doctor's appointment (on Thursday), and I'll find out for sure."
• Transfer center Travis Eldridge, who has had limited duty in camp after surgery on both knees after last season, played extensively with the second unit. Nous Keobounnam, the junior walk-on from Centennial, was the center for the starting group.
• Champ Flemings, the 5-5, 140-pound junior, had a 60-yard kickoff return and a 16-yard reception.
• Kitan Oladapo, a 6-2, 200-pound redshirt freshman from Central Catholic who had been in the mix for playing time in the secondary, was on crutches with a knee injury.
• Promising true freshman tight end Luke Musgrave caught a 30-yard pass from Gebbia but was knocked out of bounds just short of the goal line. The 6-6, 235-pound Bend High grad appears to be running No. 2 behind senior Noah Togiai.
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