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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/'It's been fun watching our coaches working with these guys'

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith chats with an official.CORVALLIS — Five games — at least— remain on Oregon State's schedule as the Beavers (3-4 overall, 2-2 in Pac-12 action) head into a bye weekend. Their next action is at 1:30 PT Saturday, Nov. 2 at Arizona.

In his second season as head coach, Jonathan Smith is making headway in most areas as he attempts to build his program into a conference championship contender.

I covered a lot of ground with Smith in this week's Pamplin Northwest Sports podcast. Among the highlights:

• Oregon State leads the Pac-12 in touchdowns scored in the red zone, having scored them in 21 of 26 opportunities inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Smith: "It won us the game last week (21-17 at Cal), going 3 for 3 in the red zone. You get down there, and the difference between seven and three points, or no points, is huge for momentum. Execution has to be great down there. You have to be physical because the field is shorter. So far, so good."

Comment: Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren have been bold, going for it on fourth down 14 times this season and converting 10 first downs. But some of that is lack of faith in place-kicker Jordan Choukair, who is 2 for 6 and hasn't made a 3-pointer beyond 30 yards. True freshman Everett Hayes was 3 for 3 on PATs against Cal as Choukair kicked off only in that game. Smith said Wednesday the place-kicking job is still a competition between Choukair and Hayes, but it would seem that Hayes will get the first opportunity against Arizona. The Beavers need to have somebody they can count on from 45 yards and in. If not, it could cost them a game or two the rest of the way.

• Oregon State leads the nation in lost fumbles (zero) and turnovers committed (two). Quarterback Jake Luton is among the national leaders in touchdown/interception ratio at 16/1. But Smith said ball security wasn't an emphasis as the Beavers went through spring ball and August training camp.

"You're always emphasizing minimizing turnovers and taking care of the ball," he said. "These guys have done a great job, and the ball has bounced our way a couple of times. We've been fortunate, but the ball hasn't been on the ground.

"Jake's decision-making has been really good. He has been taking what the defenses give him and has been accurate with the ball. We're not going into games saying, 'Don't throw picks.' We want to be aggressive. We want to throw it down the field. Making good decisions and being accurate has kept him from turning the ball over. And our protection has improved from a year ago. When the pocket is clean for him, it makes it easier."

Comment: Credit to all the OSU ball carriers and receivers for hanging on to the ball, and to Luton for mostly excellent decision-making in getting rid of the ball when under pressure in pass situations. There are times when it seems he throws it away a little early, when if he'd give it another second he might find an open receiver. No question, though, it's better to be safe than sorry in that regard.

• Junior receiver Isaiah Hodgins is among the national leaders in receptions (56), receiving yardage (705) and TD receptions (10). But Oregon State's No. 2 receiver is tight end Noah Togiai with only 21 catches. Do the Beavers need a No. 2 receiver?

Smith: "We're not that concerned about having a No. 2. We want to do it right now by committee, getting the tight-end play in there, mixing in the receivers and throwing to a back out of the backfield. I don't see it as a glaring problem that we don't have a clear No. 2."

Comment: A year ago, Trevon Bradford was OSU's second-leading receiver with 56 catches. It's unlikely anybody but Hodgins will be close to that total this season. Bradford, who has missed the first seven games with a foot injury, will redshirt this season but can play up to four games. He is close to being ready and will almost surely play in the final four contests, beginning Nov. 8 against Washington. That should help the Beavers' aerial attack and take some of the opposition's defensive focus off of Hodgins.

• Oregon State gave up 49 sacks in 12 games in 2018. In seven games this year, OSU QBs have been sacked 13 times.

Smith: "Protection is not just on the offensive line. A lot of time, it falls on the quarterback. (Luton) is getting the ball out quicker. We made an emphasis on that in spring and (August training) camp. The O-line, and also the tight end and backs, are in protection. It's been a group effort to make strides there."

Comment: Even so, hats off to the O-line and coach Jim Michalzcik. The line has blocked well in the run game and in pass protection much of the way this year. Senior left tackle Blake Brandel, senior left guard Gus Lavaka, junior center Nous Keobounnam, senior right guard Clay Cordasco and sophomore right tackle Brandon Kipper will be as important as any position group the final five games.

• Oregon State's defense has 60 tackles-for-loss in the first seven games after having 53 the entire 2019 season. OSU is also second in the Pac-12 with 21 sacks.

Smith: "Those are good numbers. Our returning (defensive) players needed to take a step in their growth. We had to get bigger and stronger and upgrade in the D-line and at linebacker, and we did that. And we've made some changes in the scheme. There's more of an aggressive style — not a complete overhaul, just with some new wrinkles."

Comment: Man mountain Elu Aydon has stepped up his game, and junior transfer Jordan Whittley has offered a shot of energy on the D-line. A young linebacker corps has grown and caused problems for offenses, notably thanks to junior Hamilcar Rashed, who leads the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles-for-loss by a wide margin.

• Oregon State's recruiting class of 2020 has 14 verbal commits, including prize junior-college defensive ends Alex Lemon and Tavis Shippen. The website 24/7 Sports ranks Oregon State's class eighth in the Pac-12 and 61st nationally at this point. How does Smith — who said the Beavers will take 22 to 25 players in this class — feel recruiting is going?

Smith: "I'm very pleased with where we're at. We're chasing guys who really fit this place and can play. We still have to get some more. There's not a particular (position) area we're emphasizing. At every position, you're always trying to build some depth. You'll see a sprinkle of JC players, but we're in this for the long run and development. We want the majority of every class to be freshmen."

Comment: The Beavers will need help on the D-line and secondary, on the O-line and at receiver. They'll also need a punter and perhaps a place-kicker in this class.

• More than halfway into his second season, I asked Smith what has been fun for him.

Smith: "Seeing individual players improve, from the time I got to know them last year until now. And it's been fun watching our coaches working with these guys. The effort to improve from everyone in our program is there. That's been fun to see."

Comment: It's always fun to win, and the Beavers have done that three times so far. They seem to have a good esprit de corps among the players and a solid group of coaches. Defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar has shown what he can do with an improved level of talent from a year ago. Nothing will be more important that recruiting better athletes, and developing them into Pac-12 quality players.

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