Smith sees continuing growth for OSU football
Jonathan Smith was on the recruiting trail Thursday in Stockton, California, completing a busy week after Oregon State's season ended with a 24-10 Civil War defeat to Oregon last Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
It's been a good week for Smith. With national letter-of-intent day looming on Dec. 18, Oregon State's second-year head coach is looking to sign about 20 players from the high school and junior-college ranks.
"I feel pretty good about how recruiting is going," Smith said. "I really do. We're looking for guys who are the right fit and can honestly play at (the Pac-12) level. We're getting that.
"(Recruits and their families) have been receptive. People are feeling the momentum we've built this year. We're recruiting players who have been watching the Pac-12 the last few years and they see Oregon State doing some things this year. It's going well."
About a month ago, Smith met with athletic director Scott Barnes to begin discussions about upgrading and extending the contract of Smith and his assistants. Smith has three years left on the five-year contract he signed in December 2017 that called for him to make $1.9 million for the 2019 season.
"It feels good to know they feel good about you continuing on and making a longer-term commitment," Smith said. "I'm excited about it."
Six of Smith's 10 full-time assistant coaches, plus strength and conditioning coach Mike McDonald, are on two-year contracts that expire in February. Coordinators Brian Lindgren and Tim Tibesar signed three-year deals that have another year while Brian Wozniak (tight ends) and Blue Adams (secondary) are contracted through February 2021.
"Scott is trying to be proactive with (keeping the assistants), and I think we need to be," Smith said. "We have a good staff. We want to keep it together. Our guys are happy, but it's a competitive business. Any time you reinvest in the place, it's a good sign."
Though rumors have Arizona State pursuing Lindgren, Smith said he has had no indication that he will lose any of his staff.
"I don't think we have assistants who are looking to leave, but this is just the start (of that time of year)," he said. "Schools haven't even hired all the new head coaches. We'll know more in a few weeks."
Smith said he "was surprised" with the news that perhaps his most important mentor in the coaching business, Chris Petersen, retired as head coach at Washington at age 57. Smith coached six years under Petersen — two years as quarterbacks coach at Boise State and four years as offensive coordinator for the Huskies.
"I have a ton of respect for the guy," Smith said. "He has always been one who has had great balance in his life, with his time and energy and what he's doing. Listening to his press conference, it sounds like he wants a reset."
Smith said he hasn't had a discussion with Petersen since his retirement.
"I'd guess it's 50-50 whether he'll coach again," Smith said. "He has other interests, but his passion is for football and in impacting young people's lives."
Oregon State's 5-7 record — 4-5 in Pac-12 action — left Smith with mostly positive feelings.
"We improved," he said. "That was one of the goals we had. We could have had a couple of more wins, but we've grown in so many areas. By that, I mean not just on both sides of the ball, but in the weight room and with each position (group).
"There's a lot to be pleased with, but I still think we have a long way to go. Each year is going to be different. There is no guaranteed bowl game for us next year. We have to grow and improve."
Oregon State's offense was effective against all but the strongest defenses this season, finishing fourth in the
Pac-12 in rush offense (156.7), sixth in total offense (411.8) and seventh in scoring offense (31.2) and pass offense (255.1). Those numbers were all up slightly from the previous season, Smith's first at the OSU helm. The OSU offense produced an average of about five points a game more (26.1 in 2018).
What Smith liked most was the Beavers leading the nation in fewest turnovers lost (six) and ranking tied for third in touchdowns in the Red Zone (33 for 39, 85 percent, trailing only Navy and Georgia and tied with Ohio State).
"Those two numbers stand out to me," Smith said. "The turnovers start with Jake Luton and our quarterback protection. The year before, we got into more trouble throwing interceptions or getting sacked in the backfield. We had to protect the passer better, and we did. And the guys carrying the ball (notably Jermar Jefferson and Artavis Pierce) did a great job keeping it high and tight.
"We were good in the Red Zone in part due to Jake's improved quarterback play, and us finding different ways to score, whether by going to (receiver Isaiah) Hodgins or running the ball. We felt comfortable taking shots at the end zone and had different avenues to get us there."
Smith said there was no way Luton could have played in the Oregon game after suffering a forearm injury at Washington State on Nov. 23.
"There was no fracture," Smith said, "just some badly strained muscles or tendons. He had a really hard time gripping the ball. Jake could have toughed it out and handed the ball off, I guess, but you're not going to throw it very well under those circumstances.
"We tried everything to get him ready to play. Our medical people went back and forth the last three days leading to the game, trying to find different things to alleviate the pain — everything was above-board — but there was nothing that got him to the place where he could play."
Sophomore Tristan Gebbia stepped in and, statistically speaking, outplayed his counterpart at Oregon, Justin Herbert.
"All of us felt good about the way Tristan played," Smith said.
Is the quarterback job Gebbia's to lose heading into spring ball?
"He'll come in with the most experience," the OSU coach said. "He took advantage of this year, with the way he prepared and all the reps he got in practice. He's sitting in a good position. Now he's going to have to go out and earn it."
Other returnees will be sophomores Nick Moore and Aidan Willard and redshirt freshman Jackson Chryst.
"And we're trying to add to that room to create some competition, though we're not dead set on having a guy in December," Smith said.
The Beavers are recruiting several QBs, including Jack Sears, who left Southern Cal before the season when J.T. Daniels was announced as the starter. The 6-3, 205-pound Sears, who will have two years to play two, started one game for the Trojans as a redshirt freshman in 2018, completing 20 of 28 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-35 loss to Arizona State. Sears visited Corvallis in November.
OSU is also after Chance Nolan, a 6-2, 185-pound QB from Saddleback JC in Mission Viejo, California. Nolan, who has three years of eligibility left, threw for 3,315 yards and 38 touchdowns passing (68.5 completion percentage) while rushing for an additional 1,086 yards and six touchdowns. Nolan is visiting Corvallis this weekend.
The Beavers have one high school senior QB committed — Ben Gulbranson, a 6-3, 210-pounder from Newbury Park, California. Gulbranson has scholarship offers from such schools as California and Arizona State and previously committed to the Bears.
Smith was surprised with the news that Hodgins is leaving school after his junior season to declare for the NFL draft.
"He had until the middle of January to gather all the information, but that's his decision," Smith said. "Isaiah had an awesome year. He's an awesome young man who has earned the opportunity to consider that. He did a ton for us. We'll see where it takes him."
Oregon State's defense made a quantum leap from a year ago. The Beavers finished seventh in the Pac-12 in pass defense (276.2), eighth in total defense (445.9), ninth in scoring defense (32.5) and 10th in rush defense (169.5). In 2018, OSU gave up an average 45.7 points, 536.8 yards total offense, 254.9 yards passing and 281.8 yards rushing.
"We progressed (defensively), and we got better even has the year went on," Smith said. "Credit to the players. We built some depth on that side. There were some snaps in the Duck game where all 11 guys coming back next season.
"We lose (nosetackle) Elu Aydon, (safeties) Jalen Moore and Shawn Wilson and (linebacker) Shermar Smith, and he missed the last half of the season," Smith said. "Virtually everybody else on the defense is back."
Smith said junior linebacker Hamilcar Rashed — who led the nation in tackles-for-loss (22.5) and was second in sacks (14.5) despite getting none in the final two games while playing with a wrist injury — is gathering information to make a decision on whether he'll leave for the NFL draft.
"If Ham comes back, we have every single linebacker (other than Shermar Smith) back, plus we add Addison Gumbs and Andrzej Hughes-Murray, who missed basically the whole season," Smith said. "And we'll have Jack Colletto, who redshirted after playing four games. We have some stuff there. I'm optimistic we can take a similar step defensively next season to what we did between years one and two."
Rashed had surgery this week to repair the injury that left him wearing a soft cast against Washington State and Oregon.
"As a pass rusher, you need your hands," Smith said. "It really limited what he can do."
Smith went for it often on fourth down this season, taking an aggressive tack more often than not. Sometimes it worked; at other times it didn't. Two such calls could have cost the Beavers victories.
With the score tied 28-28 in the fourth quarter at Hawaii, Smith gambled on a fake punt that failed on fourth-and-six from the OSU 34 with 4:18 left. The Warriors kicked a field goal to win it 31-28 with 2:17 left.
With Oregon State leading 53-48, the Beavers went for it on fourth-and-four at the Washington State 43, Luton's pass for Teagan Quitoriano falling incomplete with 1:10 remaining. The Cougars moved 57 yards in 10 plays and scored the winning touchdown with three seconds left.
Smith said he won't change his aggressive philosophy. It's Oregon State identity now.
"Those two didn't work, but you get that in this business," he said. "You make tough calls. You can't dwell on it if things don't work out. Do I regret (those calls)? Not at all. I don't regret anything about the fourth-down call in Pullman. I regret more that we couldn't get (a first down) on second and third down. I think about that a lot more.
"It's always going to depend on a lot of things: the opponent's defense, the time of the game, the flow of the game, field position. ... I don't want to be the coach who always goes for it on fourth down, but if I feel confident in the situation, we're definitely going for it."
Smith said Charles Moore — the 6-4, 275-pound defensive lineman who transferred from Auburn — practiced "a little bit" with the Beavers after arriving in Corvallis in the fall.
"He has some real talent," Smith said. "He's explosive. He's what we thought we had in recruiting him. He's young, he has to get stronger, but he has some tools."
Who were the players who surprised Smith this year?
"(Linebacker) Riley Sharp," Smith said. "He was a redshirt freshman who had some sacks. He can play the run. He's physical. (Sophomore cornerback) Nahshon Wright. He showed up in July and wound up winning a starting job and was an awesome contributor. Give him a full offseason in the weight room and he'll be even better. (Sophomore receiver) Kolby Taylor stayed under the radar, but he made some really big catches for us. (Offensive guard) Clay Cordasco was a senior and it was his only year playing. He didn't get a lot of recognition for it, but he was a major contributor."
Senior punter Daniel Rodriguez will likely be replaced by Caleb Lightbourn, the former Camas (Washington) High quarterback who was Nebraska's punter for 2 1/2 seasons before being replaced midway through the 2018 season. The 6-3, 250-pound Lightbourn, who sat out the season in Corvallis this fall, will be a senior in eligibility in 2020.
"He'll get a chance to be our punter and kickoff guy," Smith said. "We have a couple of other guys in the program, but Caleb will get the first look."
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