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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Beavers running back plans to bounce back from injury-plagued sophomore season

JEFFERSON

CORVALLIS — A week ago, Oregon State running backs coach Michael Pitre received a text message from one of his charges, Jermar Jefferson.

"Coach, coach me harder than you've coached me the last two years," read the text.

"Any time you have a young man asking for that, it's awesome," Pitre said Tuesday after the first day of OSU's spring practice. "He wants to keep pushing to become the best version of himself on the field."

What does Pitre like most about Jefferson?

"His unselfishness," the coach said. "He's a great teammate, and he truly loves the game."

Jefferson is looking for a new start after an injury-plagued sophomore season in which he rushed for only 685 yards and eight touchdowns. He'll be wearing a new number in 2020 — switching from "22" to "6," available with the graduation of quarterback Jake Luton.

"It was always my number until I came to Oregon State," Jefferson said. "I wore it in Pop Warner and high school. My dad (Herb, who played at Sonoma State) wore it, too."

The Harbor City, California, native is looking to return to the form of two years ago, when he rushed for a school freshman record of 1,380 yards and 12 TDs. Included was a 254-yard performance against Arizona State, the second-best single-game total in program history. Jefferson was a consensus Freshman All-American and Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year.

"I want to do better than that next season," he said. "I feel confident I can do that, especially with Coach Pitre and the players around me."

Jefferson was off to a good start last season when he suffered a left foot injury in the second quarter of the second game at Hawaii.

"I got tackled and, after the play, somebody twisted my foot," he said.

Jefferson stayed in the game and finished with a season-high 183 yards on 31 carries. The foot swelled up afterward, though. He said out the next game against Cal Poly, then returned to action for cameo appearances against Stanford and UCLA. With the foot still not right, he sat out the next two games against Utah and California.

Splitting time with senior Artavis Pierce, Jefferson came back for the Arizona game, carrying 22 times for 105 yards and three scores.

"That was the game where I finally felt like, 'I'm all right, I'm back,'" Jefferson said. "It was frustrating. I just keep praying to God, asking that I come back as soon as possible to help my team win games."

Jefferson was ineffective in the next two games against Washington and ASU, then rushed 21 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns and had a pair of TD receptions at Washington State. He finished the season going for 81 yards and a TD on 20 rushes at Oregon. Jefferson's yard-per-carry average for the season was 4.8, a full yard behind that of the year before.

"It was a disappointing season," he said. "But I'm looking ahead."

The 5-10 junior said he weighs 214 pounds, nearly 10 pounds more than a year ago. He ran the 40 in 4.43 at the Beaver Combine.

"I feel a lot faster this year and I know I'm stronger," he said. "I'm in the best shape of my life."

"Jermar has had a really good offseason," Pitre said. "He has worked really hard, and the training staff and medical staff did a great job of getting him back."

Jefferson caught 25 passes as a freshman but only nine last season.

"That's a big goal for me, to be more of a receiving back," he said. "That helps our offense a lot, when the running back can do more than just run the ball."

"He wants to be a three-down back, to be able to do it all," Pitre said. "He wants to be great in pass protection, be a threat in the pass game, and we know he can run the ball. Our focus is him being more detailed in all aspects of his game."

It's unlikely Jefferson will average 20 rushing attempts a game as he did his freshman year. BJ Baylor, a 5-11, 210-pound junior who was the third-string running back a year ago, will likely move into Pierce's backup role. Behind him is 5-8, 205-pound junior Calvin Tyler, who played sparingly last season.

"There is going to be a lot of rotation between me, BJ, Calvin and whoever else steps up," Jefferson said.

That remains to be seen, Pitre said.

"We're a long way from the start of the season," he said. "The plan is, we'll use the guys who give us the best chance to be successful. I would foresee us seeing quite a few guys back there. That way we can keep defenses off-balance so they can't keep their eyes on one guy.

"It's going to be about guys etching roles for themselves. The rest of the spring, we'll put guys in situations and see how they respond."

One of those who will get a look is Ta'Ron Madison, a 6-1, 215-pound redshirt freshman who sat out last season. Another candidate is Trey Lowe, the 5-8, 180-pound transfer from Washington and Jesuit High who has applied to the NCAA for immediate eligibility. Lowe, who ran the 40 in 4.35 at the Beaver Combine, could wind up at slotback in the OSU offense next fall. But for now, he's a running back.

"Trey is a fun player to watch," Pitre said. "The best thing, he's a good young man. He does a great job catching the ball, has high football IQ, and has assimilated really well into the (running backs) room. He asks good questions and has a good personality. I'm excited to have him in there with us."

Jefferson expects a trip to a bowl game after the 2020 season.

"We're going to do a lot better this year than we did (in 2019)," he said. "We're starting to do different things, like (voluntary) group meetings outside of mandatory meetings. I can see that everybody has bought into the program and into winning games."

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@kerryeggers


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