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Bolstered coaching staff and deeper roster reasons for optimism, but COVID challenges still exist.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN VILLAGOMEZ - Portland State football coach Bruce Barnum, pictured at the Aug. 6 first practice of 2021, believes the Viks are headed in a positive direction.From the outside, college football teams returning to the practice field this week might signal a return to some normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled or disrupted the 2020 season.

But at Portland State, coach Bruce Barnum was focused on one opponent in the run-up to the first day of training camp on Aug. 6.

"I have to make sure we beat the virus," Barnum said.

In the days leading up to the beginning of camp, Barnum was blunt about the challenge of keeping the virus from knocking yet another season off course.

"This whole COVID thing isn't over," Barnum said. "I thought it was over and that things would return to normal, but it's still alive."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN VILLAGOMEZ - Jalynnee McGee, a freshman running back from Skyview High in Vancouver, Washington, runs a drill during Portland State's first football practice on Aug. 6.Even as he prepared for 25 practices leading into the Sept. 4 opener at Hawaii, Barnum said he was waiting for direction from team medical staff about any protocols — from masking to social distancing — that might be implemented given the contagiousness of the delta variant.

The lingering pandemic challenges are the only bummer as Barnum begins his seventh season as the Vikings' head coach. He believes this might be his best team yet. And a significant reason for that is his most experienced coaching staff since taking over the program in the middle of the 2015 season (and guiding the Viks to the NCAA playoffs).

Barnum's list of assistant coaches is longer and more experienced after a series of offseason hires.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN VILLAGOMEZ - Jon Eagle, who guided Camas High to a couple of Washington state titles, is now Portland State's quarterbacks coach.Jon Eagle, a veteran high school coach in Southwest Washington who led Camas to a pair of big-school state championships, joins Barnum's staff as the quarterbacks coach. Barnum noted that fifth-year-senior QB Davis Alexander has had almost as many position coaches as seasons at PSU — and that Eagle is the first one Alexander has had who has made a career of focusing on developing quarterbacks.

Combine that with the arrival of former Arizona State star and NFL veteran Derek Hagan as the coach for a deep and talented group of receivers, and there certainly will be high expectations for the Viking offense.

Matt Rhea brings more than three decades in college football to the defensive line coaching position. John Brock, who will coach on defense and serve as recruiting coordinator, was an assistant coach for six seasons at Army.

"They all have knowledge. They are winners. They're all great teachers, and fun to be around. And that will translate to the team," Barnum said.

That team features 35 letter-winners and 13 starters from the 2019 team that finished 5-7 (3-5 Big Sky). The most recognized names are Alexander and defensive back Anthony Adams, a consensus All-American as a sophomore in 2019. But among the more than 100 players expected as camp opens are the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes, adding a unique dynamic to the team building and position battles ahead.

The position battles Barnum is most interested to watch are the offensive and defensive lines and in the defensive backfield, where a combination of transfers and redshirts will compete for playing time.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN VILLAGOMEZ - NFL veteran and Arizona State receiving record-holder Derek Hagan is pictured at his first practice coaching receivers for Portland State.On the offensive line, three players return who started at the end of the 2019 season: senior tackle Carlos Barraza, sophomore tackle Shiloh Ta'ase and redshirt freshman guard Richard Estrella. But Barnum expects at least a dozen players to compete for a starting job.

The defensive line will be mostly new, with senior Semise Kofe (32 career games) one notable exception.

Other than Adams, the defensive backfield is mostly young/transfers. Adams is expected to switch from safety to cornerback, a position where four redshirt freshmen are expected to battle.

One area that shouldn't cause Barnum much consternation is the kicking game. Junior placekicker Cody Williams holds three program records, including longest field goal (56 yards) and consecutive made extra points (82). Senior punter Seth Vernon ranked 12th nationally at 43.2 yards in 2019.

After the 48-7 loss at Montana on April 20 — the only game the Vikings have played since 2019 — Barnum said his team needed to work on building football strength over the next three months. Heading into camp, Barnum said his sense is that process has gone well. But, he added, "the true answer to that comes on Sept. 4" at Hawaii.

Between now and then, Barnum will lean on his bolstered coaching staff to turn a roster of more than 100 players into an effective football team.

"I love this staff," Barnum said, noting that his intention was to hire assistants who are smarter than he is. "I don't expect them to stay here, but I've got them now and am going to take advantage of that."

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