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Duck Dive: Oregon State Football 2020 Preview

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Going deep with the Beavers’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Oregon State at Oregon Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Special thanks to Travis Johannes of Building the Dam for helping us break down the Oregon State roster on the Quack 12 Podcast. Check out the episode HERE!


In 2018, the first year of new head coach Smith’s second turn in Corvallis, Oregon St went 2-10. He had inherited a team that was abandoned midseason by the previous coach, his starting QB missed half the year with injuries, and the defense was the worst fielded by a Power-5 team in the history of SP+. Our sister site, Building the Dam, published an article predicting that the Beavers would do no better in 2019.

As is usually the case, readers of Addicted to Quack knew better. Your faithful film reviewer found a lot to like in the offensive playbook Smith installed, the coaching staff he assembled, and the talent he brought in. They improved by three wins to 5-7, and three of those losses came at the last second by a combined seven points (just imagine how an 8-4 OSU would be perceived). I maintain that Smith should have won Coach of the Year in 2019, and think he’s the best “plus-value” (considering what he has to work with) coach in the league.

The Beavs will have to weather some tough personnel losses next season, particularly on the offense. But my confidence in Smith is very high, and his playbook, staff, and new depth of talent are all unchanged, and I think the defense will take another step forward. So I expect the Beavs to hold steady or slightly improve next season.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

OSU’s offense is losing seven starters, and they’re about the worst ones they could take - three senior starting offensive linemen and the top man at each of the other four position groups. They also enjoyed what was probably a statistical anomaly in that they only lost six turnovers all year, the fewest in all of FBS; the year before they lost 18, #49 in FBS, so that’s likely a lot of dumb luck instead of something structural and I expect some regression to the mean. So just about every observer, Travis included, is predicting a step back on offense next season.

However, I think that between extensive player rotation and an aggressive use of transfers, Smith has managed his roster pretty well, and there are potential good answers for every question those losses pose. It’s unlikely that he gets happy returns across the board — nobody in college football gets that lucky with this much starter turnover — but there’s reason to believe that it’ll be a manageable dip instead of a total collapse.

The first starter to replace is quarterback Jake Luton, and #3 QB Gebbia probably has the inside track. He was a 2017 recruit to Nebraska who redshirted that year, transferred to Oregon St early in 2018 and sat that year out, then was used as a backup to Luton in 2019 for much of last season but played the entirety of their final game against Oregon. His stats aren’t great, but two-thirds of all his career attempted passes were against the Ducks’ defense, and having done film study on that game I didn’t come away thinking that he was the bottleneck — no flagrantly bad decisions or obvious deficiencies in his physical ability — and I think he’d be a fine QB for this offense.

The other serious option is #10 QB Nolan, a Juco transfer who got on campus in January of this year. Having watched his high school tape I think he might be a slightly better fit for Smith’s offense as a pocket passer, and Travis thinks there’s a possibility that he starts behind Gebbia but passes him up midseason. The rest of the roster doesn’t look like any real threat to those two: there’s a mid 3-star true freshman from the 2020 class, #17 QB Gulbranson, last year’s wildcat QB who’s probably moving to defense for good, #12 ILB Colletto, and some walk-ons and 2-stars who haven’t played.

What I like about both Gebbia and Nolan is that they appear to be far more mobile than Luton was … he was such a statue in the pocket that if the pass rush got through at all then it was a sure sack, no chance of escaping the pocket to make a play or at least throw it away harmlessly. OSU was #70 nationally in sacks allowed per snap, and in my opinion (based on film study of both the QB and the o-line, plus finishing a much better #35 in TFLs allowed per snap) that can mostly be traced to Luton’s immobility. Taking that shackle off the offense is a good reason to expect that, overall, the position could be a net improvement or at worst only a slight falloff, not the dramatic tumble I’ve seen some predict.

The Beavs’ offensive line improved tremendously last season under OL coach Michalczik, one of the best assistants in the league in my opinion. But they’ll be losing three of the longtime starters who made that happen in Blake Brandel, Gus Lavaka, and Clay Cordasco, and if the offense does have a big falloff next season I think problems at this position, rather than at QB, the skill positions, or scheme, would be the biggest reason why.

Due to an injury, 2019’s original starting center and probably best player, #64 C Eldridge, got an extra year of eligibility, and I think he’ll get that spot again. Also returning is the guy who replaced him at center who looks to be a starting guard, #69 OG Keobounnam; the backup left guard who got extensive playing time, #65 OG Clarke; and last year’s starting right tackle who I think will move to the other side, #68 LT Kipper. All four will be upperclassmen and have redshirted, so there’s a good chance the same “senior bump” that happened last season will repeat next season.

That leaves two big potential problems, though. First is that the new starting right tackle will almost certainly be totally inexperienced. The best option is likely #67 OL Gray, a mid 3-star and highest rated remaining lineman on the roster in the 24/7 composite. He greyshirted (no pun intended) in 2018 then redshirted in 2019, so he’s been in the system under Michalczik for a while and has used that time to bulk up to 299 lbs, but only played a few snaps at the end of last year and we really don’t know what to expect from him. He didn’t hold up too well against Oregon’s DL, but then again, who did?

The second problem is depth - there’s just no talent or experience on the rest of the lineup, and probably the best backup option is a 2-star transfer from Portland St, #63 OL Sorensen, who was a longtime starter for the Viks (I actually did film study of him in 2018, he was a right guard who got ran over by Nevada a lot, then by Oregon more). If Gray works out and the line stays healthy all year, then I think the Beavs are in pretty good shape, but I don’t think they could take a single injury or bust.

Oregon State v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The best evidence of the o-line’s improvement came in the rushing game. In my charting system over the last two years, OSU running backs’ success rate (whether or not they got enough yardage to stay ahead of the sticks, given the down & distance) went from 46% in 2018 to 55% in 2019 - it’s impossible to overstate what a huge leap that is, it’s far and away the biggest jump in the Pac-12. In both of those seasons, they had two primary backs, but with one of them missing time and carries due to a nagging injury - in 2018 that was Artavis Pierce, now with the Chicago Bears, and in 2019 it was #6 RB Jefferson. In my opinion Pierce eclipsed Jefferson last year, partially due to the latter’s ankle injury, but also because the former became a reliable chunk-yardage rusher. With Jefferson hopefully back to full health I’d expect him to return to his excellent 2018 form when he was arguably the best tailback in the league.

They’ll probably need him to be, because he’s the only one who looks like a star on the roster. There are a couple of returning redshirt juniors, #20 RB Baylor and #2 RB Tyler, both of whom were part of that overall improved running back unit last year but didn’t seem like they had Jeffeson or Pierce’s ceiling. They also have some intriguing newcomers: high 3-star 2020 recruit Isaiah Newell, and former 4-star transfer from UW #21 RB Lowe, whom the Huskies had as a wideout but never used and played tailback in high school.

The tight ends lose the very productive starter in Noah Togiai. They return two backups with some playing time, #84 TE Quitoriano and #88 TE Musgrave. Travis tells us that the Beavs’ hopes are pinned on Musgrave (nephew of Bill, Oregon’s former QB and current Cal OC, and son of his brother Doug, Oregon’s backup QB to Danny O’Neill in the early 90s) stepping up and taking over the role, and apparently he’s looked good in practices. I didn’t see enough film on either guy to say much about them, but this offense really needs a good pass-catching tight end, and beyond those two the roster is extremely thin - it’s three walk-ons and two low 3-star true freshmen who didn’t enroll early.

But the biggest personnel loss is doubtlessly wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, with 1,171 yards on 86 catches, second most in the Pac-12 behind USC’s Michael Pittman, and as many as the rest of OSU’s wideouts combined. It was clear that Luton and Hodgins had a real connection and he was clearly the most talented of any of the Beavs’ available receivers, although as I noted both before and after the Ducks played them last year, that could be used against them if the defense could take Hodgins away, since Luton frequently locked onto him or they telegraphed the play.

So even though he’s the biggest single loss on the squad, I think OSU is better situated to take the hit to this unit than any other in the offense. They return the diminutive but extraordinarily enjoyable to watch #16 WR Flemings, another Nebraska transfer who’s due for a breakout in #1 WR Lindsey, and very productive backups (in terms of yards per catch) #5 WR Taylor and #13 WR Irish. They also get back #8 WR Bradford, who was excellent in 2018, then got injured early in 2019 and sat out enough games to redshirt but played well when he returned at the end of the season - he played as a true freshman, so he’ll be an experienced redshirt senior. They should also be getting former 4-star #9 WR Harrison, assuming the NCAA grants his application for immediate eligibility after transferring from Florida St … Oregon fans may recall the contretemps surrounding his recruitment at the end of the 2017 season.

Oregon State v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Defense

This squad jumped 33 spots in the defensive SP+ ranking from 2018 to 2019, one of the biggest improvements in the history of that metric. Now, that was only to #93, and for most teams I’d dismiss it as a dead-cat bounce. But there are two reasons to think this improvement is for real and will continue: first, they might as well have been #1,000 in defense in 2018, they were so world-historically terrible that getting them back to simple respectability was a gargantuan task; second, they return everybody who contributed to that — from the staff to the upperclassmen players to the transfers who were really hitting their stride toward the end of the year — plus they get back from injury several players who could make a big difference.

DC Tibesar’s structure is fairly unique at this point in the Pac-12, a base 3-4 with two inside and two outside backers, and they go to a nickel pretty rarely. Most of the action is with the linebackers; the d-linemen just need to have the size not to get blown off the ball - that wasn’t the case in 2018 but after some aggressive roster moves it was in 2019.

OSU had the 14 guys in the defensive front two-deep figured out for 2019, but two different ACL tears and a foot injury forced a reshuffling, and the rest of the roster was so young (six scholarship freshman d-linemen in 2019) that they occasionally had to dip into walk-on third-years. Next season, they only lose three guys out of the two-deep they actually played, but they get all three of those injured players back, and between better talent and more experience, I think the defensive front will continue its net improvement.

The biggest loss (literally and figuratively) is Elu Aydon, the 377-lbs nose tackle. While immovable up the middle, his lack of range limited his effectiveness, and I think his replacement, former Juco #50 DT Whittley, will be a better option for them at 333 lbs. I’m not sure who the backup 0-tech will be though, since the only other 300+ lbs linemen is one of those walk-ons. Travis thinks it might go to #75 DL Bennett, a mid 3-star redshirt freshman at 288 lbs, though new Juco #94 DL Shippen is also big enough for it.

Both 2019 starting ends return, #45 DE Sandberg and #90 DE Hodgins (brother of the former wideout). They lose one of the backup d-linemen, LaMone Williams, but get back from last year’s ACL tear #91 DE Reichner with a 6th year of eligibility (his path to playing time in Corvallis has been a winding one). I think they’ll also find room for another former Juco, #52 DE Rawls, and Travis says to watch out for an underrecruited gem from Hawai’i, mid 3-star true freshman Sione Lolohea. They also have those two experienced walk-ons and three more scholarship linemen who are at least second-years, so I think depth will be fine.

The outside backers are led by #9 OLB Rashed, whose 3.04 negative plays per game (14 sacks and 22.5 TFLs on 12 games) was behind only Ohio St’s Chase Young nationally. He returns as does the rest of the rotation: #56 OLB Sharp, #6 OLB McCartan, and #8 OLB Tago. This unit also gets back the other two injured guys mentioned above: 4-star Oklahoma transfer #15 OLB Gumbs and #49 OLB Hughes-Murray.

There’s enough depth and experience here to move a few guys around. Travis thinks Hughes-Murray might move to inside backer (he’s a big redshirt senior so that makes sense), and I’d be surprised if Gumbs didn’t jump the rest of the rotation and push Tago down to 3rd-string. A pass rush with Rashed on one side and Gumbs on the other could be truly terrifying.

The inside backers have the only other loss in the front, backup #41 ILB Smith (although it’s a pretty frequent rotation so he played about 40% of all snaps). But they return both starters who I thought were a very good pair and played off each other well in Tibesar’s somewhat tricky blitz and option-run stopping systems, #34 ILB Roberts and #36 ILB Speights, and the other backup, #42 ILB Taumoelau.

They clearly like having a four-man rotation here and Travis isn’t sure who Smith’s replacement will be, but he’s not concerned about it because there are several good options and I think he’s right. The most interesting have already been mentioned: Hughes-Murray moving inside and the wildcat QB Colletto who mostly played as a backer last year. They also have a redshirt junior transfer from Arkansas, #40 ILB Fisher, and three mid 3-star freshmen: redshirt #32 ILB Erhart and local 2020 recruits John Miller and Junior Walling.

Oregon State v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the 2019 offseason, OSU returned eight DBs with significant playing time, while five depth guys, only one of whom played much, transferred out. Bizarrely, almost the exact same thing is happening in the 2020 offseason: seven returners with experience and four transfers out, only one of whom played. On top of that, they’re bringing in four Juco DBs this offseason, and all of this is happening in a secondary that rarely fields more than four at a time.

There’s really no other way to read that much bench turnover with that much returning playing time than simply being unsatisfied with the level of play and looking for guys who are better. The talent problem in the secondary goes back a long ways - they haven’t really had a high quality DB since Treston Decoud in 2016.

They lose two seniors to graduation, Jalen Moore and Shawn Wilson, but bring back the four guys who I think will be the starters: #23 CB Dunn and #3 CB Grant, who Travis thinks are solid corners, and #24 DB Morris and #21 DB Wright at safety. I thought Morris looked pretty good when he was on the field, but he’s been struggling with injuries for the past two seasons. Overall I wasn’t thrilled with this unit, and the fact that OSU’s pass defense stats (both in efficiency and explosion) were worse than their rush defense stats despite having one of the best pass rushers in the country indicates that the secondary was significantly underperforming.

The other three returners were all true freshmen backups last year: #16 DB Arnold, #18 DB Austin, and #26 DB Forest. Travis thinks they were thrown into action too early last year due to injuries and other problems in the unit, and that the Juco influx is about giving them some breathing room to redshirt. DB coach Adams put some pretty effective secondaries on the field in his last job at USF, so I think it’s worth giving him some time to get his roster aligned even though there wasn’t much improvement in his first season.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Oregon State at UCLA Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Accountability Corner

In last year’s summer preview, I got just about every offensive position correct … not that hard when they were returning so much, though that was a big reason I predicted them to win a lot more games than other prognosticators were. I also got the three senior starters on the offensive line right (again, pretty easy), but I sure blew it on the other guys - I didn’t mention Kipper at all despite having the right measurables and age for it, and I seriously questioned their depth but they fielded two backup guys who did pretty well for the team - all three of them I think will be starters next season. I thought Eldridge would play and he did before he got injured, but I leaned too heavily into the Juco transfers and those didn’t play at all. Parsing what exactly Jucos mean for teams at OSU’s station in the conference is something I’ve been working on.

Defensively I think I got the big picture right: that they were atrocious in 2018 largely because they had no size at all up front, but that Smith had gone to work immediately beefing it up and that’d stanch the bleeding. I believe that proved accurate, as did the specifics of which new players would get the nod. I didn’t predict all the injuries of course, but I think I described the backers pretty well. About the only thing I wrote about the secondary was that I was puzzled by all the personnel movement in and out of the program, and I still am. Maybe I’ll solve it next year.


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