One of the reasons I’m on record that Oregon St HC Smith was robbed in 2019 of Pac-12 Coach of the Year — and there are several, I like the elegance of his offensive playcalling and the stability of the staff he’s assembled as well — is that he’s one of the very few competent roster managers in the league. Given the massive talent absences and imbalances he inherited in 2018, the turnaround of the team in general is astonishing, and I think that’s in large part because he adroitly corrected those imbalances with aggressive transfers and a healthy rotation to find and develop backups to avoid surprises.
Recruiting to Corvallis is always going to be a challenge, and the pandemic certainly added to those difficulties. But it also created opportunities for alternative additions to the roster, with a glut of players from around the country in the transfer portal as the eligibility holiday is forcing otherwise quality talent to head elsewhere. Smith was widely expected to hit the portal hard, but it appears he’s only taken six so far and is currently in the curious position of having, by my count, eight initial counters remaining in the middle of June. I don’t think they’re done taking players from the portal and much of our conversation with Travis focused on identifying which positions the Beavers are most likely to need help at before Fall camp.
On the surface, Oregon St’s quarterback situation looks straightforward - they have a returning starter who was a former 4-star in #3 QB Gebbia, a backup with substantial game experience in #10 QB Nolan, and two mid 3-star freshmen who look like they’re competing for the third spot. And the most likely scenario is that it proceeds just how it would appear in Fall camp and that’s that.
But there are a host of potential complications here, and Travis and I agreed on the podcast that while it would be surprising for Gebbia not to be the starter, it wouldn’t be totally shocking either. Gebbia sustained a season-ending injury and had surgery on it, missing all of Spring practice. Nolan is a far more mobile QB and escaped danger for a lot of positive scrambles, something Gebbia hasn’t shown he can do. Both Gebbia and Nolan came in at around 118 in NCAA passer rating, which was substantially below the FBS average in 2020 and some of the lowest scores in the league, so there’s a lot of room for improvement at the position.
Smith has spoken highly of the 2020 recruit, #17 QB Gulbranson, but we haven’t seen him yet since last year’s Spring game was canceled and he sat out this one. The true freshman #7 QB Vidlak took a lot of the reps in the Spring game and looked pretty decent, and I actually thought he was distributing the ball more evenly than Gebbia has. And the biggest twist came last Friday, when Colorado’s Sam Noyer, the starter for all six of the Buffaloes’ games last year, announced he’s transferring to Oregon St.
So there could be some real intrigue at the position in the Fall, and in Smith’s offense it’s the position that more than anything else determines how far they’ll go. But that’s probably the only possibility for surprises on this side of the ball, since the way that Smith has managed his roster makes the rest of his two-deep easy to predict.
The Beavs lost their great running back, Jermar Jefferson, to the Lions, and after having lost Art Pierce last year, they’re now without either of the tandem of backs who have buoyed the offense for the last few seasons. On paper that’s by far the biggest loss on the squad, and it could be that they wind up really missing their ability to break huge runs on occasion.
However, I don’t think it’ll be too severe of a reset, because they have two experienced backups who look like they’re ready to step up and play the same way - #4 RB Baylor returns with 4.7 ypc on 81 career rushes, and #5 RB Fenwick has transferred from South Carolina with 5.4 ypc on 97 career rushes (he was behind the thousand-yard rusher Kevin Harris, who returns to Columbia for 2021). Travis also said to look out for Damir Collins, the Beavs’ top recruit in the 2021 class, potentially breaking into the rotation as a true freshman, and there are three other high 3-star backs in the room as well, so depth should be fine.
Tight ends are even easier to predict - #88 TE Musgrave and #84 TE Quitoriano played on most snaps and each pulled in around a dozen catches last year. They’re capable blockers and have decent hands, probably not the best TEs in the league but I think a more reliable combination than those of most other Pac-12 teams who are going to frequent two-TE sets. They’re also young enough that I doubt either leaves the team at the end of 2021, so I’m not expecting a lot of rotation either.
There’s very little experience behind them, however, with only one catch for 2020 recruit #81 TE Overman and none for #85 TE Spencer. And the other two scholarship TEs are true freshmen who aren’t on campus yet. It’s an open question if any of them can carry the load if Musgrave or Quitoriano are unavailable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Beavs add an experienced TE through the portal for insurance.
The wide receivers have one departure that I wasn’t expecting, from Kolby Taylor who was basically tied for the top receiving yards last year. He’s been there since 2017 and has dealt with a lot of injuries over the years, so Travis thinks he just retired. OSU brings back the other five wideouts who had 100+ receiving yards last year, plus they have six more scholarship WRs on roster who are all mid 3-stars, so I don’t think depth or Taylor’s departure are big worries.
I like the collection of talent here, and four of those five returners are upperclassmen I’ve been writing about for years. The top receiver was #8 WR Bradford, and #1 WR Lindsey, a 4-star transfer from Nebraska, has nearly as many all-purpose yards because he was the most frequent ballcarrier on sweeps, which Smith uses a lot. They got good play out of the next two, true freshman #18 WR Beason and #0 WR Harrison, another 4-star transfer but from Florida St. I also really enjoy watching #16 WR Fleming, who’s 5’5” and a surprise every time he catches the ball, but has several long runs after the catch because he can dodge safeties.
One trend I noticed is that Smith has been almost exclusively working with receivers who are just average in size, with everybody measuring from 5’10” to 6’1” except Flemings. But I think there’s been a concerted effort to add height to the room, because the most recent three WRs he’s taken are 6’2” or 6’3”, including the transfer from Georgia, #9 WR Tongue. My guess is that he gets plugged into the six-man rotation to replace Taylor as part of that effort.
Two years ago, when the Beavs were coming off a 2018 season with just one conference win and most observers — including OSU fans — weren’t expecting much better, I predicted that they’d make big improvements in 2019 because their offensive line was returning a veteran group under the instruction of the excellent OL coach Michalczik. That’s exactly what happened then, and after struggling a bit in 2020 from having to replace some seniors, it’s what I’m predicting to happen again in 2021.
OSU returns all five starters: #67 LT Gray, #70 LG Levengood, #64 C Eldridge, #69 RG Keobounnam, and #68 RT Kipper. The first two were freshmen in 2020 but played every snap and I think they’re ready to take another step, and the last three are all upperclassmen who will be playing their third or fourth seasons.
They also return their sixth man, #63 OG Sorensen, who was Portland St’s longtime starting RG before transferring to OSU last year (I happen to have done film study on him for Oregon’s 2018 game against the Vikings). When Eldridge was unavailable in the Spring game due to a minor hand injury, Levengood slid over from LG and Sorensen took his spot in turn. The Beavs also took a transfer from Utah St, #58 OL Bloomfield - he played in all 13 games for the Aggies in 2019 as a redshirt freshman, with four starts and 424 o-line snaps, but then sat out 2020 with an injury. Travis and I both think that Bloomfield is their seventh man in the rotation. I’m uncertain if Sorensen or Bloomfield are ready to play tackle, but I expect that if Gray or Kipper are unavailable they’ll move somebody over rather than looking to the bench.
It’s unlikely that the Beavs suffer three simultaneous injuries and need to dig that deep into the lineup, but if it does happen it could be real trouble. As much as I like veteran (albeit lesser talented) lines in this system, the flip side is that everybody else in the room is totally green - four walk-ons and ten low 3-stars, almost all of whom have only been in Corvallis for a year or two, and none have played.
Oregon St’s model of stability in the scheme, staff, and backup rotation applies to the defense as well. However, this side of the ball is losing more playmakers than the offense, including a few departures that I think were unexpected at two of the positions that are hardest to recruit well. I suspect that there will be more transfers taken for the defense than the offense by Fall camp, but the late start probably means an overall step back for this squad.
The first of those positions in need of help is the defensive tackles. DC Tibesar has been running a consistent 3-4 structure with a double-eagle front - that is, a nose tackle, two bigger ends, and the edge rush coming from OLBs. He probably only needs two big space-eaters right in the middle to be healthy for the rotation with a third for insurance, but when #5 DT Whittley and #75 DT Bennett both transferred out, he had none left on scholarship. Whittley sat out last season without a medical clearance for gut-wrenching reasons; he was my top choice after 2019 to be the starting nose and I figured he would return after getting healthy, but instead he left for Michigan. Bennett played in the Spring game a few weeks ago and looked pretty good, so his departure for Fresno St (which will play two Pac-12 teams in 2021, including Oregon) was very surprising to me. Those two constitute a massive absence, literally and figuratively.
At this point, there are only two guys expected to be on the roster with the right dimensions for the position: one is a walk-on, #97 DT Skelton, and the other isn’t on campus yet because he’s transferring from Minnesota, high 3-star Keonte Schad. I’ve watched some film on Schad, as it happens; he played the situational nose in their passing-down package, here’s an example (he’s #32):
Assuming that Schad works out for the Beavs, I would still think they’ll try to get one or two more guys around 300 lbs for the position, and it might even involve converting an offensive lineman. No matter how you slice it, there just isn’t much experienced depth or talent at this key position, and they’re going to have a hard time rotating. This was exactly the problem OSU had in 2018 when Smith had inherited a porous roster, particularly at the interior of the front, and opponents could run all over them, resulting in the worst Power-5 defense in the history of advanced stats.
The other defensive line positions are in better shape, with returners #99 DE Hodgins, #52 DE Rawls, and #96 DE Sandberg. Hodgins was in on almost every snap last year, with the other position going through a rotation of Rawls, Sandberg, and three or four other guys including a couple of walk-ons. The rest of the room hasn’t played yet and weren’t highly recruited. This is the unit that’s coming along the slowest in Smith’s development of the team - almost everybody is a Juco, transfer, or a walk-on, and he’s only taken two prep recruits in the last two cycles.
The linebackers, on the other hand, look pretty solid to me. They’ve lost their most dynamic player, #9 OLB Rashed, as well as a couple of backup outside backers, but return #2 OLB Hughes-Murray who was a little more productive last year. They also got good results from backups #6 OLB McCartan and #56 OLB Sharp, and all three of those returners are upperclassmen who have been in the system for several years. There are six other OLBs on the roster so they shouldn’t have trouble identifying an adequate backup for their typical four-man rotation at the position, although other than one they’re all low 3-stars.
The exception is former 4-star transfer from Oklahoma, #15 OLB Gumbs. He’s now missed most of the last two years with an ACL tear and was limited in this Spring’s practices, but in the short time we’ve seen him play he’s been an absolute terror. If he’s back to 100% I would assume he gets a starting job and could possibly improve on Rashed’s incredible backfield production in 2018-19, since Gumbs is a higher-ceiling athlete. But even in this day and age, a full recovery from an ACL injury is far from guaranteed and we’ll have to wait and see.
The inside backers are the strongest unit for the defense, returning their highly productive tandem of starters in #34 ILB Roberts and #36 ILB Speights who’ve both been in the system from the beginning. They also return one of last year’s backups in this unit’s four-man rotation, #12 ILB Colletto (who’s also the wildcat QB and has 52 carries over his three-year career). The other backup, #42 ILB Taumoelau, appears to have quietly left the team. There are several options to take his place in the rotation; Travis thinks it’ll be the Juco #10 ILB Fisher.
OSU is also returning a ton of production at safety … in fact, more than I was expecting, considering that two of the five safeties with double-digit tackles in 2020 were unrated out of high school and I believe are walk-ons. Tibesar wants to play most downs in his base 3-4 with four DBs, but I’ve noticed him deploying a nickel more often as time goes on - something I’ve seen from more than one Big Ten coach after moving to the Pac-12, as he did.
Those five returners are #0 DB Arnold, #18 DB Austin, #7 DB Julian, #3 DB Grant, and #28 DB Oladapo. The first three are mid 3-stars and on the younger side, the last two are the walk-ons and have been around for a few more years. Julian split time with a couple other DBs who had a handful of reps each; there are six other DBs on the roster other than the five named so far who I believe are all safeties, though they each have few or no reps so I can’t be certain.
The big question for the secondary is how they’re going to replace both their starting corners, #2 CB N. Wright and #23 CB Dunn. I don’t think the staff was expecting both to leave the team, and it looks like something of a scramble to get this unit ready. They’ll probably replace the former with his cousin, #1 DB R. Wright, a Juco featured memorably on Last Chance U; he got some limited reps last year. I suspect the other starter will be the transfer from Kansas, #8 DB Jones, since he was the Jayhawks’ starter last year (I will leave to the reader’s judgment the value of a low 3-star who transferred out of Lawrence).
Beyond those two it’s anybody’s guess for the corner rotation. I don’t believe I’ve seen anyone else on the roster get any reps at outside corner, since the nickelbacks in this defensive structure don’t have nearly the same coverage responsibilities. I really have no idea what they’ll do here for backups, whether they’ll play someone totally green or move over one of those extra safeties and hope for the best (Travis thinks it’ll be the latter). Either way the talent and experience for the cornerbacks are poor, they’re relying on two different transfers just to get a pair of starters on the field, and my bet is before Fall they’ll go back to the portal for some more.
Last year’s OSU preview turned out to be very accurate for the offense. Overall, I expected it to take a step back due to losing a number of starters, but that it would be manageable due to Smith’s smart roster moves, and I think that bore out. I nailed the QB, WR, and TE lineups perfectly including how the backup rotation would go, as well as correctly calling that Jefferson would get the lion’s share of the carries instead of the 1-2 combination they’d used in the past. I got five of the six guys in the OL rotation right, including the freshman who’d take over at LT. But I didn’t foresee a returning backup I had penciled in to be the new starter at LG would instead retire, and I was really surprised that a redshirt freshman I didn’t mention at all took his spot. I said that if they were in that situation they’d be in trouble because the rest of the room was young, inexperienced, and less talented across the board, which I still think was a reasonable prediction to make, so I’m going to chalk that up to yet another reason to believe their OL coach is one of the best in the business.
On defense, I was blindsided along with everyone else by Whittley’s medical issues, but I did correctly predict who would fill his shoes, as well as the entire rotation at defensive end including a new Juco. The inside and outside backers I called correctly, though I thought a couple OLBs would play who turned out to be still injured, so a prediction that one of their backers would switch from outside to inside didn’t pan out, though he still became a starter at OLB. I really made a hash of the secondary, though. I correctly predicted three of the four starters, but had two of their positions backwards. And my other prediction for starting safety instead got three reps then transferred out. Two kids who played as true freshmen in 2019 I thought would get to redshirt in 2020 in favor of Jucos who came in, but instead they played and the Jucos sat. Even worse, two more walk-ons at safety got substantial reps who I didn’t see coming at all. I did note there were massive departures in the secondary for the second time in as many years and I would have to make a lot of guesses here, but I don’t usually guess this badly. I’m not sure what to do about it; I think problematic units with a lot of transfers both ways and without much film are just going to play out like that sometimes, and make a fool out of any analyst.