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Duck Dive: Oregon State Football 2022 Preview

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Oregon State at Oregon Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Special thanks to Travis Johannes of Building the Dam for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss Oregon State’s roster. LISTEN HERE


Offense

Oregon State finished with the 19th ranked offense in F+, one of four Pac-12 offenses to make the top 20 in advanced stats (the others being Oregon, UCLA, and Utah) before a steep falloff to the 40s for two more teams and then well below for the rest of the conference. Considering OSU’s modest talent level, I think their performance is a testament to head coach Smith’s well constructed scheme and a playbook that his roster can efficiently execute, which I expect to continue in 2022.

Returning starter #10 QB Nolan will almost certainly keep the job next season for the Beavers. He was beat out in 2020 by #3 QB Gebbia, but got the job for the last three games after Gebbia’s injury. Gebbia re-injured himself before the 2021 season, but when Colorado’s Sam Noyer transferred in Nolan got beat again in Fall camp. But Noyer was pulled halfway through the opener against Purdue for ineffectiveness, and it’s been Nolan’s job ever since.

Nolan’s skillset is a good fit for the offense Smith has designed … or perhaps more likely, the other way around. I think Nolan reliably gets the ball out on short and intermediate passes, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes or deliver an inaccurate throw, and has some escapability in the pocket, and so he can effectively lead the methodical drives this offense calls for. His NCAA passer rating in 2021 was 148.3, a respectable number and better than a lot of higher profile Pac-12 QBs. I don’t see a lot of zip on his throws on long, opposite-hash out routes and I don’t think he has the deep downfield accuracy to generate explosive air yards, but wisely enough this offense doesn’t call for those things.

Noyer and freshman Sam Vidlak have both departed, so the only competition Nolan faces is from Gebbia and 2020 mid 3-star #17 QB Gulbranson, who hasn’t seen the field yet. Travis tells us that OSU media is not convinced that Gebbia is back to full health and with two season-ending injuries already they’re planning on the possibility that Gulbranson becomes the primary backup to Nolan. The only other guys in the room will be walk-on redshirt freshman #14 QB Blair, mid 3-star recruit Travis Throckmorton arriving in the Fall, and in a pinch #12 ILB Colletto who played QB in 2018 and the last three years been their wildcat runner with the occasional surprise pass. I think the depth here is problematic and any unavailability for Nolan would spell a big production problem for the Beavs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Oregon State at Washington State Photo by Robert Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The running backs lose BJ Baylor to the Packers; he rushed for over 1,300 yards last year and led the Pac-12. A couple of high 3-stars who were intriguing prospects but never played have transferred out, Damir Collins and Ta’Ron Madison.

For all that talent loss, the Beavs’ running back unit still looks pretty strong to me, although it’s not obvious how they’ll sort it out and it should be an interesting Fall camp battle. They return two guys who’d previously transferred in from Power-5 programs, #5 RB Fenwick from South Carolina who was the second-leading rusher, and #21 RB Lowe from Washington who was the third-leading rusher but passed Fenwick in total yards due to a lot of catches out of the backfield (UW had converted him to a wideout but he went back to his HS position with OSU). They also return #25 RB Newell who got a couple carries last year, plus three walk-ons.

OSU added two new players in 2022: true freshman mid 3-star #6 RB Martinez this Spring and Georgia Tech transfer 2019 low 4-star Jamious Griffin in the Fall. Martinez played with the number one offense in the Spring game and looked good enough to challenge for the starting position. Griffin had a promising start to his career in Atlanta but fell behind several very good backs in 2021 and decided to transfer out after he got practically no playing time.

I could see any of those top four becoming the new primary back, or any combination becoming a two- or three-back rotation, although past history indicates Smith probably won’t go to four. At any rate, they’ve got plenty of depth and it’s almost impossible to believe — given the Beavs’ track record and reliance on a dominant run game — that they won’t be able to find the next high quality ballcarrier among them. Travis says that this is one of a couple units on the team that he just doesn’t worry about under Smith, and I think he’s right.

I think the tight end unit is the most interesting on the entire team because it might indicate some forthcoming structural changes to the offense, something Smith hinted at in a recent interview and that Travis and I discussed extensively on the podcast.

Last year, OSU used 12- and 13-personnel sets extensively – the top two were Teagan Quitoriano who was drafted by the Texans and #88 TE Musgrave (of the Ducks’ football family) who returns; both were great receiving options. When they put in a third it was returner #81 TE Overman, but he was used exclusively as a blocker and I don’t believe he got a single target in 2021.

In my in-season preview of the Beavs last year, I noted that their offensive stumbling block was that when they switched to their spread formation out of the shotgun (which they did on 3rd downs or whenever they fell behind the chains) they’d split out the tight ends and the lack of blocking help contributed to lower than expected per-play efficiency.

So I expect to see OSU continue with their 12-personnel sets, but there are two open questions here: first if Overman will be able to replace Quitoriano’s receiving threat, and second if they have another viable blocker for 13-pers sets or if a starter becomes unavailable. Given Overman’s lack of a track record and the fact that the rest of the room is five undersized 2021 recruits (of whom three are walk-ons) that they were trying out in the Spring game, my guess is that the answer to both is no.

If I’m right about this situation, then we may see more 11-pers, spread formations, and opportunities for the wideouts than last year. That could lead to increased production, because I thought OSU’s offense got pretty conservative and predictable by the end of the year, and the defenses in their final two games against Oregon and Utah St definitely took advantage. But on the other hand, it might lead to a falloff instead if that extra blocking turns out to be sorely missed. There’s a real tradeoff to be carefully balanced here and we don’t know the values that Smith is working with yet.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 18 Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl - Oregon State v Utah State Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Beavs are losing their top receiver in longtime starter Trevon Bradford, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Chargers. They return the second leading receiver in #0 WR Harrison, a 4-star transfer from Florida St who’s been with OSU for the past two seasons.

In 2021 there was basically a seven-way tie for the third place shared among four wide receivers, two tight ends, and a running back. Of them, wideouts Zeriah Beason and Champ Flemings have transferred out while former 4-star Nebraska transfer #1 WR Lindsey and low 3-star 2019 recruit #15 WR Gould return, and we’ve already covered the TEs and RBs. This means they are returning less than half of their total receiving yards and their wideout-specific receiving yards.

It would be easy to pencil in Harrison, Lindsey, and Gould as the new starters and expect the lion’s share of the targets to go to them, since they’re the top returners and they were running with the ones in the Spring game. But I think there may be more going on here, or at least Smith should be considering it. The departures of Bradford and Beason are significant because they were the taller outside receivers, and since this was usually a 12-personnel offense they were using outside guys on nearly every snap whereas the shorter inside receivers would only come in for their spread formation reps.

Harrison is 6’1” and I’m sure he’s got a spot, but Lindsey and Gould (as well as returning backups #22 WR Bolden and #13 WR Irish) are all several inches under six foot and look like inside receivers to me. Unless there are truly significant changes to this offense, I don’t think they have enough playing time to go around for that many short wideouts plus multiple tight ends.

I suspect that a couple of 6’2” former 4-stars will jump the queue, #14 WR Dunmore and #9 WR Tongue. They had previously transferred in from Penn St and Georgia, respectively, but got basically no playing time last year. The fact that the ball got distributed around so much in 2021, and the general lack of explosive passing plays, leads me to think there’s some disatisfaction with the returners and I’ll be watching in Fall to see if they shake up this unit with longer and more athletically gifted options. When I brought this up with Travis on the podcast, he too was stumped why Dunmore and Tongue hadn’t played more, and we discussed the possibilities that either those guys aren’t going to live up to billing or that Nolan can’t take advantage of them with his limited downfield game.

The offensive line loses starting center Nathan Eldridge and right guard Nous Keonounnam. They return starters #67 LT Gray, #70 LG Levengood, and #68 RT Kipper, as well as a pair of backups who played substantial minutes in injury relief, #60 LG Brewer and #75 RT Fuaga.

Based on the Spring game, those five returners should form the new starting lineup, with Levengood sliding to center, Kipper moving inside to right guard, and Brewer and Fuaga becoming the full-timers. I think it should be a pretty effective line once again, as I believe OL coach Michalczik is the best in the Pac-12 and his track record once he has veterans with several years in the system apiece is excellent.

There are a few caveats, however. First, while this team gets the absolute most out of them, all of these guys were pretty modestly rated out of high school and I think their athletic ceilings are limited – we saw them get beat repeatedly going up against top d-lines or just really quick ones like Wazzu and Utah St, and film study revealed that their effectiveness dropped noticeably when they didn’t have tight end blocking help. Second, the position moves always constitute a risk – we don’t know how well Levengood will take to a center’s many duties or how Kipper will take to playing inside, and we don’t have a lot of film on the 335 lbs Fuaga winning against edge rushers with a quick first step.

The third issue is that the backups are totally unknown and inexperienced. Several guys who I might have penciled in had I seen them in the Spring game were being held out with injuries like #58 OL Bloomfield and #55 OL White, and I think several more because I didn’t see a lot of scholarship linemen in Spring at all. What I saw instead with the twos and threes was #71 LT Spencer who’s a converted TE and still at least 35 lbs undersized, five different walk-ons, a new FCS transfer #54 OL McHarg, and a true freshman #57 OL Lopez. That’s pretty dangerous territory since every year in Smith’s tenure they’ve unfortunately had to turn to multiple backups at the o-line, and the options here are extremely green.

Oregon State v Oregon Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images


Defense

OSU finished ranked 91st in defensive F+ last season, which was actually their best performance since 2016. Still, it was quite a contrast to the offense and probably a big reason why Tim Tibesar, the coordinator Smith brought in with him in 2018, was let go after the ninth game of the season (an overtime loss to Colorado). New fulltime DC Bray was the linebackers coach at the time and was promoted to interim DC, then Smith made it official just before the bowl game.

We therefore have four 2021 games’ worth of data, plus the Spring game, on Bray as a DC. I’ve charted each of them, and while certain credulous media members have called Bray’s style “more aggressive and daring” than Tibesar’s, film study provides no evidence for this conclusion. Their structures of both the front and the secondary are identical, and they have exactly the same correlations between offensive formation, down & distance, and field position, with the defensive choices of box count, man vs zone coverage, and blitz patterns. Bray got in two good games against ASU and Stanford, two teams that had clearly packed it in for the season, before decisive losses to Oregon and Utah St. The Spring game showed exactly the personnel and formational choices as I would have expected had Tibesar been retained.

Travis and I have had two chances to discuss this and in my opinion, there are two primary reasons for the Beavs’ struggles on defense, and neither have much to do with the DC or playcalling. The first is simply the overall talent level, which is pretty modest for the entire team but even lower for the defense than it is for the offense. It’s a truism in the advanced stats community that defensive performance tracks much more closely with talent level than offensive performance does, because the offense has a lot more tools to proactively scheme around talent deficiencies while the defense is reactive and mostly has to rely on their fundamental training and natural aptitude. I think OSU is a perfect demonstration of the principle.

The second reason has to do with the defensive line, and it’s same thing I’ve written about repeatedly with Stanford and Cal as well over the years: a 3-4 structure without a nose tackle just doesn’t work. If you’ve run out of bodies to be the big two-gapper you need in the middle, then you’re forced to play your 2-4-5 structure (that you’d normally reserve just for 3rd & long passing situations) on every snap. That means either getting run all over, or devoting the inside backers and/or safeties to be full-time run stoppers and now you’re giving up intermediate passes all day. Either way, you’re halfway to a loss before the opening kickoff.

Last season, OSU got quite a shock when both their projected nose tackles, Jordan Whittley and Evan Bennett, transferred out before the season. At the last minute they converted a 365 lbs offensive lineman to the defense, #76 DL Sio, but he played only a few reps last year, and while he apparently had a good Spring practice he was held out of the Spring game. The two guys I saw when they played a third linemen were both walk-ons, Alexander Skelton who has since transferred out and #98 DL Anderson who returns. But 3-down reps were fairly rare and mostly reserved for when the offense brought out a heavy package in obvious run situations, on standard downs they were just playing a 2-down.

In 2022, the clearest candidates to be that regular nose tackle and get them back to the 3-4 this structure wants to be are Sio, Anderson, and mid 3-star Juco #94 DL Shippen (who like the other two only got a handful of reps last year). Another possibility is moving #52 DL Rawls or #96 DL Sandberg over to nose – those guys are both getting pretty big as upperclassmen, over 290 lbs now, but have been playing 4-tech for their entire careers in regular rotation.

I’m not sure if they’ll be able to do that though, because they’re starting to bump up against depth issues in the rest of the d-line unit. In addition to Skelton they lost Keonte Schad, the high 3-star who transferred in from Minnesota last year and immediately took over the line, posting twice as many tackles as anyone else and is now with the Cardinals. It’s also unknown if #99 DL Hodgins, their most experienced career lineman, will be able to play – he’s now undergone two surgeries on his foot and sat out all of last season plus the Spring game. The only other returner with some experience is #90 DL Lolohea, who only played in four games last year and spent a good chunk of them moonlighting as an outside backer, especially in the bowl game. The rest of the room is just #77 DL Fa’amoe, a low 3-star redshirt freshman, #89 DL Briski, an undersized walk-on I saw late in the Spring game, and a couple of recruits arriving in the Fall who won’t be at playing weight.

If everyone makes it to the Fall season healthy and playable, I would project Sio at nose with Anderson and Shippen behind him, and a four-man rotation of Hodgins, Lolohea, Rawls, and Sandberg at the other two spots in a 3-down front. That would not be the biggest, most talented, or most experienced defensive line in the conference, but it would be adequate to get back to what this defensive structure is supposed to be and I think it’d significantly improve their defensive performance over last year by fixing the biggest single hole they had. However, we don’t know what a lot of those guys’ health or readiness is actually going to be right now, and the depth at this unit is precarious enough that a single bad piece of news could knock things down considerably.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Oregon State at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Beavs lose their most productive and longest tenured starter at outside backer, Andrzej Hughes-Murray, who signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Rams. They’ve also lost Addison Gumbs, a former 4-star transfer from Oklahoma who looked great in very limited action but was never healthy.

They return the other longtime starter, #56 OLB Sharp, though he was held out of the Spring game. There are four other returners who played backup last year: #45 OLB Saluni and #82 OLB Stover got most of those reps, and #29 OLB Brownholtz and #9 OLB Franke appeared to be third-stringers. Sharp is a fine player but I’m not wild about the rest of those guys; I thought it was telling both that Saluni as a low 3-star true freshman in 2021 jumped the other three who were 2019 recruits, and that the d-lineman Lolohea moved over and was playing ahead of all of them in the bowl game.

There are one or two 2022 recruits who might wind up as OLBs but weren’t on campus for Spring, but in a sense they’re getting two more new guys in #6 OLB McCartan and #10 OLB Chatfield. McCartan looks to be fully back from a hamstring injury (he’d last seriously played in 2019) and was playing with the ones in the Spring game; the 4-star Chatfield transferred from Florida midseason and is now available after having to sit out (he’d only played a handful of reps in three years in Gainesville).

My guess is that Sharp and McCartan get the starting spots as the most experienced players, with Chatfield and Stover as the primary backups and the other three scholarship returners plus walk-on #42 OLB Parrella as depth. This unit looks fine to me and should be able to handle an unavailability or two, but unless Chatfield really lives up to billing or one of the true freshmen comes out of nowhere in Fall, it’s hard to believe they’ll exceed last year’s performance and they may even take a step back without Hughes-Murray’s steady production. I don’t think this unit was really the problem last year and I don’t think it’ll be a problem in 2022 either, but as Travis said on the podcast this is a unit he doesn’t worry about but it’s unlikely there are any gamebreakers here.

OSU lost one of its two longtime starting inside backers, Avery Roberts, to the Seahawks – he led the conference last year in tackles. They’ve also lost Junior Walling, a mid 3-star freshman who played in the Spring game but subsequently transferred out.

They return the other starter, #36 ILB Speights. They’ve also been rotating in the backups consistently at this position (good roster planning like this is one of the many reasons I like Smith as a head coach), so #10 ILB Fisher-Morris should be ready to step right in for Speights, and they’ll have fairly experienced guys behind them in Colletto and #55 ILB Mascarenas-Arnold. There are two more scholarship inside backers behind them — though without any real experience — in #40 ILB Erhart and #20 ILB J. Miller, plus walk-on #41 ILB Allen I saw in the Spring game and a couple true freshman joining in the Fall.

On the podcast Travis indicated that Speights will probably declare for the NFL draft a year early as Roberts did. If that looks to be the case, I would think that this coaching staff will rotate the backups in a bit more in 2022 than they would otherwise to get them some more experience for 2023 – we’ve seen that pattern at a lot of units for the Beavs over the years but especially the linebackers.

Like the outside backers, I think this unit will be fine and has adequate depth, but it’s probably going to perform just at the same level or a step behind last year’s due to the loss of so much production and experience from Roberts. The only real possibility for significant improvement here isn’t in their control, it’s if the defensive line can get back to playing a 3-down front so that the ILBs are freed up to play the pass more, since athletically they have a real tough time reversing to deal with play-action.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Oregon State at Washington Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The secondary doesn’t have any significant departures. Safeties Jojo Forest and Arnez Madison have transferred out – Forest left late last September after not playing since 2019, while Madison left after the Spring game and has never played. Cornerback Elijah Jones’ career has stumped me – he was Kansas’ starter in 2020, transferred to OSU but barely played last year, and still got a UDFA contract with the Seahawks.

Everybody else returns, and that kind of stability must be welcome since in the previous two offseasons they’d cycled out a huge number of players. That said, this was a fairly low talent group of defensive backs and shot through with walk-ons - other than the d-line personnel issues, this group was probably the major reason the defense has performed so poorly over the years.

The corners return starters #1 CB R. Wright (he had replaced his brother Nahshon, who was drafted by the Cowboys last year) and #5 CB Austin, plus the primary backup #21 CB Hardge. Wright is a long rangy corner who shows real flashes of athletic talent when he can avoid getting flagged for being grabby, which unfortunately is not real often, and he was held out of the Spring practices with an injury. I’m not thrilled with the rest of the cornerbacks and there’s no real talent or experience in the backups – three of the four I saw in the Spring game were walk-ons and one of those, #19 CB S. Thomas, was the only one who got even a handful of reps last year while low 3-star redshirt junior #4 CB Robinson was limited with an injury. When mid 3-star 2022 recruit Noble Thomas joins in the Fall he’ll be one of only five scholarship corners on the roster. I don’t think this is a great unit to begin with, and a single injury to a starter could be disastrous.

The safeties started two walk-ons last year, #3 DB Grant and #28 DB Oladapo, and that fact says a lot about the rest of the unit. The third starting safety in their predominantly 2-4-5 scheme was mid 3-star Juco #7 DB Julian, who was a pretty good tackler against the run (and they needed him to be given the aforementioned d-line dilemma) though I wasn’t too impressed with his pass coverage. Julian sustained a season-ending knee injury in their seventh game and he wasn’t back for Spring. He was replaced by #0 DB Arnold, who returns as does the rest of this unit.

Grant was also held out of Spring practices with an injury, so we got to see a lot of the backups in the Spring game … it was quite an adventure. There are only two other scholarship returners, #17 DB Riley and #22 DB Russell; neither played last year and they were behind four walk-ons and a new Juco in the Spring game. That Juco, low 3-star #26 DB Cooper, was the nickelback with the ones and I suspect will be a primary backup in the Fall or even challenge for a starting job given the overall poor talent here. Julian’s status is still uncertain, and the last two safeties from the 2022 class haven’t arrived yet.

There will be just seven safeties who came in on scholarship to fill three spots in a nickel defense, only two of whom have played for the Beavs before and only one of those is currently healthy. On paper there are 13 guys in the room; in practice the playable depth here is extremely thin and I expect pass coverage issues to persist regardless of what happens with the rest of the defense.


Accountability Corner

In last year’s preview I spent a lot of time discussing the quarterback competition. While I can’t say that I nailed exactly what would happen, I did accurately predict that the job wouldn’t just automatically be Gebbia’s even though he was the 2020 game 1 starter, that Nolan was probably their best option even with Noyer transferring in, and it was worth discussing all the options because it could get complicated, and all those things came to pass. I thought the running backs would do well despite the loss of Jermar Jefferson and Art Pierce the year before, and I did nail that one as Baylor was the league’s leading rusher. I got the starting tight ends right, which was easy, but I also predicted the depth issues which I think will lead to meaningful structural changes this year, which I suspect will surprise some observers. The wide receivers played out exactly as predicted with the exception of not really playing Dunmore and Tongue, something that’s still a puzzle. I got the offensive line perfectly, including the prediction that they could take up to two injuries and still be extremely productive which is precisely what happened.

I predicted the Beavs would take a step back on defense and they certainly did, including firing their DC. I thought the primary reason was the loss of both nose tackles and that they were likely not going to be able to replace them and therefore would have to go to a 2-4 that couldn’t stop the run, and that’s just what they did. I also thought the Minnesota transfer Schad would shoot to the top of the lineup and he did, but also that his experience was at 3-tech (I even included some film of him with the Gophers) and he wouldn’t be able to solve their nose problem. The rest of the positions, linebackers and defensive backs, were fairly easy to predict though I feel silly for spending so much time talking about Gumbs considering he never played.

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