CORVALLIS – College football begins anew Tuesday for Oregon State with the opening of preseason practice.
Yes, football in July seems early, but the Beavers will be one of the first teams to take the field in 2017 with an Aug. 26 season opener at Colorado State.
What can Beaver Nation expect from the Beavers, who finished strong last season with wins against Arizona and Oregon? OSU improved from 2-10 with zero Pac-12 wins in 2015 to 4-8 and three conference victories in 2016.
OSU players no longer view themselves as underdogs.
“I think we’re past that,” junior linebacker Bright Ugwoegbu said. “Now we’re a contender, we’re in the fight. We’re here for the top spot.”
While the Beavers have a long way to go to challenge defending Pac-12 champion Washington for the top spot in the North Division, along with perennial contenders Stanford and Oregon, reaching the six-win mark and becoming bowl eligible is a realistic goal. OSU hasn't been to a bowl game since 2013.
To take the next step, OSU will need to do something it has not accomplished in the Gary Andersen era: Win a Pac-12 road game.
And with five of their nine conference games on the road this season, including the season finale Civil War at Oregon, there will be plenty of opportunities for the Beavers to prevail away from the friendly confines of Reser Stadium.
Andersen doesn’t want to set the bar too high or too low, preferring to “let the chips fall where they may and play like crazy every single game.”
Here are some things to focus on entering preseason camp:
Who will be the quarterback when the Beavers open at Colorado State? There is plenty of experience with senior Darell Garretson and junior Marcus McMaryion, each of whom started six games last season. Garretson missed the last six games with an ankle injury and McMaryion took advantage of the opportunity, passing for a team-high 1,286 yards and 10 touchdowns with five interceptions.
The addition of junior college transfer Jake Luton makes this a three-way battle. At 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Luton has the strongest arm of the group and could provide the downfield passing game threat that has been missing since the departure of Sean Mannion.
Former Duck joins the fold
Graduate transfer running back Thomas Tyner, who medically retired in February of 2016 due to shoulder injuries, joins the fold after missing the past two seasons. The former high school All-American from Aloha rushed for 1,284 yards and 12 TDs in two seasons at Oregon.
Tyner’s last appearance came in the College Football Playoff National Championship game against Ohio State on Jan. 12, 2015. It will be interesting to see if he’s in shape and can contribute to an offensive backfield that is an area of strength with junior Ryan Nall (951 yards rushing, 13 TDs in 2016), sophomore Artavis Pierce (523 yards, four TDs) and graduate transfer Trevorris Johnson from TCU.
Will D line step up?
OSU needs to pressure the quarterback, something it did not do on a regular basis last season with just 18 sacks. The run defense is another concern after the Beavers allowed an average of 218 yards on the ground, 10th in the Pac-12.
Senior ends Baker Pritchard and Phillip Napoleon and sophomore tackle Elu Aydon need to step up.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Andersen said. “Quite frankly there’s been some disappointment in the defensive line.”
Big shoes to fill in secondary
Cornerback Treston Decoud (fifth round selection in 2017 NFL Draft, Houston Texans) and safety Devin Chappell (free agent, Kansas City Chiefs) hope to play in the NFL this season and their presence in OSU’s defensive backfield will be missed.
Sophomore cornerback Xavier Crawford (70 tackles, fourth on the team) was a freshman All-American last season, senior safety Brandon Arnold made 11 starts last season, and junior cornerback Dwayne Williams did most of his work as a nickel back.
Keep an eye on redshirt freshman cornerback Christian Wallace, a four-star recruit who will take the field for the first time this season after missing the 2016 campaign due to academics. At 6-1, 215, Wallace is among the bigger corners in the Pac-12.
Another player often mentioned by teammates as a potential breakout player is sophomore corner Jay Irvine, who played in four games last season.
Last chance to shine
After two promising seasons, senior wide receiver Jordan Villamin took a major step backwards last year with just 21 catches for 253 yards and one TD. With the departure of Victor Bolden (undrafted free agent, San Francisco 49ers), Villamin needs to be a primary target. He has the size (6-5, 220) to be a difference maker.
“I wanna finish out strong and show what I can do, and show the world what this team can do,” Villamin said.
Top freshman newcomer
Freshman wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins (6-4, 207) participated in spring practice and showed signs that he’s ready to step in immediately. With the status of junior wideout Seth Collins (missed spring practice due to an illness) uncertain, the Beavers will need contributions from players like Hodgins and sophomore Trevon Bradford, who also could figure prominently on special teams as a punt and kick returner.
Hungalu evokes memories of Linebacker U
There was a time under former OSU coach Mike Riley when "Linebacker U" was a moniker frequently used to describe the Beavers’ linebacker corps.
Senior inside linebacker Manase Hungalu, whose 83 stops was second on the team last season, anchors a strong unit. Ugwoegbu led the team with 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and sophomore Andrzej Hughes-Murraysaw significant playing time as a freshman.
Andersen said he won’t hesitate to utilize more outside linebackers if the D line doesn’t meet his standards.
Junior Sumner Houston is making the switch from defensive line to center and is the frontrunner to replace Gavin Andrews. His ability to handle the change will go a long way in solidifying an offensive line that must replace three starters. Sophomore Blake Brandel has added weight and muscle in the off-season and is expected to play left tackle, a key position in protecting the blind side of whoever emerges as the starting quarterback.
Third year’s a charm?
If the past is prologue in analyzing Andersen’s coaching career, the Beavers will make it to a bowl game. Andersen faced a similar rebuilding project at Utah State; after the Aggies went 4-8 his first two seasons, they were 7-6 in year 3 and played in a bowl game.
As for Year 4 under Andersen? Utah State was 11-2 and finished among the Top 25 in the final rankings.
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com, or Twitter.com/ghorowitz
Coach: Gary Andersen, third season, 6-18 at OSU
2016 record: 4-8, 3-6 Pac-12 (tied for fourth in North Division)
Starters back: Six on offense, six on defense, punter
Aug. 4: 4:30-7:30 p.m., Scrimmage/Fan Fest, Summit High School, Bend
Aug. 12: Noon-3 p.m., Scrimmage/Family Fun Day, Reser Stadium
Season opener: 11:30 a.m. Aug. 26 at Colorado State