CORVALLIS – Gary Andersen isn’t the kind of coach who makes predictions.
But midway through preseason football camp, the Beavers’ third-year head football coach said this is the best he's felt about an Oregon State team since he arrived in Corvallis.
OSU was 2-10 in Andersen's first year, failing to win a Pac-12 game. Last season the Beavers improved to 4-8 and won three conference games including the season-ending 34-24 victory over Oregon, snapping an eight-game Civil War losing streak.
“We have a long ways to go and a lot of work to do, but I think they’re playing with a lot of want to and care factor throughout camp and they’re handling camp very well to this point.” Andersen said.
It didn’t take Andersen long to resolve the quarterback situation.
Jake Luton, a junior transfer from Ventura Community College who began his college career at Idaho, was named the starter last week. He is expected to take the first snaps in the Aug. 26 season opener at Colorado State. Senior Darell Garretson will be the backup with sophomore Conor Blount No. 3 on the depth chart.
Marcus McMaryion, a junior who started the last six games of 2016 after Garretson suffered a broken ankle at midseason, is transferring to Fresno State after losing the starting job.
In last Saturday’s scrimmage in Bend, Luton completed 10 of 15 passes for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
The 6-foot-7, 234-pound Luton has a strong arm and gives OSU a deep passing threat that it has lacked since the departure of Sean Mannion following the 2014 campaign.
“Jake’s done a good job in the quarterback race,” Andersen said, adding that Garretson is healthy and “battling like crazy.”
Luton, who passed for 3,551 yards and 40 touchdowns last season at Ventura, participated in spring practice but wasn’t 100 percent physically due to a stomach ailment. He’s now healthy and continues to make progress in offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven’s scheme.
Developing chemistry with the receivers will be key. Senior Jordan Villamin, true freshman Isaiah Hodgins and junior Seth Collins are slated to be the starting wideouts with sophomore Noah Togiai at tight end.
“On offense we need to be explosive,” Andersen said. “In this league, if you’re not explosive then you’ve got some real problems.”
OSU will also have a new starter at center, where junior Sumner Houston replaces Gavin Andrews, one of three starters gone from last season’s offensive line along with tackle Sean Harlow and guard Dustin Stanton.
Houston is making the transition to center after starting eight games last season at defensive tackle.
“He’s doing a nice job. Every day is so important to him,” Andersen said.
Defensively, the Beavers need to improve a run defense that ranked 10th in the Pac-12, allowing 218 yards per game. Senior middle linebacker Manase Hungalu is the anchor of a unit that returns six starters.
“Until we show that we can consistently (stop the run) teams are gonna try and pound us,” Andersen said. “It’s gonna be no different in the Colorado State game.”
Running back depth: The Beavers are loaded at running back led by junior Ryan Nall, who ran for a team-high 951 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 13 TDs last season. Sophomore Artavis Pierce (523 yards, four TDs) is joined by two graduate transfers – Thomas Tyner (Oregon) and Trevorris Johnson (TCU).
Tyner, who medically retired from football in February of 2016 due to shoulder injuries, is working himself back into football shape. Listed at 5-11 and 232 pounds on OSU's roster, Tyner is about 15 to 20 pounds heavier than his playing weight at Oregon. He ran for 54 yards on eight carries in the first scrimmage.
Andersen said “there’s absolutely no question” that this is the most talent and depth he’s had at running back in his OSU tenure.
“They’re competitive. They want the ball,” Andersen said. “It’s a good problem to have when you sit back and say, ‘how are you gonna get these running backs touches when they have the opportunities?’ We’ll work on that.”
Evans not in camp: Craig Evans, a junior defensive tackle from Arizona Western Community College who was expected to compete for playing time immediately, is currently not enrolled in school. He played one season at Michigan State and earned Big Ten All-Freshman honors.
“Hopefully one day he’ll be out here,” Andersen said. “We’ll see how it goes.”
True freshmen stepping up: In addition to Hodgins at wide receiver, Andersen said other true freshmen likely to be on the travel squad for the season opener include linebacker Kesi Ah-Hoy, cornerback Isaiah Dunn, safety David Morris (Sherwood, Oregon) and running back Calvin Tyler.
Position change: Redshirt freshman Mason Moran has moved from quarterback to safety. Moran was an all-state safety at Chandler (Arizona) High School before moving to quarterback his senior year.
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com, or Twitter.com/ghorowitz
OSU football at a glance
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
Scrimmage/Family Fun Day: Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Reser Stadium. Admission is free. The Terrace will open at 11 a.m. with the 90-minute scrimmage expected to begin at noon.
Season opener: 11:30 p.m. Aug. 26 at Colorado State, CBS Sports Network
© 2017 KGW-TV