CORVALLIS -- It's time to start thinking about Sean Mannion in a historical perspective. First, however, let's think about his last two weeks.
Mannion was one of six of college football's top returning quarterbacks to attend The Opening in Beaverton, Ore., where each served as camp counselors for the prestigious Elite 11 competition Mannion joined by Notre Dame's Everett Golson, Texas Tech's Davis Webb, Baylor's Bryce Petty, Michigan State's Connor Cook and Utah's Travis Wilson.
Mannion didn't disappoint, first outdueling his cohorts in some mean, cruel, tasking, hour-long competition involving cones, coaches, a soccer goal and a running game clock otherwise known as the Elite 11 counselor challenge and, a day later, mailing deep hurls along each sideline to star-struck future collegians.
He then hopped on a plane, flew to Louisiana and won the Manning Passing Academy Air-It-Out Challenge, again rolling past some of college football's most decorated quarterbacks and not just winning, in fact, but decimating the competition.
So what you're seeing is the expansion of Mannion's reach which is fitting, because his frame, size and length are among the qualities that have NFL scouts and executives drooling over the senior's potential.
The Pac-12 knows all about Mannion, of course. He enters 2014 just 1,839 yards behind Matt Barkley for the most career passing yards in league history; Mannion could get there by October. He has the most career passing yards and highest career completion percentage for those with more than 1,000 attempts of any returning Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback in the country.
He'll end this season close to the top five in career touchdowns. He'll again charge at the league's single-season record for touchdowns, falling just two shy of the mark a year ago; he did, however, set the single-season mark for passing yards.
This could be the year of Sean Mannion not just in Corvallis, not just in Oregon, but across the entire country. The NFL awaits, impatiently; he'll be there soon, but not quite yet.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The talent and coaching, of course also stand in the Beavers' corner. I'm simply a little worried about the lack of depth on offense and holes on defense. Of course, OSU always outplays its preseason expectations.
In a nutshell: I'd call it frustrating. Oregon State lost to Eastern Washington. The Beavers then rolled off six wins in a row. OSU then dropped five in a row, capped by yet another Civil War defeat to the Ducks. But then came the postseason, when the Beavers played efficiently and effectively in dissecting Boise State. Frustrating: OSU was bad, good, bad and then good again. What was consistently superb was this Mannion-led passing game, which set school records across the board and a league record or two while doing all of the offense's heavy lifting. That leaves the defense as the primary culprit for the Beavers' inconsistencies: OSU's group allowed yards in bunches through the air and yards in chunks on the ground, which might explain why even a team with this sort of offense had as many losses as wins heading into the postseason.
High point: The six-game winning streak. The Beavers beat a pair of bowl teams, San Diego State and Washington State, and handed Utah an overtime loss from which the Utes would never fully recover.
Low point: The five-game losing streak. Another loss to Oregon; that makes six in a row.
Tidbit: Oregon State's coaching staff holds a combined 60 years of NFL experience, if that means anything. There's Riley himself, who sandwiched two years with the San Diego Chargers between his stints with the Beavers. The rest: Mike Cavanaugh and Chris Brasfield have two years of experience, Mark Banker three, Bruce Read seven, new offensive coordinator John Garrett 19 and Rod Perry 23.
Tidbit (tenure edition): Riley, who was hired on Feb. 19, 2003, is the eighth-longest-tenured coach in the FBS. He trails Frank Beamer (December 1986), Larry Blakeney (December 1990), Bob Stoops (December 1998), Gary Pinkel (November 2000), Gary Patterson (Dec. 8, 2000) and Mark Richt (Dec. 26, 2000). In a sense, Riley is third on this list: OSU first hired him in 1997, though he did take that two-year NFL sabbatical before returning to the sidelines
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: There's not much left to be said of Mannion, who enters his final season not only within striking distance of several conference records but with a very realistic shot of becoming one of the top two or three quarterbacks in next year's draft class. The NFL has to like what it sees: Mannion has always been a steadying presence he's cool, calm and collected but he's started to develop a clear and evident sense of confidence, thanks in large part to last season's success. He's the linchpin; OSU might be changing its cast at receiver, but Mannion will again control the effectiveness of the offense. There's no reason to think he won't fulfill these fairly substantial preseason expectations.
He does need a little help at receiver, however. Brandin Cooks is gone, riding off after one of the most productive receiving seasons in FBS history, and OSU must land a step forward from its returning cast to replace Cooks' substantial impact. In terms of receptions, Cooks' most obvious replacement is junior Richard Mullaney (52 receptions for 788 yards), last year's secondary target. But the spotlight shines brightest on sophomore Victor Bolden a ridiculously talented athlete praised again and again by Mannion last week during his stint at Nike. Bolden will step in at flanker, replacing Cooks; Mullaney won't shift roles, which will help his consistency, while sophomore Malik Gilmore will take over in the slot. Depth is a major issue, seeing that there's no experienced tools on the second tier, but OSU will get major production from tight ends Connor Hamlett (40 for 364) and Caleb Smith (25 for 343).
The Beavers do split carries between senior Terron Ward (521 yards) and junior Storm Woods (477 yards), but Ward's the starter technically, if that even matters. He's probably the best every-down option, as shown against Oregon, and seems to grow stronger and more productive as a runner during the second half. That OSU does return both of last year's leading rushers spells small roles for sophomore Chris Brown and redshirt freshman Damien Haskins, though that doesn't lessen their importance: one, Ward or Woods could always miss time due to injury, and two, either Brown or Haskins could eventually carve out a spot in a change-of-pace role.
Defense: The offense's biggest issue is an unknown front; this concern is echoed on defense, where the Beavers' front four stands as the unit's question mark. There's just one returning starter: Dylan Wynn (67 tackles) is back at end, where his strength against the run is an asset on the right side of the line but he's not a disruptive presence in the backfield. That's one of the Beavers' red flags, actually, because even if junior Jashwa James had a strong spring, there's going to be a decline in pass-rush effectiveness without Scott Crichton on the edge. The interior might be an even greater concern; Kyle Peko might not make it on campus, which would be unfortunate, and while massive, senior Siale Hautau can't be viewed as anything but an occasional weapon. What this group needs: one, James to deliver on third down; two, Titus Failauga and Lavonte Barnett to lend a hand at end; three, Jalen Grimble to play up to his potential at tackle; and four, the reserve interior Bud Delva, Noke Tago, Brandon Bennett-Jackson to provide ample support to buttress the rotation. I'm just not confident. I'd understand if you don't, well, understand.
One thing the Beavers' interior does have is size, however, a quality that should be of substantial benefit to this solid second level. It remains intact, the mirror image of the front: OSU brings back senior Michael Doctor from injury, and he'll be back to his old tricks on the weak side; senior D.J. Alexander returns on the strong side, where he flashed some rowdiness when in the lineup last fall; and OSU has two options in the middle, where senior Jabral Johnson (94 tackles) and sophomore Rommel Mageo should battle for snaps. Depth is good, especially with one of the latter pair playing backup in the middle and sophomores Darrell Songy and Caleb Saulo back on the outside. It's a top-half group in the Pac-12.
The secondary is likewise a top-half grouping, if not among the league's top four. Rashaad Reynolds is gone, true, and that loss hurts. But there's another stopper waiting in the wings: Stephen Nelson (62 tackles, 6 interceptions) is ready for the big stage, ready to line up against the Pac-12's best and ready to assert himself as a first-team all-conference pick. He's one of three returning starters, joining safeties Tyrequek Zimmerman (104 tackles) and Ryan Murphy (74 tackles, 8.0 for loss), so OSU's secondary would seem stronger even without Reynolds should redshirt freshman Dashon Hunt deliver on the outside. Can he? Well, don't question the talent; question the experience instead, and question how frequently Hunt will be tested by opposing quarterbacks and the answer, by the way, is early and often. If Hunt falters, look for Riley and Banker to quickly pull the plug and insert Larry Scott.
Special teams: The Beavers could stand an upgraded kicking game, which might explain why senior Trevor Romaine has his hands or feet, I guess full with redshirt freshman Garrett Owens. Punter Keith Kostol is better than last season indicated, so look for him to bounce back as a senior. But what makes OSU's special teams dangerous are the return teams: Bolden has all-league potential on kickoffs, for one, and if Cooks is irreplaceable at receiver he won't be missed greatly on punts.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The line was a mess by the end of spring drills, Riley said, and it's hard to find the positives in such a statement even if Riley is and forever will be one of the sunniest coaches in college football. The first issue: Oregon State's down three starters from a year ago. The second issues: Isaac Seumalo, one of the two returning starters, and Josh Mitchell, a projected starter at guard, missed time during the spring due to injury. The third issue: JUCO transfer Bobby Keenan, signed to immediately fill a void, does not look like the answer at left tackle. Keenan's inability to secure the blind side has left OSU looking at a pair of converted tight ends, redshirt freshman Will Hopkins and sophomore Dustin Stanton, with Hopkins the likely starter
That's not good not that this even needs to be said. Essentially, the Beavers could end up protecting a superb quarterback with a converted tight end, and not just a converted tight end but a redshirt freshman converted tight end. At least the line seems more secure elsewhere: Seumalo is going to a good one at center, sophomores Sean Harlow and Grant Bays have potential at guard, though it's largely untapped, and junior Gavin Andrews has the size to control the run-game edge on the strong side. Just so we're clear, however: OSU may start a redshirt freshman, two sophomores and two juniors. Riley and his staff must at least consider moving Seumalo to left tackle, moving Bays to center and pushing Mitchell into the lineup at guard.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Oregon: The Beavers need to end this losing streak. Though that one comes at home, the Beavers head on the road for matchups against USC, Stanford and Washington. OSU again draws San Diego State, which will be a handful, and cannot afford to slip up against Colorado, Utah, California and Washington State.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: This a team with two major flaws: one the offensive line, the other the defensive line. What should we make of a team with no other substantial concerns not perfect across the board, though strong in several areas except how it fares along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball? It's a confusing and troubling set of circumstances: Oregon State would be a sneaky contender if just one of the two lines cooperate, but each unit contains far too many question marks to hop fully on board the Beavers' bandwagon. I'm tempted; I'm always tempted.
It's easy to find the bright spots. Mannion is terrific: OSU has one of the top quarterbacks in college football and, when all is said and done, one of the most productive quarterbacks in conference history. The backfield is stronger than a season ago. The linebacker corps is a clear strength. The secondary is one cornerback away from taking a step forward. The receiver corps is unsteady as of today but promising, particularly if Bolden lives up to expectations. All told, the skill players are in place for continued success. I could even see the defense surviving without a rock-solid front four, but only if the ends bring heat off the edges. Basically, though both lines trouble me, I can be convinced that the Beavers' issues with the defensive front are survivable.
I'm doom and gloom, but there are reasons for optimism. The schedule isn't overly difficult, all things considered: OSU does draw USC and Arizona State from the South while pulling the normal divisional slate, but there are several winnable games in bunches meaning the Beavers have multiple opportunities to develop some rhythm. There's some solid senior leadership and experience on both sides of the ball, particularly in the backfield and the back seven. Then there's the coaching staff, which has earned our utmost respect. Coming in under the radar, behind the eight ball, out of the picture? That's nothing new. This is obviously a bowl team, at the very base level, and would be much more if the staff can solve the issues plaguing both lines.
Dream season: The Beavers go 10-2, losing to USC and Stanford but taking the division with a season-ending rivalry win against Oregon by 24 points, let's say.
Nightmare season: Oregon State drops out of the bowl picture as a result of a 3-6 record in Pac-12 play.