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June 26, 2008
THE SCHEME: Oregon State relied on workhorse back Yvenson Bernard to grind out yards out of a one-back set over the past three years. That should continue with bruiser Ryan McCants. The Beavers also will line up with three wide receivers or – in an attempt to pound the ball – two tight ends. Look for the passing game to open up a bit with the return of deep threat Sammie Stroughter.
STAR POWER: Perhaps no one was happier to see 2007 end than Stroughter. After amassing 1,293 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2006, Stroughter missed much of fall camp and last season's opener because of personal issues. Strougher then missed the final nine games with a lacerated kidney. He received a redshirt season and will make 2008 his swan song instead.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Oregon State has fielded a 1,000-yard rusher in eight of the past 10 seasons. The next back in line is McCants, a redshirt freshman who has been called a smaller version of Steven Jackson. That sets the bar awfully high, but the Beavers have a track record of churning out productive running backs.
IT'S HIS TIME: Either Lyle Moevao or Sean Canfield belongs in this spot, depending on which junior wins the quarterback competition. Quarterback play was a major weakness early last season, and the duo combined for 21 interceptions and just 11 touchdowns. Canfield was sidelined by a shoulder injury late in the season, and the competition will re-start in fall camp with Moevao in the driver's seat.
STRONGEST AREA: Sophomore Darrell Catchings is the leading returning receiver with 33 catches, 386 yards and a touchdown. The numbers are deceiving, though. Stroughter is an All-Pac-10 receiver when healthy, and sophomore James Rodgers was much more dangerous as a running threat last season. Rodgers made the "fly sweep" a regular part of the offense after rushing for 586 yards and three touchdowns. Tight ends Howard Croom and Gabe Miller are experienced, with Miller also useful in an H-back role.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Bernard is gone, and there is no running back on the roster who has a carry in a college game. However, there are high expectations at the position. McCants leads the way. Junior college transfer Jeremy Francis is in the mix, and 5-6 true freshman Jacquizz Rodgers (James Rodgers' brother) was one of Oregon State's top recruits.
THE SCHEME: Oregon State runs a 4-3 defense with liberal substitutions along the line.
STAR POWER: Cornerback Brandon Hughes is one of three returning starters in the secondary. He has become a reliable lockdown corner in his three seasons as a starter, and his 12 pass breakups last season were tied for fifth in the Pac-10.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Tackle Stephen Paea, one of two key junior college transfers on the line along with end Simi Kuli, is likely to start following the departure of two starting tackles. Paea is the less-heralded of the two transfers but is more likely to make an immediate impact.
IT'S HIS TIME: End Victor Butler was a third-down specialist last season, when he led Oregon State in sacks with 10.5. Butler will try to prove himself as an every-down lineman in his final season. He's small (6-2/235) but has a quick first step.
STRONGEST AREA: Oregon State will have one of the most experienced secondaries in the league. Three returning starters have started at least 25 games each. Free safety Al Afalava is one of the most feared hitters in the Pac-10. But he will be suspended for the first game after being cited for drunken driving in February. The cornerback tandem of Hughes and Keenan Lewis have started a combined 66 career games.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Beavers led the nation in run defense and finished fourth in sacks last season. Don't expect the same results this season. The entire front seven is new. Tackle Pernnell Booth and ends Butler and Slade Norris were key reserves last season. The Beavers added Kuli and Paea for immediate help. Two of the projected starters at linebacker are upperclassmen, and much is expected of junior Keaton Kristick.
OVERVIEW: Oregon State quietly has been one of the country's better defenses over the past two seasons. Coordinator Mark Banker gets the most out of his talent. Many of the veterans from those two teams are gone, though, and the front seven will have a complete changing of the guard. The secondary should be one of the best in the Pac-10, and coaches are optimistic the new trio of linebackers will be fine. The key is whether the two new tackles can hold up against the run.
For the first time since 2004, Oregon State will not have Alexis Serna. Serna won the 2005 Lou Groza Award as the nation's best kicker and was forced into emergency duty as a punter last season. His replacement, Justin Kahut, kicked field goals of 50 and 55 yards in the spring game. Western New Mexico transfer Sean Sehnem is expected to be the punter. Stroughter will boost the return units; he returned three punts for touchdowns in 2006. James Rodgers returns as the kick-return man.
In the Pac-10, only USC (22-4 overall, 14-4 in the Pac-10) has a better record over the past two seasons than Oregon State (19-8, 12-6). Much of the success could be attributed to veteran-laden lineups. Riley will have a new challenge this season, breaking in a new tailback, deciding on a starting quarterback and remaking the defensive front seven. No coaching staff in the Pac-10, though, has been better at finding and developing unheralded recruits and turning them into Pac-10-caliber performers.
The 2008 schedule could shape up to be the Beavers' worst nightmare. They have started each of the past two seasons 2-3, including one blowout road loss. This season's first five games – at Stanford, at Penn State, Hawaii, USC, at Utah – do no favors for a young team trying to find its way. At least the Beavers get five conference opponents at home. Four of the opponents headed to Corvallis (USC, Arizona State, Cal and Oregon) are expected to finish in the top half of the league.
It looks like a rebuilding season for Oregon State because of so many key departures and the tough early schedule. The defense hopes to reload with a group of experienced backups looking for their time to shine. On offense, quarterback play was inconsistent a year ago, though Stroughter's return should help the passing attack. The key to the season likely will be the development of the tailbacks.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.