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January 10, 2013

10 Questions Heading into 2013

The start of the 2013 college football season is still eight months away. But is it ever too early to look ahead to the upcoming season? No. Here are 10 questions Oregon State must answer before the Beavers face Eastern Washington on August 31 at Reser Stadium:

1. Is it better to have one quarterback or two?: Undoubtedly, you've heard the saying, 'If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one.' Experience teaches us the wisdom of that adage. When the 2012 season started, Mike Riley appeared committed to Sean Mannion as his starting quarterback. But the redshirt sophomore was hurt in win over the Washington State, opening the door for Cody Vaz.

The pendulum swung back and forth the rest of the season depending on the health and/or performance of each signal-caller. Riley began each game hopeful the starter would go the distance, so he appears committed to one quarterback.

It wasn't as if Mannion and Vaz rotated series. At times, each had to step up when the other played poorly or was injured. Vaz started - and struggled - in the Alamo Bowl, completing 15-of-28 passes for 194 yards. Mannion played briefly, but didn't throw a pass.

Clearly, Riley seeks a reliable, established starter, but nothing is given to anybody at this level. Oregon State did set a single season school record with 54 touchdowns scored and averaged 32.5 points per game, so playing two quarterbacks extensively had some benefits.

2. If Mike Riley decides on one quarterback, will it be Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz?: The two quarterbacks have 44 practices (15 in the spring + 29 in preseason camp) between now and the season opener against Eastern Washington to decide the issue. Richie Harrington, a rising redshirt sophomore from Westlake Village, Calif., and Brent VanderVeen could get involved in the race as well if neither Mannion or Vaz impress Riley.

Mannion finished with a higher completion percentage than Vaz (64.7 to 58.9 percent), but tossed four times more interceptions (13 to 3) despite attempting just 40.1 percent more passes (309 to 185), so he proved to be more mistake-prone than Vaz. As a result, Vaz had a higher efficiency rating (142.50 vs. 138.82), but he was intercepted twice in the Alamo Bowl, the first time on a screen pass that sailed directly into the defender's arms.

The best case scenario says Riley will decide on a quarterback when spring practice concludes, but the race is so tight right now that it might be too close to call until sometime in August when a higher percentage of precincts (translation: practice time) are reporting. The biggest difference between the two quarterbacks? Height. Mannion, who stands about 6-foot-5. is a standard Riley quarterback, while Vaz is several inches shorter.

f3. Where must the Beavers improve the most on offense?: Clearly, the Oregon State offensive line must get bigger, stronger and more agile in dealing with the fast and athletic defensive fronts that are becoming more and more prevalent in college football because of the emphasis towards mobile quarterbacks.

The Beavers surrendered 16 sacks to Oregon (6) and Texas (10, 4.5 by Alex Okafor) in their two biggest games of the season. Unacceptable.

It will be a long and difficult off-season for offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh and his blockers as they try to figure out what went wrong against the Ducks and Longhorns. Four of the five O-Line starters are back, so Cavanaugh hopes continuity will help the Beavers gain consistency.

Only right tackle Colin Kelly departs. If the four remaining starters hold their spots, OSU will have three senior starters and a super sophomore (Isaac Seumalo, who was named a Freshman All-American) along the offensive front. Rising junior Derek Nielsen is listed as the backup at all five O-Line spots in the bowl game depth chart, so he will get a chance to win a starting job. He could replace Kelly, but expect a hotly contested position battle with Gavin Andrews.

4. Who will be the breakout player on offense?: Rising junior tight end Connor Hamlett, a big target at 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, led Oregon State with five receptions for 70 yards in the Alamo Bowl and finished fourth on the team with 32 receptions for 403 yards. Only Markus Wheaton (91 receptions), Brandin Cooks (67) and Storm Woods (38) had more receptions than Hamlett.

Wheaton's departure not only puts Cooks under the microscope as the probable new No. 1 receiver, but gives Hamlett an opportunity to become a larger part of the offense in 2013. A tall, quick tight end with soft hands can be an invaluable tool for an offense, and Hamlett seems to fit the bill.

5. Who will replace Jordan Poyer at cornerback?: How do you replace a consensus All-American, the first OSU defensive player in history to earn that honor, that pulled down seven interceptions in 2012? Not easily. It would be unfair to expect anything but a dropoff at left cornerback, the spot occupied by Poyer.

The top backup there on the bowl game depth chart is nickel back Sean Martin (two interceptions this past season), but you can bet Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker will move pieces around to provide as much competition as possible at the position. The battle to replace Poyer at cornerback will certainly emerge as one of the top stories of spring practice.

6. Will the Beavers be able to withstand the losses of Andrew Seumalo and Castro Masaniai at defensive tackle?: Banker knew this day was coming, which is why the Beavers recently signed a pair of JUCO defensive tackles (Edwin Delva and Siale Hautau) to help fill the void left by Seumalo (23 straight starts) and Masaniai (13 straight starts).

The new signees will join Joe Lopez, Mana Rosa, Na'Alii Robins, Brandon Bennett Jackson and Noke Tago in a spirited competition during spring practice. Another position to watch closely over the next few months.

7. Is Storm Woods capable of becoming a consistent 1,000 yard rusher in the Pac-12?: Yes. Woods had 940 rushing yards on 192 carries as a redshirt freshman in 2012. As long as he remains healthy, Woods is clearly capable of becoming the type of featured back Pac-12 teams yearn for in his final three seasons of eligibility.

He was definitely the focus of Oregon State's ground game this past season, and finished the year with a flourish by celebrating his homecoming with 118 yards on 21 carries against Texas. As long as he stays healthy (always a big IF for a running back), Woods is a 1,000 yard running back in the making. Terron Ward showed flashes of his abilities in 2012, while Malcolm Agnew had 269 yards as a fill-in back.

8. Will the Beavers finally reach the elusive 10-win mark?: Oregon State has won 10 or more games just twice in school history. Had they held onto the fourth-quarter lead against Texas, this last season would have been the third with double-digit wins. OSU won most of the game they should have won in 2012, and three of the four losses came to Stanford (Pac-12 champion), Oregon (12-1) and Texas. The only head-scratching loss was Washington in Seattle.

In retrospect, the Beavers could have, and should have, put the Huskies away at CenturyLink Field but turnovers killed them. OSU will be one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-12 next season. In addition to winnable non-conference matchups with Eastern Washington, Hawaii and at San Diego State, the Beavers host Colorado, Washington, Southern Cal, Stanford at home and travel to Washington State, Oregon, California, Utah and Arizona State. Are there 10 wins packed in there somewhere? Perhaps.

9. How will recruiting finish up?: This past weekend's decision by three-star offensive line Sean Harlow to switch his commitment from Washington to Oregon State and the commitment of three-star running back Lawrence Mattison sets up the Beavers for a solid finish to recruiting.

Right now, OSU's commitment list numbers 20 prospects, including the three JUCO signees that plan to enroll in school and participate in spring practice. Oregon State is now No. 48 in the Rivals.com rankings, but should eventually be able to rise a dozen or so spots with commitments from a couple of four-star prospects.

Right now, the class is filled with solid players, but lacks the 'wow' factor. Does Riley care? Probably not. He just seeks good players willing to spend four or five years with the Beavers.

10. What's the best thing Oregon State offers recruits?: Many commitments cite the 'family' atmosphere in Corvallis as a major reason for committing to OSU. But that's just a subset of stability. The school's decision two years ago to award Riley with a contract extension through 2019 ensures that. The deal included a term requiring a rollover for one additional year each time the Beavers play in a bowl game. So, Riley's contract now lasts through 2020. But he remains one of the lowest paid catches in the Pac-12, a reality that produced the inevitable reports of other BCS schools looking to poach Riley from Corvallis. This time it was Wisconsin. Next year, it could be someone else. The new-found TV revenues should produce a nice raise for Riley and his assistants.


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