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August 5, 2013

10 Reasons for Optimism as Beavers open Fall Camp

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When Oregon State runs onto the practice field for the first time in preseason camp today, the Beavers will do so with a sense of optimism that the talent is in place to duplicate or surpass last season's 9-4 mark. Fifty-five letter winners return with a combined 291 career starts, making the Beavers one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-12. In addition, OSU will be guided by Mike Riley, the most-tenured coach in the Pac-12 Conference. Here are 10 reasons for optimism by Beaver fans in 2013:

1. Favorable early season schedule: In spite of a five-week stretch from mid-September to mid-October that sees the Beavers play four of five games on the road, OSU should be favored in each of their first seven games. As long as the Beavers play up to their capabilities, a 7-0 start is a distinct possibility. After that, the slate strengthens with back-to-back home games against Stanford and Southern Cal and, of course, the Civil War. Just as important, Oregon State avoids facing improved UCLA from the Western Division. Endowed with a coach's DNA, Riley is solely focused on the process of preparing for Eastern Washington and won't look beyond the opener.

"They are all Super Bowls as far as I'm concerned," Riley said Thursday during a teleconference with reporters. "That's how I feel. I know how these games go. If you don't play well, you don't win. If you play well, you have a shot. What we have to do is win the first game and then try to get better and keep going from there. Not playing UCLA is interesting. They are a good football team on the rise."

2. Improved speed on defense: Slowing down today's high-tempo spread offenses has put a premium on three traits on defense: speed, speed, speed. Noting the Beavers will face at least six opponents this season running some version of the spread, Riley believes the Beavers possess the athletes to keep up, especially on the perimeter.

"What you're seeing is a premium on speed and guys with a lot of flexibility," Riley said. "We're looking at more versatile, more athletic people throughout your defensive scheme. The ability to run and play in space is at a premium. More and more players are put into positions where they're going to play in space against what we have to see.

"It has forced defenses to have people like this all over the place. Big people still need to play in the interior, but when you have a good edge rusher able to put pressure on the quarterback, you don't have to blitz as much and you can rely on your coverages to do the work."

3. Three-headed monster at cornerback: The departure of Jordan Poyer elevates Rashaad Reynolds to the undisputed leader of the secondary. The defensive coaches knew they had to find a genuine replacement for Poyer, but they might rely on two instead - Sean Martin and Steven Nelson. Both players excelled in the spring and unless someone separates himself in preseason camp, the coaches might split the difference.

"They both stepped forward and showed a lot of savvy and ability," Riley said. "Both of those guys will probably play in whatever situation. We saw enough in the spring to say we have a chance to have some reliable people there opposite Rashaad Reynolds, who is a solid, solid guy and a good leader."

4. Solid depth at running back: Riley appreciates how a solid running game lifts an offense. In his view, it's not a coincidence the Oregon State offense purred louder last season when they were able to generate yards on the ground. Storm Woods (940 yards on 192 carries) was the primary ball carrier last season, more than doubling Terron Ward in carries and yards. Is Ward now ready to boost his contribution? Riley appears willing to give him a chance to prove the answer is yes.

"They are both driven to get better," Riley said. "Terron Ward is one of the best football players we have. He is smart and tough. We're in good hands at that running back position. The better we run the ball, the better we are as a team. One of the reasons we jumped up a year ago is simply because we ran the ball better. We hope to continue that, and look to do even better than a year ago."

5. More diversified passing attack: Oregon State relied mainly on two receivers last season - Markus Wheaton (91 receptions) and Brandin Cooks (67). Cooks returns, but should have a stronger supporting cast than a year ago with Obum Gwacham, Richard Mullaney (missed spring practice due to shoulder surgery), Kevin Cummings and Micah Hatfield eyeing bigger roles in the passing offense along with tight end Connor Hamlett.

"I really like Obum Gwacham," Riley said. "He has a ton of potential, so what he needs to do is transfer what he is able to do in practice and take that into the games and make those same types of plays. Micah Hatfield is another guy in the mix. They're all good players. We're not going to replace Markus Wheaton right away. But everybody needs to have better years and step up a notch. We need the guy that replaces Markus to make plays. The better balance we have with production throughout our group, the better we'll be."

6. Fifth-year senior at left tackle: Not many major college programs have the luxury of a fifth-year senior left tackle as the Beavers do. Michael Philipp is the most experienced OSU player with 35 career starts. Fortunately, he is just a single piece of a veteran offensive line that returns four of five starters.

"Michael Phillip has done a nice job of continuing to work to get better," Riley said. "At times in the spring, I thought he played some of the best football of his life. I'm hoping that continues in the fall. He has certainly been in the games with a lot of experience. He should be able to take a step up."

7. Two quarterbacks are better than one: One of the oldest sayings in college football goes something like this - when you have two quarterbacks than you don't have one. Riley, though, disagrees and encourages the on-going battle between Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz. Remember, Oregon State won nine games with two quarterbacks last season, so why not do it again? No decision is imminent since Riley intends to keep the competition going for at least a couple more weeks.

"You don't have to ask me every day because it will be one of those deals where I won't tell you anything because I won't know," Riley cautioned.

8. Super safeties: Ryan Murphy and Tyrequek Zimmerman have a combined 28 career starts at safety, giving the Beavers one of the most experienced duos at that vital position. Murphy is one of the best and most versatile athletes on the team, prompting Riley to say he wished he could sign '10 Ryan Murphys' every year in recruiting. Oregon State returns its top five tacklers from last season, including Murphy and Zimmerman.

"We can take a guy like Ryan Murphy and he can look like an outside linebacker as a nickel player or he can play free safety," Riley said. "He can play everywhere. He is a football player that is athletic, has mobility and can play in space."

9. Experienced outside linebackers: The best analogy for the Beavers' linebacker position is a donut because of the hole in the middle. Michael Doctor (24 career starts) and D.J. Alexander (11) are entrenched as the starters, though the latter fought bouts of inconsistency last season. They combined for 141 tackles with Doctor leading the way with 83 stops. Compared to outside linebackers from the past, Doctor is smaller in stature (6-0, 225 pounds), but his impressive speed makes him a perfect fit for modern defenses attuned to stopping spread offenses.

"A guy that is undersized like Michael Doctor can play outside linebacker for us because he can run, he'll make plays, he'll tackle and he can line up and defend the pass in the spread or come up and stop the run. His size is not a detriment. It's been an interesting evolution."

10. Riley is fired up: A coach's existence is always more pleasant - and easier - when his team is coming off a nine-win campaign. Mike Riley is no different. He knows the Beavers are capable of accomplishing big things in 2013, and spent most of his summer where most football gym rats hang out - the video room.

"I spent a lot of time this summer just messing around watching film and tweaking a few things as we go," Riley said. "I still love that part of it. The thing that initially got me into coaching was I like the game. We want to continue the growth and focus on the day at hand and get ready for each game one game at a time like the team did a year ago."

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