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January 23, 2014

Who will be the next big WR?

Oregon State returns seven of the nine pass catchers with 10 or more receptions last season, so the Beavers are scarcely starting from scratch.

It just feels that way.

Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, two of the finest wide receivers in school history, dominated the statistics from 2011-2013 by combining for 390 receptions (37.2 percent of the total), including a Pac-12 record 128 catches by Cooks last season en route to lifting the coveted Biletnikoff Award.

Wheaton, of course, is now toiling for the Pittsburgh Steelers with Cooks ready to join him in the 'play for pay' universe as a probable high-round selection when the NFL Draft unfolds in early May.

Sean Mannion's declaration two weeks ago that he would return for his senior campaign means the Beavers know who will drop back in the pocket and throw the football in 2014.

The key question is who will catch his bullet passes.

Richard Mullaney had 52 receptions for 788 yards (15.2 yards per catch) last season to finish a distant second behind Cooks, emerging as OSU's best intermediate range threat.

At the moment, the 6-foot-3, 194-pound Richard Mullaney, who has 65 career receptions entering his junior season, is the most logical choice to step into the No. 1 receiver role for the Beavers.

"We expect Richard to have a very good spring," Riley said recently. "He missed the offseason last year in his development physically (after undergoing shoulder surgery following the 2012 season). I'm looking for him to have a great offseason."

Atop Mullaney's agenda for the spring and summer is getting bigger and stronger heading into preseason camp.

"That's his No. 1 deal to improve in because he can catch the ball," Riley said. "So, his ability to handle press coverage and move and get off the line of scrimmage (is important), but he can make plays."

Somebody, though, must take over for Cooks as a legitimate deep threat in order to stretch opposing defenses and force defensive backs to play honestly, preventing them from creeping closer to the line of scrimmage.

Rising sophomore Victor Bolden, one of the fastest players on the team, could possibly fill that vital role.

In fact, Mike Riley is depending on it.

"We need Victor to come to the front that way," Riley said. "Especially with Brandin being gone, he needs to be that guy that plays the flanker position and catches balls down the field. He is very capable of that."

Blessed with blazing speed comparable to Wheaton and Cooks (Bolden was voted All-Inland Empire and Fastest Player in the Region at Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. in 2012), his physical skills beg this question: Is Bolden the next great Oregon State wide receiver?

Utilized primarily as a kick returner last season (20.7 yards on 58 kickoffs), the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Bolden served as a secondary option on fly sweeps behind Cooks, finishing with 12 carries for 95 yards, including an exciting 25-yard touchdown run in the Civil War.

Bolden caught just six passes for 62 yards last season, yet proved at Los Osos that he is capable of handling the No. 1 receiver responsibility by amassing a school record 109 career receptions.

"Victor Bolden will be a good player," Riley said.

Over the next eight months, the most important number attached to Bolden could be the amount of weight he gains in order to enhance his ability to shake free from Pac-12 defensive backs.

"Victor's goal should be just what Brandin's was a year ago. If he could add 10 good pounds to that frame, it would really help him in terms of strength, explosiveness and endurance," Riley said. "He's a good worker, one of our most aware true freshmen that we've ever had as far as being able to teach him. He can play in the games and be a factor. I'm excited about him."

After Mullaney, the most productive returning wide receiver is 6-foot-3 rising redshirt sophomore Malik Gilmore, who had seven receptions for 76 yards last season. However, he gained valuable experience along the way and Riley hopes those snaps will pay dividends next season.

"Malik Gilmore got to play quite a bit and I think he will grow up and be better and better as we go," Riley said.

If the Beavers had to play a game this week, Mullaney, Gilmore and Bolden would likely start at the receiver positions.

"Despite not having Brandin, I'm excited about this core of receiver," Riley said.

However, 44 practices (15 in the spring; 29 in preseason camp) await the Beavers before the 2014 season cranks up on August 30 when Portland State visits Corvallis. As a result, one or more of three redshirt freshmen - Walter Jones (5-11, 182 pounds), Hunter Jarmon (5-10, 200) and Jordan Villamin (6-4, 242), all of whom signed with the Beavers last February, could grab a spot in the starting lineup.

Villamin graduated from the same high school as Bolden.

"I've got three freshmen that are entering into this picture that are exciting to me," Riley said. "Those are three good kids. Two of them (Jones and Jarmon) can run well and Jordan is a big guy that really can catch the ball and is a fluid runner for a big guy.

"So this could be an exciting receiving corps as we get going into next year."

Former safety Kendall Hill, a rising redshirt sophomore from La Marque, Tex., has shifted to wide receiver and should get a long look on offense in the spring, Riley said recently.

"He was recruited by a couple other schools as a receiver, so it should be pretty natural," Riley said. "He hasn't played at all because he's been hurt for two years."

Oregon State's glaring lack of experienced depth at wide receiver could result in a larger role for the tight ends in 2014 since the Beavers return one of the deepest and tallest (all three stand 6-foot-5 or taller) groups at that position in the Pac-12.

Connor Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards and five touchdowns in 2013, while Caleb Smith added 25 catches for 343 yards and four scores. Kellen Clute gives the Beavers a third reliable weapon at tight end.

All three tight ends will be upperclassmen in 2014, so the time is now for them to develop into solid contributors.

"I love Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith, they're both good players," Riley said. "Caleb, in particular, can really jump up. Connor is very consistent. I do love that picture of the tight ends and we want to continue to develop that.

"We've got pretty good depth there. Kellen Clute played and made some plays (19 receptions for 159 yards). He's got to get stronger and he will. He'll be a bigger and bigger factor. We can develop more depth, we can develop more individual play and productivity and they should be used more and more as weapons as we prepare for next season."


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