JUCO players fitting in perfectly at Oregon State

When it comes to recruiting junior college players, you never know what you are
going to get. For every Chad Johnson, DeLawrence Grant, T.J.
Houshmandzadeh or Keith Ellison, there's just as many D.J. Cootes, Brandon Lockharts,
Deondre Alexanders or Aaron Millers.
The latter list of names represents a group of highly-touted junior college
players who never panned out at Oregon State. That's why Mike Riley
and his staff make sure they find the right players for their system.
"I think you got to look for guys who will contribute to your team,"
Riley explained. "You recruit a junior college player for a specific reason
and you got to be right about it. Now you are not always right, but for the
most part, that's really important, the evaluation process."
And so far it appears the OSU coaching staff hit it on the head, as Riley likes
to say, when it comes to this year's junior college class. Joey
LaRocque, Dorian Smith, Coye Francies, Gerard Lee
and Clinton Polk have emerged to play key roles for the Beavers.
"We hit the evaluation right," Riley said. "When we recruit
a junior college player, we give them an opportunity. We recruit them for a
specific reason. We don't guarantee them anything but if they do the right thing,
then they'll have an opportunity to play."
"These guys all knew that and took advantage of it and got ready and got
better. Every one of them has grown as the season has gone on."
And each one of them has stepped up for Beavers when they needed it most, especially
on defense. LaRocque, who had the daunting task of replacing Ellison, has rebounded
from a slow start to rank second on the team with 67 tackles. His breakout game
came against Arizona, in which he recorded nine tackles, a forced fumble and
an interception.
"It's just fitting into the system and understanding the system,"
Riley said of LaRocque's rapid progress. "He's seeing the system live in
real games. You can practice, practice, practice, but the games you got to start
playing. He's using his abilities with confidence, and playing a lot faster."
Francies was pressed into starting duties earlier this season while Brandon
Hughes and Keenan Lewis nursed injuries. He brought good speed and physical
toughness to the cornerback position. Now he's a solid backup corner and is
the team's best kick returner. Francies says he's motivated by the fact he has
a limited time frame to prove what he can do.
"I feel that I have less time," Francies said. "I have to do
what I got to do in a shorter amount of time."
That sense of urgency and drive to succeed is exactly why Riley likes to recruit
junior college players. His favorite example of this is Keyshawn Johnson, whom
he coached at Southern California. Riley says Johnson's determination to compete
at the highest level fueled an outstanding work ethic.
"I like it because the right guys think of it as a second chance, like,
'this is my opportunity,' and they really take it to heart," explained
Riley. "So if you get guys with that tremendous desire and are thankful
for that next opportunity, then you have hit it right."
Luckily, Riley and Co. got it right too when it came to filling team needs
with talented players. Such is the case with defensive end Dorain Smith and
defensive tackle Gerard Lee. The pair has provided an instant boost to defensive
line that struggled mightily in recent years. This season, OSU ranks second
in the Pac-10 in sacks, thanks largely to Smith. He leads the team with five
"It feels good," Smith said. "I'm just going out there and trying
to play every down and it looks like it has worked out for me."
And Riley wholeheartedly agrees with that statement.
"He's been huge for us." Riley said. "He's got a lot talent.
It took him some time to find out how to use hit talent within our system. He's
a fabulous guy and has really contributed a lot."
Fitting into a system is one of the many adjustments junior college players
have to make once they arrive at a four-year school. Francies says the toughest
thing for him is staying focused and disciplined. He can't get away with some
of the things he did at the JUCO level because Pac-10 quarterbacks throw harder
and more accurate. Meanwhile, Smith says being a backup is difficult at times
because he's used to playing a lot. He, however, admits there are benefits to
being second string.
"It helps being on sidelines watching what they are doing before we go
in," Smith said. "But it's new for me because before I came here,
I never came off the field. It's kind of give and take because I like being
on the field but I learn a lot while I am off it."
Added Riley, "I think it's very important particularly on the defensive
line that they stay fresh and get a chance to step back and look at what's going
on. I think that's been really good for those guys."
Riley himself believes the toughest adjustment for junior college players is
getting used to the structure required to balance school, living, practicing,
etc. But he said one of the main reasons this year's transfers are fitting in
so well is because they are very mature. All things considered, Riley ranks
this class of junior college players the best he has ever recruited.
"I don't think it could be much better, said a smiling Riley. "I
think we hit it right on the head. These are good people and players."
Who can argue with him? Slowly but surely, all five players are making an impact
for the Beavers. And if their hard work and sheer determination hasn't sold
you on their character by now, consider why players such as Francies are grateful
to be in Corvallis and playing for the Beavers.
"The best thing about being here is waking up every morning and having
something to look forward to," Francies said. "This is a beautiful
stadium and the atmosphere here is wonderful. So I enjoy waking up every day."
It's attitudes like that will keep Riley going after junior college players
even if there comes a day when he doesn't have to rely on the JUCO ranks to
fill his squad. Riley is all about giving players a second chance. And more
often than not, like this season, it pays off for the Beavers.