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College Football Preview 2023: 17. Oregon State Beavers


Damien Martinez, Oregon State

17. Oregon State Beavers

Jonathan Smith has built a winner in Corvallis, one that could be extra dangerous with the arrival of "D.J. U"

2022 Review
Oregon State didn't open the 2022 campaign with a fellow Power Five non-conference game, as they had the last several seasons prior, but that didn't make their early slate much easier. The Beavers faced off against two of the Mountain West's premier programs, welcoming Boise State to Corvallis and traveling to face off with Fresno State. They rolled past Boise and won a thriller over Fresno before a 40-point domination of Montana State to round off non-conference. Pac-12 play got off to a shaky start, albeit against the two teams that would eventually play for the conference crown in Utah and USC, before the Beavers reeled off three straight victories. In their first game as a Top 25 team in over a decade, Oregon State fell to Washington but again showed the ability to respond, winning their final three regular season games and beating Oregon in their annual rivalry game. A smashing of an Anthony Richardson-less Florida team in the Las Vegas Bowl put the perfect bow on the successful season, winning ten games for the first time since 2006. For sixth-year head coach Jonathan Smith, it was yet another step in a positive direction for a program that has gone from one of the Pac-12's worst to a legitimate conference title contender.

2023 Outlook
Offense: Since arriving at Oregon State, Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren have built the Beaver offense into a reliable, efficient group built on a power rushing attack. This group averaged 32.2 points per game in 2022 and did so despite losing QB Chance Nolan to injury. 

Quarterback Ben Gulbranson took over for Nolan following the injury and guided Oregon State to a 7-1 record as starting quarterback. His arm strength doesn't pop the way other it does for other quarterbacks in the Pac-12, but he's the type of solid, intelligent signal-caller thats put you in position to win football games. However, despite his play last fall, Gulbranson has found himself in a heated QB battle that is likely to last into the fall.

Former five-star recruit D.J. Uiagalelei has made his way back home to the West Coast and appears ready to take over the reigns of this offense. "D.J. U" looked like a future star when he filled in for Trevor Lawrence during the wacky 2020 campaign, but he had a disappointing two seasons as Clemson's top guy. It always felt like he needed a change of scenery and playing in a less high-pressure situation should be a great thing for him. He's always had talent, and shown the ability to make plays, but gaining back his confidence will be step No. 1 in unlocking even greater things in 2023.

Whatever happens at the quarterback position, it's obvious who the star on this offense is entering 2023: tailback Damien Martinez. As a true freshman last season, Martinez ran wild, totaling 982 yards and seven scores, including an average of over six yards per carry. After earning Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year honors, Martinez is hoping to solidify himself as a household name this year. He's flanked by a pair of veterans, both of them former transfers, in Deshaun Fenwick and Jamious Griffin. Both provide a nice change-of-pace from the hard-running Martinez, with both running for over 400 yards last year.

For this passing attack to take the next step forward, the Beavers are hoping for more production from the receiver position. Tre'Shaun Harrison emerged as the team's most consistent weapon after some initial struggles, but his departure means that others will have to step up. Chief among them being junior Anthony Gould, who finished second behind Harrison in receiving last fall. Gould is a bit of a nontraditional receiver at 5'8", but is a big-time playmaker who averaged nearly 17 yards per catch in 2022.

Beyond Gould, junior Silas Bolden is another undersized jitterbug that can be a real pain for opposing defenders. There's some thought that newcomer Montrel Hatten could also contribute as a true freshman. Hatten arrived during spring and caught some eyes, despite the veteran experience ahead of him on the depth chart. 

Luke Musgrave was selected in the second round of the NFL Draft by Green Bay, but Oregon State still appears to be in a good spot at tight end. Sophomore Jack Velling proved to be an effective pass-catcher last fall, averaging 17.6 yards per catch, and should have no difficulties handling an expanded role. Jake Overman is also back, but don't be surprised if newcomer Jermaine Terry ends up seeing more playing time. The Beavers stole Terry from old North Division foe California and are curious to see if he can grow as a pass-catcher, as he's established himself as a superb blocker.

One of the main components that makes Oregon State such a pain to play each week is their offensive line. It's an experienced group that loves mashing their teeth in the ground game, setting a tone for the entire program. It looks like a Joe Moore Award contender as the best OL in college football, thanks to the return of four starters. The only piece moving on is guard Brandon Kipper, and the Beavers may have found an immediate replacement in the form of Nevada transfer Grant Starck. Starck played primarily tackle with the Wolfpack, but appears capable of moving inside.

Oregon State was going to be in a good spot offensively no matter what happened this offseason, but the addition of Uiagalelei makes things very interesting. Uiagalelei is the most talented quarterback Smith has had since he has taken over in Corvallis and could add some wrinkles to the offense they haven't had in the past. Add to that the return of Martinez and a superb offensive line, the Beaver offense could be one of the Pac-12's premier groups this fall.

Defense: Coordinator Trent Bray engineered a quick turnaround of the Oregon State defense after taking over during the latter half of the 2021 season, including a tremendous fall a year ago. The Beavers held opponents to just 342 yards and 21.4 points per game, which both finished second in the Pac-12. Replicating those numbers will be more difficult with some of the pieces that moved on over the offseason, but the cupboard is far from bare here.

There's plenty of experience among the front seven, most notably the defensive line. Four players who have played starting snaps return to the line, led by junior end Sione Lolohea and senior tackle James Rawls. Lolohea is the team's best pure pass rusher, earning All-Pac-12 recognition a season ago, while Rawls is the type of physical tackle that sets the tone in the heart of the D-Line. Rounding out the unit is veteran Isaac Hodgins, one of the most talented defenders on the team, but a player who has dealt with injuries throughout his Beaver career. He can play either end or tackle at a high level and when 100 percent, is a pest for opposing offenses.

Watch for a pair of newcomers to also factor into the defensive line rotation, even with the veteran experience ahead of them. Freshman Kelze Howard is the gem of this year's recruiting class and flashed during spring, while JUCO transfer Nikko Taylor is an imposing force off the edge at 6'5", 242 pounds.

Losing Omar Speights to the transfer portal in early January was a New Year gut punch for Beaver staff. Speights put up an illustrious career in Corvallis, totaling 308 tackles throughout his career, and had an extra year of eligibility remaining. Some thought the Philadelphia might return to the East Coast, but his decision to transfer to LSU felt like a move focused on boosting his profile and stock ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft.

The departure of Speights leaves a gap at linebacker that won't be easily filled. Oregon State is hoping that junior middle linebacker Easton Mascarenas-Arnold can emerge as a leader, and that some of the young talent also steps up. Mascarenas-Arnold was productive in 2022 and is a steady tackler, but he's not the coverage option Speights was. Adding Illinois transfer Calvin Hart to bolster the unit was a big win; now on his third program, Hart looked on his way to stardom before injury in 2021, but had a resurgent campaign a season ago.

There's plenty of intriguing pieces behind Mascarenas-Arnold, but primarily unproven pieces. Utah transfer Mason Tufaga never got a shot with the Utes but could benefit from the change of scenery, while redshirt frosh Melvin Jordan and Makiya Tongue are expected to be factors. Tongue, formerly a Georgia transfer, spent two quiet years at receiver for the Beavers, but his transition to linebacker will be worth a watch.

The strength of the Beaver defense in 2022 was their stellar pass defense. Look no further than their performances against one of the best quarterbacks in the country: USC's Caleb Williams. The Heisman-winning Williams went just 16-36 for 180 yards and never seemed comfortable against this high-flying group. Unfortunately, the pass defense did fade down the stretch and now must replace both starting cornerbacks.

Senior safety Kitan Oladipo emerged as one of the team's most consistent defender last season and will now be looked at in an even more important lens. With Speights gone, he is their top returning tackler, while getting his hand on six batted passes. The other safety spot appears to be in good hands as well, with both Alton Julian and Akili Arnold seeing a good amount of snaps throughout their Beaver careers. Julian looked like he was going to be a starter in 2022, but was out for the year during fall camp.

It's reasonable to be concerned about the cornerback position, particularly when your schedule includes Cam Ward, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix. Rejzohn Wright and Alex Austin were under-appreciated components of the team's success a year ago and with both moving on, Oregon State is relying on a completely unproven cast of characters.

Bray, who like Smith is an Oregon State alum, received a nice pay increase for his work last fall, but 2023 will show whether it was worth it. There are some highly productive pieces moving on and a gap in leadership in the locker room. If he's able to make the necessary adjustments and keep this defense in the top half of the league, which seems like a reasonable goal, Bray's the time of DC that will begin dotting head coaching shortlists, at least in the Group of Five ranks.

Special Teams: The kicking competition likely to unfold in fall camp and into the season will be crucial for the Beavers, as they decide between senior Everett Hayes and sophomore Atticus Sappington. Hayes slumped miserably last fall and while Sappington was effective in relief, it remains to be seen what he can do with an extended body of work. Punter is also a bit of a problem, but fortunately Anthony Gould gives the return game some dynamite to play with.

Bottom Line
Oregon State's ten-win 2022 was one of the quietest double-digit win seasons I can remember in recent college football history. And, that seems just fine with Smith and this entire staff. The program has embraced an underdog mentality, but the talent on the roster has evolved. There's legit NFL guys on both sides of the ball now, including a rising superstar at tailback and potentially, a dynamic signal-caller leading the way. When you add in a schedule that avoids USC and has a breezy non-conference slate, it feels reasonable to pick Oregon State to hover around that double-digit plateau once again. Who knows, if things break right and with the Pac-12 no longer having divisions, the Beavers could even play their way into a conference championship game.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Sometimes, hiring an alum to run the college football program becomes a miserable, failed experiment. Other times, when the coach and by extension entire staff understand the culture and what it takes to win at a certain place, it can be a truly magical pairing. That's been the case at Oregon State, as former Beaver quarterback Jonathan Smith enters Year Six in charge. Smith, who played in Corvallis from 1998-2001 and is No. 3 on their all-time passing yards list, inherited an absolute mess from Gary Andersen and has slowly built the Beavers into a serious player in the Pac-12. Smith has filled out his staff with capable coaches that understand how to win in the Pacific Northwest, including offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren and defensive coordinator Trent Bray. Lindgren is a former Idaho quarterback who has spent essentially his entire career on the West Coast, parlaying a gig with Colorado into the Oregon State OC job. Bray has been a fast riser through the coaching ranks, beginning his career as a grad assistant under Dennis Erickson at Arizona State in 2008. He followed Mike Riley from Oregon State to Nebraska before returning to Corvallis in 2018.

Recruiting Breakdown
For Oregon State, the name of the game on the recruiting trail isn't about landing splashy prospects, but finding the right talent that fits their system. They came in 49th nationally for the Class of 2023, but are headlined by Kelze Howard, who could see snaps right away. The Las Vegas product was enrolled during spring and flashed serious upside, seemingly not shying away from the hype surrounding him. The other four-star prospect in the class is quarterback Aidan Chiles, who Oregon State went into California and secured. The 6'4", 195-pounder has an imposing presence on the football field and can make defenders miss with his legs. It's clear he's the future of the program, but it's unlikely he'll work his way far enough up the depth chart to unseat Gulbranson/Uiagalelei. Junior college transfers should also play important roles, adding a nice blend of talent into the mix here. Defensive end Nikko Taylor comes over from Hutchinson CC in Kansas, while corner Tyrice Ivy comes over from College of San Mateo and is at a need position.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Oregon State has a superb opportunity to enter Pac-12 play undefeated at 3-0, as they shouldn't have too much troubles with this non-conference slate. They go on the road to San Jose State and then get UC Davis and San Diego State at home to round out the non-conference. San Diego State has traditionally given Pac-12 teams fit in recent years, but getting them in the friendly confines of Reser Stadium should be huge for the Beavers. League play begins with a road trip to Pullman before getting Utah on a short week, but the rest of the October and early November slate is winnable. That sets up a situation where Oregon State could theoretically be in the Pac-12 Championship mix before the two most important games of their season, at home against Washington and on the road against Oregon. Oregon State has won two of three in the series, but hasn't gone into Eugene and came away with a win since 2007.

2023 X-Factor: Jaden Robinson, CB
Although Omar Speights was a big loss at linebacker, the two departures that could have the larger impact on Oregon State's fortunes in 2023 will be at cornerback. Rejzohn Wright and Alex Austin were established contributors who combined to form a solid pass defense. Not only are they gone, but there aren't an obvious pairing that's likely to take up the mantle from them. Senior Jaden Robinson is a good bet to take one of the spots, essentially setting himself up as CB #1. Robinson has been with the program for a long time now, but has yet to see significant playing time, with an injury robbing him of all of 2021. After making one start in 2022, can he be counted on to be the top corner on the team? The pressure on Robinson was taken up a notch in the spring, when expected starter Skyler Thomas tore his ACL, taking out one of the few other experienced options on this roster. How quickly Robinson and the rest of this cornerback room is able to acclimate to their new roles will have a major impact on the success of the Beavers, particularly with so many talented quarterbacks on their schedule.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-3 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: RB Damien Martinez
Defensive MVP: S Kitan Oladipo
Impact Freshman: DL Kelze Howard
Impact Transfer: QB D.J. Uiagalelei
Breakout Player of the Year: S Alton Julian

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