Recasting the Jordan Poyer role is the most daunting task for the Oregon State football team this spring.
Poyer was not only a shut-down cornerback, who is a likely NFL draft pick later this month, he was a punt returner, gunner on kickoffs and punts and could return kickoffs.
And then he was the emotional leader of the defense, who willed his teammates to be better.
“How do you replace Poyer?” coach Mike Riley wondered. “All the positions are key positions, but that corner is scary. Who can come close to making up that much production?”
What it will take will be a group of people. And the search is on.
There are several young defensive backs who will try to fill the special teams coverage roles. The punt returner, however, is wide open.
Receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Steven Nelson have been practicing returning punts the first week of spring practice. The ability to catch the ball in a crowd, make quick decisions to catch the ball, or not, and make someone miss at full speed is hard to practice until done live in a game.
“We are concerned about someone as a punt returner,” Riley said. “We’ve had a reliable person back there for a long time.”
Secondary coach Rod Perry said the cornerback position will be a battle between senior Sean Martin and Nelson, a highly touted junior college transfer from the College of the Sequoias.
“Sean Martin is a senior we are counting on,” Perry said. “We are counting on him to get better and give us the depth we need. We want to count on him to be competitive. He’ll have the chance to start. And then we brought Steven in to do the same thing.”
Martin has been in the program for four years, and contributed last season in nickel and dime packages.
He went in at corner for Poyer, who played rover on passing downs. Martin felt that experience helped him get adjusted for this season. He had 43 tackles and two interceptions.
“We feel good about the growth of Sean Martin,” Riley said. “He’s a hard worker. We anticipate him to be ready. He shook the injury bug early in his career to help him develop. We hope to see him step up in a starting role.”
Martin’s big setbacks were a broken foot in 2011 that kept him out of most of the season, and then there was offseason shoulder surgery in 2010.
“I definitely feel this is my time to step up,” Martin said. “It’s now or never. I’ve been here four years in the system. I know everything. Everyone is serious to get that spot. I’m taking every moment of practice serious. I don’t want to lose that opportunity.”
The competition between Nelson and Martin should make them better. Both should see playing time anyway now that OSU uses extra defensive backs on a regular basis.
“We recruited junior college players to compete immediately,” Riley said. “Steven Nelson is that type of guy. He’s a gym rat and fits in with our team right away. I anticipate good things for him.”
There are other cornerbacks on the roster such as Malcolm Marable and Jovan Stevenson, but they joined the Beavers as offensive players and moved to corner to fill out depth. They are still learning the nuances of the position.
Nelson is a Rivals.com three-star athlete and considered the No. 2 junior college cornerback in the nation from last year’s recruiting class.
He had 19 pass breakups and six interceptions in two years at College of the Sequoias. If he doesn’t pick up the system quickly, he can redshirt with three years to play two seasons.
“We have to let them grow and see how they develop and compete this spring,” Perry said. “We hope we have found some people who can help us. We think that’s a good competition there.”
As for the emotional motivator, Riley isn’t so sure yet. When asked about who is taking over as the team leaders, he rattled off veteran names such as cornerback Rashaad Reynolds and linebackers D.J. Alexander and Michael Doctor.
“I’ve asked the players to pay attention to who steps forward this spring so they have a reason for who they vote for as captains,” Riley said. “The spring will tell us.”