One of the most closely contested position battles going on this spring is at the heart of the defense.
With two-year starter Kevin Unga departed, the Oregon State football team must find a new starting middle linebacker.
Sophomore Joel Skotte is first on the list, but coach Mike Riley said it’s a wide-open battle with junior Josh Williams and sophomore Jaswha James also under consideration.
“There’s been improvement but there needs to be more,” linebackers coach Trent Bray said of the trio. “Joel is very young and Josh hasn’t had a ton of playing experience. They are new to it. They need to get better every day. There’s a lot on their plate.”
There’s no deadline to name a starter, Bray said. He’s going to let them work for the spot deep into training camp.
Bray played middle linebacker for defensive coordinator Mark Banker and the Beavers and was all-conference in 2004 and 2005, so he knows what needs to be done.
“The biggest thing is day in and day out doing the right things,” Bray said. “The guy who is the most consistent and you can trust who can do his job is the guy who will take the job. With these guys, things could change. It’s always a competition to show up every day to keep your job.”
Skotte, out of Bend, impressed the coaches last season as a true freshman by playing on four of the six special teams, and for what he did on the scout team.
He registered seven tackles, three solo, and forced a fumble. Skotte was named the Oregon 5A defensive player of the year as a senior at Mountain View High.
“Last year prepared me real well,” Skotte said. “I’m glad I didn’t redshirt so I could get some in-game experience, being in a game and feeling out the game speed.”
Playing middle linebacker, however, is different from covering kicks. The game is still moving fast for him. Skotte was disappointed with his play after the first scrimmage two weeks into spring practice.
“I need to get in the film room and work on specific things in practice,” Skotte said. “I need to get my reads right and work on tackling. I need to know what to do on specific plays.”
Williams, from Salesian High in Los Angeles, played as true freshman in 2011. He mostly played on special teams but received some time on defense and had four tackles. He didn’t play in a game last season, so he’s still inexperienced.
James, from Inglewood, Calif., redshirted his first season and played in three games last season in the mop-up role.
“We are doing well so far this spring,” Skotte said. “We are working and competing with each other.”
Before playing in games, they must understand all the schemes in their entirety and be a leader. The position is considered the quarterback of the defense.
The middle linebacker must read the offense, change the defense as needed, set the front seven’s positioning and then make their play.
“It’s tough because there’s a lot going on each play,” Skotte said. “There’s a difference in knowing that in the film room and knowing it out there when the ball is snapped.”
Middle linebacker traditionally is the defender with the most tackles on the team. That didn’t happen last year since the Beavers pulled the position on passing downs for an extra defensive back.
However, on first down and short yardage, the middle linebacker is still expected to be the center of the defense.
“That’s the kind of guy we have to find and develop,” Bray said. “Joel is doing a good job picking it up and Josh is doing a lot better job than he has in the past. I’m confident and comfortable where they are at now, but we are nowhere game-ready at middle linebacker. But they are moving in the right direction.”