It’s been a tough five years for the Oregon State football program as the Beavers have failed to make a bowl game since the 2013 campaign.
During that stretch, the Beavers have gone 5-7 in what was Mike Riley’s last season, then had 2-10 and 4-8 seasons under Gary Andersen before a 1-11 campaign in 2017 when Andersen left six games in.
It wasn’t a whole lot better in 2018 under first-year coach and former Beavers star quarterback Jonathan Smith as Oregon State was just 2-10.
Add that up and the Beavers are a dismal 14-46 since finishing 7-6 after a Hawaii Bowl win over Boise State on Christmas Eve 2013.
Most outside of the program don’t expect much to change this season, but the players remain optimistic that there will be plenty of growth and success in Smith’s second season.
“If you look at the strides that we’ve made and where we’re at compared to last year it’s a whole different squad,” said senior offensive lineman Blake Brandel. “The amount that we’ve improved over the past year and a half, longer than that, since the coaching staff got here, is a testament to us and I think it’s a testament to the coaching staff for getting us right.
“I think we’ve made huge strides and it’s going to be a fun year.”
For the Beavers to have success, it would appear they need to be more competitive at the line of scrimmage.
Oregon State had just 15 sacks in 12 games last year, tied for 118th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. On the other side, the Beavers gave up an FBS worst 48 on offense.
Smith said Friday he felt better about the line of scrimmage than a year ago but putting that in perspective may not be all that comforting to many.
“I think the defense has done a great job,” senior defensive lineman Elu Aydon said. “Our focus was stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback.”
The defensive line had a rough season thanks to injuries that destroyed any depth the Beavers may have had.
But the addition of Jordan Whittley and others on the line has helped, even with the loss of Jeromy Reichner to an ACL injury.
“All the new guys have come in and they’ve contributed,” Aydon said. “Camp was basically a baseline for everybody and getting to see where people are. I feel like we will be ready for the game next Friday.”
Brandel said he has seen the improvement each day in camp.
“They’ve made huge strides,” he said. “The best part about that is they get better and then they challenge us so we’ve got to get better so it’s kind of feeding off each other’s energy and making each other improve. They’ve been huge in us improving and I think we’ve been huge in them improving.”
The defensive players understand just how bad they were last season: 128th against the run (281.1 yards per game), total defense (538.8) and points allowed per game (45.7).
They have owned up to the performance and vowed to be much, much better.
“I believe we’ve grown a lot," junior linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. said. “That’s in every position group. I feel like everybody’s grown. We have young guys and they’ve stepped up a bunch so I feel like every position group, even my room, we’ve stepped up. Every day we’ve got to compete and it’s a big step right now and we’re going to continue to fight.”
Another area for concern with the defense from last season is tackling. It was often a topic of discussion following each game but Smith said he has liked what he has seen in camp.
“Obviously we’ll find out better here in a week,” he said.
While the defense had its struggles, the offense was able to be competitive despite playing musical chairs at the quarterback position due to a rash of injuries to Jake Luton and Conor Blount.
Luton received a sixth year of eligibility and was announced as the starter on Friday, beating out Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia. Luton passed for 1,660 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and led a miraculous comeback at Colorado.
“We feel good either way with both guys whether one goes down or not,” senior tight end Noah Togiai said of the quarterbacks. “Obviously I’ve been with Jake for three years now I know what he can do and this year he’s performing at the highest level I’ve seen him perform at. It makes me excited, everybody on the offensive side and the defensive side excited to see what he’s going to do.”
Luton has been the starter for the opener the past two seasons but was injured in the fourth game of the 2017 season and did not return, then and suffered a concussion in the opener last season and also missed some time with an ankle injury.
And while Luton is healthy and confident, the offensive line and tight ends know they have to keep whoever is under center upright and as untouched as possible.
“I think we took major strides in the protection,” Togiai said. “We are a lot more comfortable in the schemes that coach M (Jim Michalczik) gives us. I know we have more experience … everybody knows what they’re doing with different looks that we get, different pressures that we get, we’re more comfortable with picking them up.”
Smith said he has, for the most part, liked what he has seen out of the offense in training camp.
“The passing game has been crisp, I think we’ve been solid in our pass protection and the ball coming out on time,” Smith said. “I think we’ve been deep at running back, B.J. Baylor, the way he’s been carrying it has been a positive. I think still we can clean up some details in the run game (but) I can say that for everything.”
The Beavers are certainly deep at the running back position with Jermar Jefferson back after a sensational freshman campaign that saw him rush for 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns while earning the Pac-12 freshman offensive player of the year as well as a freshman All-American by several outlets.
Artavis Pierce, Baylor and Calvin Tyler Jr. are also in the mix, among others.
Junior Isaiah Hodgins is back at receiver after leading the Beavers with 59 catches for 876 yards and five touchdowns. Senior Trevon Bradford is still nursing an injury and won’t be available for the opener but he had 56 receptions for 649 yards and six touchdowns.
Nebraska transfer Tyjon Lindsey could also be a dynamic weapon in a deep receiving corps.
“I don’t think there is anything we can’t do” Brandel said. “We’ve got the guys to catch the ball, the guys to throw the ball and the guys to run the ball. And I think we’ve got the O-line to protect and open up holes.
“I don’t think I can limit us in terms of what we can and can’t do. It’s exciting.”