One of the position groups that first-year Oregon State football coach Jonathan Smith spoke highly of when he met with media to discuss the start of fall camp a little over a week ago was the offensive line.
The Beavers return four starters off last season’s team who have developed good chemistry and ownership among each other over that time.
“It’s a good feeling having a lot of guys back and just seeing us work together and improve every day,” said 6-foot-2, 287-pound fifth-year senior Sumner Houston. “I’m just happy to work with them, happy to be with them and just every day we’re improving.”
Returning quarterback Jake Luton said it’s comforting to have such experience up front.
“Having experience anywhere is big time, but line is really important to have experience there,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back and they’ve done a really good job this fall. They did a good job in the spring and they’ve done a good job over the summer getting ready to here right now and they look ready to go. They’ve been doing really well.”
While it would make sense those four returners — Houston, Blake Brandel, Trent Moore and Gus Lavaka — would be the top candidates to earn starting jobs, they know nothing is set is stone with a new regime in Corvallis.
Typically, that group is the first on the field for fall camp practice and some of the last off it as well.
There’s no resting on their laurels with this group.
Houston, on the Rimington Trophy watch list for the nation’s top center, switched to the offensive line last season and made 11 starts at center.
Even though he’s taking reps with the "ones" early in camp, he’s taking nothing for granted.
“Hey, the position is open and I still have to prove to coach M (Jim Michalczik) and everybody that I’m the guy and I will,” he said. “But every position is open and everything is up for grabs and everyone knows that. First, second, third string.”
Brandel is the most experienced on the line, having started 24 consecutive games for the Beavers. The 6-7, 307-pound fourth-year junior anchored the left tackle spot last season.
Lavaka, a 6-4, 353-pound junior, started all 12 games last year at left guard, while Moore, a 6-4, 289-pound fifth-year senior, started 11 games at right guard.
Brandel, Lavaka and Houston have mostly taken reps at the same positions they started at last season while Moore has moved from right guard to right tackle.
The newcomer to that group at right guard early in camp has been Yanni Demogerontas, a 6-3, 287-pound fifth-year senior. He’s also seen some action at center, mostly to serve as a backup, according to Smith.
Moore admitted it’s more of a grind this fall camp but said the linemen are improving each day. They are watching film and making sure to put in extra work whenever they can.
He said each player has his own personal things to continue to improve on, such as technique and aiming points, as well as learning the multitude of new plays that are being introduced every few days.
“I feel like a lot of people are getting the hang of it pretty quickly,” Moore said.
Michalczik, run game coordinator and offensive line coach, said Tuesday the line has been progressing the first week of camp.
“You make strides, then you put more in and you feel like you kind of take steps back,” he said. “I like the way they’re working. They’re trying to push through things. I think they’re trying to raise the tolerance level of I’m tired but everybody is going to be tired on game day. I like that part of it but we’re not near where we need to get to yet.”
Depth along the line is always a concern, but Moore and Houston said other guys are getting to a spot where that hopefully won’t be an issue.
Michalczik has also seen growth in that area and is giving players opportunities in camp to gain experience at different positions.
“We’re going to keep moving guys and keep playing and we’re going to evaluate and try to get the best guys on the field,” he said.
Nothing is set in stone just yet and that’s the way it will stay for some time, especially since new plays are being installed every few days.
“I don’t think we want to shape that up yet, we want to keep things open and we’ve got a couple weeks here to compete and see who kind of rises up,” Michalczik said.
“As long as we’re better today than we were yesterday, that’s the goal.”
Houston is trying to do just that — and make sure he proves he should be in the starting lineup come Sept. 1 when the Beavers take on Ohio State in the season opener.
“I’m a big competitor and I refuse to lose in everything I do,” he said. “I refuse to lose and I won’t give up my spot even though it’s open. I will secure it and it will be mine.”