Jonathan Smith admitted Wednesday morning at Pac-12 media day in Hollywood that game days last season were a bit tough on the competitive former quarterback.
In his first season as Oregon State’s coach, Smith watched as the Beavers went just 2-10 in 2018 and finished 1-8 in the conference.
It wasn't a major shock the Beavers, who have now missed a bowl game the last five seasons, struggled in Smith's return to the school he led to an 11-1 record and Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame in the 2000 season.
“We kind of knew what we were getting into, and it wasn't — this league is competitive,” Smith said. “It wasn't just going to flip in Year 1. We're taking a long-term approach on it.”
That long-term approach will enter Year 2 when preseason camp opens for the Beavers on Aug. 1. The season gets underway at home on Aug. 30 against Oklahoma State.
Despite the poor results on the scoreboard, Smith said he saw plenty of growth and competitiveness out of the players, and is excited to see how that plays out this coming season.
“Guys got better. We got some good young talent,” Smith said.
One of the biggest areas that needs to improve is on the defensive side of the ball, especially a run defense that allowed 281.8 yards a game.
That has been a major point of emphasis, Smith said, heading into camp.
“It starts up front, and so we needed to grow and add to our defensive front, and that's taken place," he said. "We've got to be better tacklers in space. We've just got to do it, so we've been working on that. We did look at adding to and tweaking some schemes defensively to help against the run, so with all of that, confident we're going to be better against it.”
Smith mentioned the addition of transfers Avery Roberts (Nebraska) and Addison Gumbs (Oklahoma), among others, as reasons for that optimism. He expects Roberts to be a productive tackler and a healthy Gumbs — he’s coming off a knee injury — to help rush the passer off the edge.
“Then we've got a lot in the secondary coming back,” Smith said. “David Morris is a guy that's been injured, played as a true freshman, injured all really last year, coming back healthy. And then Jordan Whittley and Simon Sandberg, defensive linemen junior college-wise that we think make us better up front already.
“And then we have some younger guys that are back that need to be better. That's where I'm just confident that we will take a step if those guys keep working.”
Offensively, the Beavers were ninth in the Pac-12 in points per game at 26.1 and return a plethora of weapons at the skill position.
Quarterback Jake Luton received a sixth year of eligibility and is battling Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia for the starting position. Luton, who was named the starter the past two seasons but dealt with injuries each year, appeared to have the edge after spring ball but Smith won’t name a starter before preseason camp begins.
“We're going to let those guys continue to compete, just like we're doing at every position,” he said. “We're not naming every position starters right now, which I think is healthy, and which I think the approach both Tristan and Jake have taken is it's improved their game. So we're going to let those guys go for a bit in camp.”
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While the Beavers were productive at times, Smith is looking for marked improvement on that side of the ball as well.
“We need our offense to take a step,” he said. “We did some things for sure, yeah, offensively last year, but that needs to get better if we want to win the games we want to win.”
Three Beavers — junior wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, sophomore running back Jermar Jefferson and senior offensive lineman Gus Lavaka — were named to the media’s preseason all-conference second team.
Hodgins, a member of the Biletnikoff Award watch list, had a team-best 59 receptions for 876 yards and five touchdowns.
Jefferson is coming off a sensation freshman campaign that saw him rush for 1,380 yards, a school record for a freshman, and win the conference’s freshman of the year award. Jefferson, who twice rushed for more than 200 yards in game, is on the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list.
Lavaka has been a mainstay on the offensive line and has started 31 times in 34 games played during his career. Lavaka is on the Outland Trophy watch list.
Punter Daniel Rodriguez, who averaged 41.9 yards per attempt last season and had nine punts of 50 or more yards, received honorable mention.
Oregon State was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 North in a vote of the media members who cover the conference.
Oregon edged Washington (190-189) for the top spot in the north with both receiving 17 first-place votes.
Stanford is predicted to finish third (129), followed by Washington State (108, one first-place vote), California (81) and Oregon State (38).
Utah was the runaway favorite to win the South, collecting 33 of 35 first-place votes and 206 total points. USC received the other two first-place votes and 167 points.
Arizona State and UCLA tied for third with 118 points, followed by Arizona (85) and Colorado (46).
The Utes are also picked to win the conference title game, receiving 12 votes; Oregon had 11, Washington 9, USC 2 and Washington State one.