When the team returns to the field in April it will be back to business for a club that returns 61 lettermen and 17 starters as it aims for the program’s fifth bowl game in six years.
“At just about every position we have built depth that is the foundation for this season and future ones,” seventh-year head coach Mike Riley said. “We need to solidify a couple of positions, particularly quarterback, but even there I have a lot of confidence in the players we have competing for the starting job.”
For Oregon State, spring practice begins April 2 with the culmination on April 28 with the annual session-ending scrimmage at Reser Stadium.
Without a doubt the biggest question mark for 2007 is at quarterback, where the team will have a new starter for the first time since the opener of the ’05 season. Riley and company will be looking to replace Sun Bowl MVP Matt Moore after he led the team to eight victories in the last nine games, including wins over nationally ranked USC and Hawai’i.
Sophomores Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao figure to be competing this spring. Canfield played in eight games last season as a reserve, completing 28 of 45 pass attempts for 335 yards and two touchdowns. He possesses a strong arm, similar to former three-year starter Derek Anderson (2002-04), but with more mobility.
“Sean certainly possess s a lot of qualities you look for in a quarterback,” Riley said. “The key is to get him repetitions and make him feel comfortable with the offense and the personnel around him. He will be a very good quarterback before his career is over.”
Moevao impressed the coaches in practice last season during his redshirt year and while outsiders have penciled in Canfield for the starting job, it’s not that clear.
“The quarterback job is open,” Riley said prior to spring practice. “Moevao has some physical abilities and a competitive fire that make him an intriguing possibility. We wouldn’t have brought Lyle into the program if we didn’t think he had a chance to make significant contributions.”
Senior Ryan Gunderson, who has one start during his career, is also in the mix. Also on the roster are redshirt-freshmen Brennan Sim, the son of a former Beaver standout player (Tim Sim), and incoming freshman Jake Gelakoska.
He’ll be a Doak Walker Award candidate as he enters the season as one of the top running backs in the nation – he is senior “do it all” back Yvenson Bernard. Bernard has a legitimate chance to finish his career in the top-10 all-time in the Pac-10 for rushing joining the likes of former Beaver greats Ken Simonton and Steven Jackson, and other conference standouts like Ricky Bell, Anthony Davis and Gaston Green to name a few.
“Yvenson has really been the heart and sole of the offense over the last two seasons,” Riley said. “We have been able to do a lot of things because of his ability as a runner, receiver and his overlooked blocking. He is one of the best players I have ever coached.”
Bernard, a 2006 Pac-10 First Team selection, enters the year with 2,648 career rushing yards and 611 career receiving yards. He has visited the end zone 27 times.
When Bernard needs a break the team turns to senior back Clinton Polk. Polk started one game last season and he made it special as he rushed for 100 yards in the upset of No. 3 USC, spelling the injured Bernard.
The starting quarterback will have the luxury of gunning the ball to three returning starters at receiver. The group is led by senior postseason honors candidate Sammie Stroughter.
Stroughter was an Associated Press third team All-American as a multipurpose player as he doubles as an ultra dangerous punt returner. He led the Pac-10 last season with a 92.4 yards per game receiving average and against Washington had 223 yards. As a punt returner he broke the school record with three for touchdowns, including a memorable 70-yard score in the victory over USC. He also set up the game-winning touchdown in the Sun Bowl with a nifty return. His 15.7 per return average was the third-best in the nation as he concluded the year as one of three finalists for the Randy Moss Return Man of the Year.
“Sammie is a terrific story; here is a guy that wasn’t highly recruited who has become one of the most gifted athletes in the Pac-10,” Riley said. “He, much like Bernard, gives us options that stretch opposing defenses. Sammie is an outstanding route-runner, has terrific hands and has great awareness on the field. He really is the total package as a receiver and special teams player.”
While Stroughter excels at split end, seniors Brandon Powers and Anthony Wheat-Brown have become stalwarts at slotback and flanker. When you consider the top athletes in the program, both Powers and Wheat-Brown are at the top of the list. Powers has developed into a possession receiver who can make the big catches and Wheat-Brown is a physical player who has demonstrated his ability as a downfield blocker and receiver.
“Those two young men really came into their own last year,” Riley stated. “The play of Brandon and Anthony, particularly the last half of the season or so, enabled us to move the ball around and create seems in the defenses.”
Look for junior Chris Johnson to continue to push for playing time as he demonstrated last season why he will be a major contributor in 2007. Junior Shane Morales, sophomore Casey Kjos and redshirt freshman Kyle Brown also figure to get a lot of reps in the spring.
The program lost one of its best tight ends ever in Joe Newton, but a youthful group of talented individuals has Beaver coaches and fans confident that they will be able to make up for the loss of the imposing Newton.
Four players appear to be in the running for starting duties – sophomores Howard Croom and John Reese both played last season as true freshmen. Redshirt freshman Gabe Miller came to the program with a lot of promise, but has been slowed by an Achilles injury, and redshirt freshman Brady Camp figures to be in the mix.
“Joe was certainly a terrific player and we benefited greatly from his leadership and ability, but I really like what we have in terms of young players at this position,” Riley explained. “I’m very comfortable with the players at this position and we are in a great shape for this season and in the future at tight end.”
Oregon State was the only team in the conference last season to have all five starters earn postseason All-Pac-10 honors. The team returns four of those five starters which is one of the reasons having a first-year starter under center is not quite the concern that it could be.
“We don’t win 10 games last season without the play of the line,” Riley said emphatically. “We don’t go for two points in the Sun Bowl, and Matt, Sammie and Yvenson don’t post the numbers they did.”
The anchor of the line is center Kyle DeVan, who returns to start for his third consecutive year. Junior left guard Jeremy Perry is already considered one of the best at his position in the conference, evident by his first team All-Pac-10 honor last season and Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year accolade in 2005. Senior right guard Roy Schuening has started 37 consecutive games and was the lead blocker in the two-point conversion in the Sun Bowl. Junior right tackle Andy Levitre took over the starting duties early last season after a season-ending injury to Josh Linehan.
Junior Tavita Thompson is among the candidates to fill the one open position at left tackle. Also look for sophomore Gregg Peat, redshirt freshman Ryan Pohl and incoming junior college transfers Michael Cole and Jon Ioane to contribute