While Oregon State lost two starters to graduation, the team returns a wealth of experience, including seven seniors.
Senior Jeff Van Orsow is one of the quickest ends in the league and will be among the top lineman for 2007. Van Orsow led the linemen last season for tackles with 48 and will be forever mentioned in Beaver lore with his deflection of John David-Booty’s two-point conversion in the waning seconds of OSU’s 33-31 win at Reser Stadium.
“Jeff will be one of the leaders of the team,” Riley said. “He has made tremendous strides in this program and has developed into an outstanding player.”
Senior Dorian Smith, who saw considerable action in his first season in the program last year, will likely be the starter at left end after ranking among the national leaders for sacks with nine. Senior Naymon Frank, who will either play end or tackles and junior Victor Butler, one of the quickest defenders on the team, will be in the rotation. Junior college transfer Sioeli Nau is also expected to be an impact player.
Seniors Curtis Coker, William `Akau’ola Vea and Gerard Lee, Jeff Kruskamp and junior Pernnell Booth are among the veterans at tackle. Coker has the most starts at 13 games, with the other three all playing significant roles in 2006. Junior college transfer Latu Moala is also expected to be a contributor.
“We lost a very good player in Ben Siegert, but I still feel we have a lot of talent at tackle,” Riley said. “The amount of experience we have at both tackle and end gives us an opportunity to be as good or better than last season.”
Without a doubt the strength of the defense will be the returning trio of starters at linebacker – seniors Derrick Doggett, Joey LaRocque and Alan Darlin. The threesome, along with significant reserves, makes this one of the best groups in all of college football.
“We call ourselves the West Coast’s version of `linebacker U’ and this group solidifies that motto,” Riley said. “We have guys who are very quick and physical, and that hinders offenses. If you are an offensive coordinator you have to take into account our linebackers abilities to rush the passer, but yet drop into coverage.”
Doggett is a guy who is simply around the ball at all times. He’s quick enough to cover a receiver or running back out of the backfield, big enough to cover a tight end, and strong enough to fend off a blocking lineman to find the ball carrier. The two-time second team All-Pac-10 backer had three interceptions last season, returning two for scores. He had 87 tackles for the year, including 14.5 for tackles-for-loss.
“Derrick is a very gifted athlete,” Riley said. “He’s quick, has great speed and is tough. He’s along the same lines as some of our guys who are currently playing the position in the NFL.”
LaRocque led the team with 98 tackles and developed into one of the better players at his position through the course of the season. Darlin produced 72 tackles, including 12.5 for loss and five sacks.
The depth at linebacker is impressive as a host of reserves have gained valuable experience. Sophomore Keaton Kristick and juniors Bryant Cornell, Eric Moala Liava'a, Isaiah Cook and Dennis Christopher have also shown the ability to step in and be major factors. Redshirt-freshman Dwight Roberson was impressive last year as a practice squad player and big things are expected from him this season.
Strong safety Sabby Piscitelli is no longer around patrolling the backfield, but with the exception of him, the unit returns in tact.
Juniors Keenan Lewis and Brandon Hughes are the returning starters at cornerback, with seniors Coye Francies and Gerard Lawson having plenty of experience there as well. Francies and Lawson are a formidable duo as kickoff returners as well.
“I feel very, very good about the cornerback positions,” Riley said. “Two years ago we were playing true freshmen in this area, now we have four experienced players who can play cover man. A lot of the success we have on defense is due to the experience and depth we have created at the cornerback spots.”
The safety positions are in the hands of senior Daniel Drayton and juniors Al Afalava and Bryan Payton. Drayton has quietly gained experience through playing as a reserve and on special teams. Afalava is one of the hardest hitters on the team and Payton has shown tremendous athleticism. Redshirt-freshman Suaesi Tuimaunei and James Dockery are also ready to make an impact this season.
“We have speed and are very athletic at the safety positions,” Riley said. “I really like the whole makeup of the entire secondary, from top to bottom it might be the best we have had in my tenure at Oregon State.”
Is he still at Oregon State? Many might think that when they see senior kicker Alexis Serna on the field this fall. Serna has made 106 consecutive extra point attempts and has 62 career field goals. He won the Groza Award in 2005 and has been a semifinalist the other two years. He will likely break the school record for career scoring and enters the 2007 season with the second-most points among active players in the NCAA with 292.
“There is not much more to say than Alexis is a tremendous weapon and someone we have full confidence in,” Riley said. “He has proven that he is reliable in big games, in bad weather and in hostile stadiums. We take him for granted sometimes.”
Sophomore punter Kyle Loomis made tremendous strides during the course of the season and he looks to have three more solid years in the role.
Oregon State has a very challenging schedule in 2007, particularly on the road. The Beavers travel to 2006 bowl participants USC, Arizona State, California, Oregon and Cincinnati. In fact, considering the won-loss records from 2006 the Beavers Pac-10 road schedule is the second most difficult in the league. It’s a schedule that also has 2006 bowl participants Utah and UCLA in Corvallis.
“We definitely have our work cut out for us as the league continues to get better and better from top to bottom,” Riley said. “This football team will get tested every week and that is the exciting part of college football.”