2010 Oregon State Preview - Defense

Posted May 5, 2010

CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Oregon State Beaver Defense

Oregon State Beavers

Preview 2010 - Defense

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What you need to know: A year ago, coordinator Mark Banker was forced to break in eight new starters, which brought predictable results. The D struggled against potent teams, laboring to generate many sacks or turnovers and finishing in the middle of the Pac-10. With 11 players with starting experience back, the coach is expecting a stingier unit. There's star power at defensive tackle, with All-America candidate Stephen Paea, and a defensive backfield loaded with veterans and athleticism. Taking positive steps, however, is contingent upon the pass rush and the play of a rebuilt linebacker corps. Not only was Oregon State 105th in sacks a year ago, but projected starting DE Matt LaGrone left the team before the spring. With the exception of Paea, the front seven is going to be a question mark in the early going, especially since the linebackers are trying to compensate for the graduation of Keaton Kristick, sudden departure of David Pa'aluhi, and preseason Achilles tear suffered by Keith Pankey.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Lance Mitchell, 72
Sacks: Gabe Miller, Stephen Paea, 3
Interceptions: Lance Mitchell, 3

Star of the defense: Senior DT Stephen Paea
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore DE Taylor Henry
Unsung star on the rise: Junior S Cameron Collins
Best pro prospect: Paea
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Paea, 2) Junior S Lance Mitchell, 3) Senior CB James Dockery
Strength of the defense: Run defense, the interior of the line, physicality in the secondary
Weakness of the defense: Red zone defense, defending the pass consistently, takeaways, edge pressure, the linebackers

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: For the Beavers, it all begins up front with 6-1, 311-pound senior Stephen Paea , one of the nation's best tackles and a reigning first team All-Pac-10 selection. A rare and menacing combination of brute strength and the quickness of a former rugby star, he's a nightmare for one man to handle. Playing with great pad level, he gets up underneath the opposing guard and has the foot speed to track down backs and quarterbacks from behind. Last year's 43 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and four forced fumbles don't do justice to his dominance in the trenches.

Next to Paea on the inside is self-made senior Brennan Olander , who has earned a couple of letters and a scholarship since walking on to the team four years ago. At just 6-1 and 276 pounds, he's nowhere near as strong as his linemate, but will use his quickness and good hands to get penetration in the backfield. As a nine-game starter a year ago, he chipped in with 28 tackles, eight stops behind the line, and a sack.

The team's most established defensive end will be 6-3, 249-pound senior Gabe Miller , a former tight end preparing for his second season on this side of the ball. Since scratching the surface a year, he's added good weight and improved his overall strength and pass rushing technique. The fastest Beaver in the 10-yard sprint, he's being counted on to be the first end in the backfield after making 23 tackles, five tackles for loss, and three sacks last fall.

When Matt LaGrone left the team for personal reasons, it opened the door for 6-1, 240-pound sophomore Taylor Henry to ascend to the top of the depth chart at the other end. He wasted no time announcing that he belongs, collecting four sacks in the spring game. That was half as many tackles as he had all last season in 13 games. He's always been fast, but has bulked up in the offseason and now has the strength to go along with the quickness.

Projected Top Reserves: One of the many maneuvers up front since the end of last year has 6-2, 267-pound junior Kevin Frahm switching from end to tackle, where he'll back up Olander. While not ideally sized for the interior, he's one of the line's strongest players and has the heavy hands to power through blockers and into the backfield. A starter in eight games in 2009, he had just 19 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

LaGrone's departure is going to have a big impact on the depth at defensive end, forcing at least one reserve to step. One of a number of candidates is 6-3, 262-pound sophomore Andrew Seumalo , a former walk-on and the son of Oregon State defensive line coach Joe Seumalo. Well-schooled and strong enough to provide support against the run, he needs more snaps after playing briefly in 2009.

Watch Out For .... Henry. Was the effort at the end of the spring a mirage or a harbinger of things to come? No one will know for sure until the opener with TCU on Sept. 4. Considering the state of the Beaver ends, there's cautious optimism that he can blossom into a viable bookend to Miller.
Strength: Inside pressure. With Paea leading the charge, Oregon State is very tough and very fast on the interior of the line. He requires multiple blockers, which frees up lanes for Olander and Frahm. That penetration from the inside is a huge reason why the Beavers ranked 25th nationally at stopping the run.
Weakness: Outside pressure. The situation at defensive end was a concern before LaGrone left the team. Today, it's a crisis. The Beavers had 17 sacks all of last year, ranking 105th nationally, and are searching for a complement to Miller, who's just a year removed from being a tight end. If Oregon State can't mount a consistent edge rush, the entire defense is going to feel the effects.
Outlook: The Beavers are facing a glass-is-half situation up front in 2010. On the one hand, Paea is a beast at tackle and gifted enough to completely take over games. However, the talent surrounding him is marginal, which will allow the opposition to double him for 60 minutes. If his teammates can't capitalize on the extra room, this unit will struggle to be just better than average.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: Injuries, graduations, and the unexpected departure of David Pa'aluhi have left the Beavers scrambling at linebacker. The one constant at the weakside is 6-0, 232-pound senior Dwight Roberson , a letterwinner in each of the last three seasons. Extremely active and quick from sideline to sideline, he produced 55 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks in his first year as a starter. More than just the physical leader of this group, he's expected to be the emotional catalyst as well.

The situation at strongside is far from determined, and likely won't be decided until deep into the summer. One of the candidates for the opening is 6-1, 219-pound sophomore Devin Unga , who had 12 tackles and chipped in on special teams last season. Mature away from the field and frenetic on it, he served a two-year LDS Mission to Chile before matriculating at Oregon State.

Pa'aluhi left a gaping void in the middle that should be filled by 6-1, 231-pound sophomore Tony Wilson . After missing all of 2009 with an ACL tear, he's yet to play a down in Corvallis, making this move a daunting promotion. Until the game slows down, he'll lean on his strength, smarts, and intensity to help get him through the rough spots in the early part of the season.

Projected Top Reserves: If Wilson is unable to handle the starting job in the middle, it could fall to 6-1, 222-pound sophomore Rueben Robinson . After playing mostly on special teams and making 12 tackles in nine games as a true freshman, the opportunity is there for an increased role. One of the harder hitters of the group, he's also effective covering tight ends and backs looking to become receivers.

Sophomore Kevin Unga , Devin's twin brother, brings more depth and physicality to middle linebacker. One of just eight true freshmen to play in 2009, he had 18 tackles and played as if he was shot out of a cannon on kickoff coverage. Tough, strong, and physical, he's added muscle to his 6-1 and 236-pound frame, and is only going to get better with more defensive snaps.

Watch Out For .... the recovery of 6-0, 231-pound senior Keith Pankey , the strongside starter before tearing his Achilles' tendon in March. He's expected back this season, but no one knows for sure when that will be or how rusty he'll feel. The Beavers need his explosiveness from the outside, especially with the concerns about depth and experience.
Strength: Range. Oregon State makes it a point of recruiting undersized linebackers, who can fly to the ball and make plays as pass defenders. This group qualifies, with a collection of hyperactive athletes, who'll travel the length of the field in order to make a stop.
Weakness: The middle. While the Beavers are light on experience, in general, it's going to be most pronounced at Mike linebacker, where Wilson's next live snap will be his first. Sure, the staff loves his upside, but mistakes early on will be inevitable and he still must prove the knee injury is no issue.
Outlook: The graduation of first team all-star Keaton Kristick. The unexpected departure of Pa'aluhi. The injury to Pankey. Oregon State has taken a series of hits at linebacker that are going to test its depth and force some of the kids to play above their pay scale. The Beavers have a knack for always developing talent here, but the situation could be a little unsettled in the first half of the year.
Rating: 7


Projected Starters: With all but two lettermen back, the secondary has a chance to be the strongest unit of the defense. At cornerback, 6-1, 176-pound senior James Dockery enjoyed a successful return from knee surgery that wiped out his 2008, starting all 13 games and contributing 38 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, two picks, and a team-best eight break ups. A tough and instinctive pass defender, he could be on the brink of an All-Pac-10 season in his final year on campus.

Joining Dockery will be 6-2, 219-pound junior Brandon Hardin , a corner in a safety's body. Although he can pack a punch like a linebacker, he also has the good speed and soft hips to prevent the staff from moving him around. After starting three games and making 29 tackles and four pass break ups, he could be on the brink of a breakthrough season patrolling the defensive backfield.

At safety, 6-2, 207-pound junior Lance Mitchell returns for his second season as the starter. He was successful in his debut, finishing third on the team with 72 tackles and tops with three interceptions. He has the total package for the position, combining speed and size with the soft hands to be a ball-hawking centerfielder. A terrific open-field tackler, he'll be up for postseason honors this season.

At the other safety position, junior Cameron Collins plans to pick up where he left off last season, when he made 70 tackles and broke up four passes. He moved into the lineup at the end of September and never looked back, starting a total of 11 games. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, he's an enforcer, roaming around the defensive backfield and looking for someone to belt.

Projected Top Reserves: After losing his job to Collins a year ago, 6-1, 205-pound senior Suaesi Tuimaunei is back to mount a challenge and provide depth at safety. While not one of the fastest members of this unit, he's a fearless defender and one of the hardest hitters of the secondary. He's also the Beavers' best special teams performer, earning a spot on the All-Pac-10 first team for his work.

With the graduations of Tim Clark and Patrick Henderson, 5-11, 189-pound Jordan Poyer has assumed the role of the first cornerback off the bench. Mostly a special teamer in his first season, he made 11 tackles and got a better feel for the speed of the game. Originally a safety, he has the athleticism and versatility to excel in pass coverage and bolster the depth at a new position.

Watch Out For .... the starting four coming out of spring to be the starting four at the beginning of the season. Sure, there's always competition, but this is one of the most stable units on the roster, providing a much-needed level of stability and continuity.
Strength: Intimidation. This should be one of the most physically imposing defensive backfields in the Pac-10, if not the entire country. The starters average 6-2 and 215 pounds, and all revel in roughing up opposing receivers. Beyond just the forced fumbles and separations from the ball, they'll discourage an incalculable number of receivers from crossing their path in the middle of the field.
Weakness: Red zone pass coverage. The Beavers are big and fast, but can they cover consistently? It was an issue last season, as they yielded a Pac-10-high 23 touchdown passes. The talent is in place, but they need to put it all together and cut down on the number of blown assignments when their back is against the end zone.
Outlook: The raw materials now in place, it's up to the coaching staff to mold the athletes into something special. While there will be plenty of big plays and big hits, the goal this season for the secondary is to become more consistent and reliable, particularly on third down and when the other team is driving.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: The Beavers enter 2010 in good shape on special teams, bringing last year's placekicker, punter, and top return man. Senior Justin Kahut solidified his spot as the team's kicker, going 22-of-27 on field goals to earn a spot on the All-Pac-10 second team. Despite being just 5-8 and 176 pounds, he has excellent pop in his leg and is accurate from beyond 40 yards.

Junior Johnny Hekker returns for his third year as the team punter, averaging a career-high 40.1 yards and spotting 19-of-51 inside the 20 last season. At 6-5 and 223 pounds, he has the size and leg whip to continue improving in the second half of his career. He'll be pulling double-duty this year, holding on field goals and placements for Kahut.

Explosive senior James Rodgers will once again be the primary specialist on punts and kickoffs. Always one timely block from going the distance, he averaged 11.6 yards on punt returns and 23.3 on kickoffs, often forcing the other team to kick away from him.

Watch Out For… Kahut to blossom into one of the nation's top kickers. He really turned the corner last season, improving his overall accuracy and maintaining the distance on his kicks. With another season in the vault, he's capable of vying for All-America honors and the Groza Award.
Strength: The coverage units. A perennial strength in these parts, Oregon State was once again among the nation's premier teams at covering punts and kickoffs. The Beavers were air-tight in both areas, ranking second in the Pac-10 in punts and a sterling fourth nationally on kickoffs.
Weakness: Big plays in the return game. As dangerous as Rodgers can be, the Beavers were still only 72nd and 59th nationally in punt returns and kickoff returns, respectively. Sure, opponents avoid him at all costs, but it worked, hampering the team's field position throughout the year.
Outlook: Consistent with this program's identity, it continues to do the little things well, such as special teams. With a little bit of improvement out of Hekker and the return game, Kahut and the rest of the unit can stake its claim to the most consistent special teams in the Pac-10.
Rating: 8.5