Practice starts tomorrow, which means the pre-practice media whirlwind week for Coach Mike Riley is done. From an appearance with Jim Rome on ESPN's "Rome is Burning" to a spot on Portland's 95.5 The Game, plus an appearance on Fox Sports Radio's "Petros and Money'' show, and sessions with the several local beat writers that follow the Beavers in print or on the Web, it has been a very busy week of promoting while still managing expectations for the Beavers and the Beaver believers.
Riley, the PAC-10 Coach of the Year, continues to come across well when the spotlight is on, and provided updates on a number of familiar topics, starting, or course, with starting. As in starting the season, preferably faster than the familiar 2-3 starts of the last three years, and other recent stumbles in September.
Maybe it is just Riley being overly cautious, because the Beavers aren't getting ready to play LSU, Louisville, or Penn State on the road, but given the Beaver's well-known reputation for slow starts, Riley is covering his bases.
"Regardless of our schedule," Oregon State coach Mike Riley says, "we've got a lot to find out about our team in the early games."
As the Beaver prepare for practice, which begins Monday at Prothro Field, and the Beavers' Sept. 5 home opener against Jerry Glanville's Portland State Vikings, Riley was tempering talk of another run at the Rose Bowl while still appreciating the fact OSU is getting more national attention.
"We all know what we should be as far as being the favorite against Portland St., but I don't like those kind of games. They bother me; and scare me. Jerry (Glanville) is a veteran, he will have them ready to go and I'm not going to assume anything."
Camp will take on a slightly different look this year, as Riley implements a new approach in an attempt to change up those slow starts. There will be a noticeable shift in philosophy in pre-season workouts, with the hope that the Beavers don't stumble early. Though Riley agrees much of Oregon State's September woes can be attributed to rugged non-conference games, wear and tear is a by-product of tough practices.
"We look at that stuff all the time. We've tweaked a few things this year to help us get a better start. It goes against my gut instincts as a coach, but we are going to be less physical early on. That means much less scrimmaging between the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense, and more time spent in individual teaching. We want to slow down the 'wear down' process.''
Riley explained that he'll keep the offense and defense completely separated on Monday and Tuesday, and emphasize individual drills.
"When the units are brought together for later practice sessions, we will probably limit the rotations to the first and second-string players, and then later in the practice, end their time on the field, and drill only the reserves that are on the third units. And if we win three in a row, I'm going to tell you that's why."
Riley also had thoughts about the Beavers' preseason ranking of 25th., which acknowledges where OSU has finished the last three years (Oregon State is one of only 10 programs to be ranked in the season-ending Associated Press Top 25 in each of past three seasons. The others in that group are USC, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, BYU, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Ohio State and Georgia.).
"I would have picked last year's team higher than this year's team (at the start)," Riley said point-blank. "Not that I don't have faith that we can do it again, but we've got a lot to prove before we can say who we are."
Riley also discussed the Beaver's most pressing issues with the following observations:
On the quarterback situation,
"Until Lyle (Moevao) is throwing 100 percent again, and he's not close yet, Sean (Canfield) is #1. If we get to a point where they're both healthy, then we've got something to talk about. We hope to get there by the first game, my goal is to have two senior quarterbacks that can lead the team. Last year in the PAC-10 nine of the ten teams had to go to their number two quarterback, and we were one of them. The last two years, both of them have filled in for each other, and that that has been a key to our success."
If not, there is a growing possibility that Peter Lalich may go from a possible red-shirt year to pressuring Ryan Katz for the #2 spot.
Whether the re-built offensive line will be able to open holes for Jacquizz Rodgers could be the biggest key for the offense. Replacing left tackle Andy Levitre, who may start for the NFL's Buffalo Bills this season, and see action starting with today's NFL Hall of Fame Game, in which the Bills face the Tennessee Titans, won't be easy. The Beavers will take a look at incoming freshman offensive lineman Michael Philipp as the replacement for Levitre.
"Michael will get a chance in camp to win the left tackle job. We expect him to be a viable competitor for the spot. It's almost 'start or redshirt' for Michael though. There's no in-between."
Regarding the defensive line, where the Beavers lost their two best pass-rushers to the pros in Slade Norris and Victor Butler, Riley is
"Excited about the potential of new starters Ben Terry and Kevin Frahm, and back-ups Gabe Miller and Matt LaGrone. If you are writing an article about the Beavers, what are they going to do at defensive end, then I hope we can answer that as well as we did when Dorian Smith and Jeff Van Orsow left."
As reported earlier in the week, the defensive line will be minus one expected contributor though. Redshirt freshman Jesse Fifita's playing career is over due to spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal cord that causes nerve pinching. It leads to persistent pain in the buttocks, limping and a lack of feeling in the lower extremities. The condition is most commonly caused by osteoarthritis-related bone damage, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Riley explained that Fifita, a 6'1", 285 lb. defensive tackle, suffered repeated stingers during spring practice. When he got them in both shoulders at the same time they had him checked out.
"Jesse was a great prospect coming off a redshirt year. But then he had (stingers) in both shoulders at the same time, which immediately throws up a red flag. We got three opinions on his condition, and they all agreed that he should not play football anymore."
Fifta is officially listed as a medical redshirt, which means he stays on the team on scholarship, but was expected to be part of the defensive line rotation this season.
"It was one of the worst (experiences) you can have, to sit in there and tell him he should not play. He wanted to get more opinions, but frankly I told him that when one neural surgeon says this, and then we pass it on to two more, one in the NFL, and another one who handles a college team, and they say the exact same thing, there's no way I could let him on the field. It was not fun. This kid has worked hard and surprised everybody."
One of the biggest issues is at wide receiver, where Darrell Catchings is being counted on to fill the shoes of Sammie Stroughter and Shane Morales.
"Casey Kjos is among the top candidates to replace Shane as our possession receiver, one of out go-to guys on third down. I've told Casey, he's got to become the next Shane. He has the same size, the same work ethic and the same intelligence. Now it's a matter of translating it into the games."
There is a lot of new talent in the receiver corps as well, with the three redshirt freshman Jordan Bishop, Geno Munoz, and Kevan Walker, plus true freshman Markus Wheaton, who has blazing speed.
"Do we get that (Stroughter-type) production from Darrell? It's kind of a key spot."
And with the graduation of all four starters, three of which were drafted by the NFL, plus a key reserve, the secondary continues to be the biggest single concern.
On the corners, where the OSU defense must be physical to implement "press" coverage, the departure of four year starters Keenan Lewis and Brandon Hughes to the NFL, the projected new starters James Dockery and Tim Clark didn't light it up in the spring.
"Those two kids (Lewis and Hughes) played corner forever, and all of a sudden, they're gone. They ended up being really good players, ones that allowed us to do a lot of the things we do on defense. ... (The new players) have to grow up fast, and get in there and play."
Riley said he appreciates the preseason respect and attention on the national level from USA Today and ESPN,
"We are glad to be up in there (the top 25). But the fact is, we have more questions than ever to answer before this team finds an identity. We're picked higher than ever, but we've got more questions than ever."
The search for the answers to that question goes to the next level tomorrow at 2 PM. Because the answers will need to be ready in 27 days, when the Beavers get their first "quizz" from the Vikings.