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Last Minute Preseason Preview: The D-Unit

QUICK!  What's the most annoying perceived pre-season weakness of the 2008 Oregon State Beavers? 

If you said, "they have to replace their entire defensive front 7, is the most annoying perceived weakness," then you're right!  No prize for you, but it shows your intelligence.

The worst, most annoying feature of preseason predictions is when so-called analysts look more closely at players who have departed, rather than who is coming back.  Obviously, the departed players have nothing to do with the team that will play in the coming season.  (Sorry--just a pet peeve. ) If you remember 2007, the Beavers were replacing the most starters of any team in the league (that was even before Jeremy Perry and Sammie Stroughter went down for the season) and still managed to finish third while losing two league games where the opponent was outplayed--except in the turnover column.  For the second year in a row, the Beavers were only a handful of individual plays away from representing the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl.

That being said, let's examine the players who left: 7 seniors who dominated.  OSU was the top defense in the conference last year, and one of the very best in the nation--7 opponents were held to 35 or fewer rushing yards (Opening Day opponent, Stanford, had negative 8 yards on the ground in a completely lopsided game).  5 of the 7 who graduated were selected for all-league honors.  But, the thing that really stands out about the group is that only 1of those players was drafted to the NFL--in the second half of the 7th and final round!  Were they just not that great?  Were they fast, but too small by NFL standards?  Does teamwork really work in a team sport?  Was it the scheme?  Is OSU's defensive success all smoke and mirrors?   We're all about to find out the answers to those questions over the course of the next few weeks.

Who is replacing these 7 fine student athletes?  4 seniors, 1 junior, and 2 sophomores with physical skills that make them impossible to keep off the field (Stephen Paea is the strongest Beaver ...of all-time? Keith Pankey is roughly as fast as Derrick Doggett who was the fastest Beaver linebacker since Nick Barnett, who was the 5th leading tackler in the NFL last year). 

And what about the secondary?  Why, there's 4 seniors there, too: Keenan Lewis, Brandon Hughes, Al Afalava, and Greg Laybourne.  I believe they have 90-100 starts between them.

If you're keeping score at home, the defense that many people call "rebuilding" will have 8 senior starters.  So what will they about them in preseason evaluations for 2009?  Re-rebuilding?  Recovering from atomic warfare?  Re-animating the dead?

Let's look at each group: (after the break, of course!)


  • Defensive Tackle: Pernell Booth, cousin of former Beaver Great and current Baltimore Raven Dwan Edwards, is the most experienced.  Stephen Paea has passed 3 other nasty 300 pound dudes who have been in the program for a while.  4-5 300 pounders are expected to rotate in situational packages, just like last year.
  • Defensive End: Slade Norris and Victor Butler had 19 sacks between them last year.  That is the highest total of sacks for a pair of returning defensive ends in the entire country, but, but, but...they weren't starters.  Ben Terry (a 3-4% larger clone of Victor Butler), Kevin Frahm--The Frahminator, and Carl Sommer will rotate.  If Simi Kuli gets here in September, he will only increase the mayhem in this 5 player rotation.  Otherwise, he plays next year.  Collectively, this is a faster group than last year's rotation. 
  • Linebackers:  Bryant Cornell has been waiting, and waiting, and waiting.  He's only gotten to start in one game (2006@Hawaii), where he did a fine job containing their 295 pound running back.  [Note: 295 lbs. not a typo--ed.]  Keaton Kristick was used a lot over the past few years and is expected to be the leading tackler on the team at strongside (Derrick Doggett's old position).  If you youtube the 4th and 1 stuff of Jonathan Stewart--the most important carry of Stewart's college career-- Kristick was in man coverage on the slot receiver and came into the pile to push Stewart onto his back, but just the fact that he was playing on 4th down in overtime while the starting player was perfectly healthy should give anyone an idea of what the coaching staff thinks of him.   Keith Pankey...every time I see him up close, I think, "that guy is exactly the same size as me--a normal dude--there's just no way he could start at this level."  Uh, except my dad didn't have a long NFL career and my speed equates more to playing backup holder or maybe the getback coach, as opposed to Keith's free safety-speed.  Again, they are faster than last year's group of linebackers.
  • Safeties:  Al Afalava has lost about 10 pounds over the summer and is back to running 4.4s.  He was already an all-league player, but he might be the most improved player on the defense.  Greg Laybourne is interesting.  He has only started in a handful of games, but he has come up huge in them: two games with 10 tackles, and one with 15.  If opponents were trying to pick on him, it didn't work out so well.  When you youtube the goalline stand against Cal last year, Greg got called for pass interference in the endzone to give the Bears an even closer shot at 1st and goal.  Then he came back and made two of the tackles that kept the Bears from scoring on that possession.  He has great hands from playing baseball, and was on the Beavers' 2006 NCAA Championship team.  There's 2 "4 star" recruits backing them up, and 5 players might rotate at Stanford with Afalava out for that game.  
  • Corners:  Keenan Lewis is excellent.  Brandon Hughes is good enough that teams stopped throwing to his side halfway through the league schedule last year.  Both have started for 3 years.  The "backup" corner, Tim Clark, held Cal's (all-time greatest receiver) DeSean Jackson to 5 catches...for FOUR yards last year in Berkeley.  It was Clark's first start.  

Beat writers are saying it is the fastest defense they have ever covered as reporters.   Mike Riley has said it is the fastest unit that he has coached in his career. 

BtD officially doesn't understand the pessimism.