Oregon St. wrapped up spring football for another season with their "Spring Showcase" Saturday. Showers that came and went and a cool, cloudy afternoon made it feel like football season, and despite some long and strangely timed breaks for the Pac-12 Channel, plus some strange sequences involving everything from beach balls being thrown from the upper deck of Reser Stadium to opportunities for fans to try out to see if they can catch passes from Sean Mannion, or out-kick Trevor Romaine, we got to see some series that give some glimpses into the season ahead.
Some of those glimpses can be categorized as "Who do you trust", some as "Who could have a breakout impact", and some as "Who scares you".
Mannion Leads Offense, But Still More Questions Than Answers
There's no mystery that Mannion's arm, which threw for the second most passing yards in the country last season, will be far and away Oregon St.'s main weapon again this year, and that accounted for by far the longest line ever seen at the autograph session before the game for any individual player.
But with Brandon Cooks having left for the NFL, and Kevin Cummings also graduating, the questions surround who will be on the receiving end of all of those throws Mannion will be making.
Victor Bolden, above, continued today to establish himself as one of those who will get a lot of the balls, and while he's not in the spring before his second season where Cooks, or Marcus Wheaton and James Rodgers before him, were at the same point in their careers, he's not that far behind, and is moving into that "trusted" category.
That's a good thing, because the lone returning season-long starter, Richard Mullaney, did relatively little to instill trust this spring. Mullaney spent the first portion of spring ball ill, and then suffered an ankle injury that there seemed to be little sense of urgency about recovering from. As a result, Mullaney was a spectator today, and needs a strong summer camp to get ready for carrying the increased portion of the load many are assuming he will handle.
Another question mark was whether Malik Gilmore would make a major stride forward coming into this season, and an opportunity to take a starting spot. It was understandable that Gilmore often looked uncertain when he was thrust into the fray in place of Cummings, after Cummings suffered a broken wrist against Stanford, and wasn't able to return until the Hawaii Bowl against Boise St. And while there were other factors, that uncertainty was a factor in the fact that the Beavers lost all of those games while Cummings was hurt.
That stride forward hasn't happened, at least yet, though, and today did nothing to calm concerns with regard to Gilmore going forward. A drop on a 4th down conversion that was right in his hands qualifies as a "scares me" moment, the kind that just can not happen.
But it's not as though Mannion lacks for other targets, and both head Coach Mike Riley, who calls the plays, and new Offensive Coordinator John Garrett are more than willing to leverage those targets.
The biggest ones, literally, are tight ends.
Caleb Smith was another of today's spectators, and with Tyler Perry also temporarily hindered, it meant a lot of reps for Connor Hamlett, below, working against LB D.J. Alexander.
Kellen Clute, who has had a good spring, also got a lot of reps, and Hamlett and Clute were running even with the 3s and 4s, which was quite a challenge for the 3s ad 4s on the defense.
Another wrinkle to watch for this season will be plays to fullback Tyler Anderson, and not just in the rushing game.
Mannion to Anderson out of the backfield was an effective addition to the passing game today, and also represents effectively a rushing play, and one that can work even when opposing defenses are focused on the tail back.
That's likely to be necessary, because today didn't evidence that the much desired rushing game is all that likely to be that much more of a presence than it was, or more accurately wasn't, in many games last year.
Admittedly, part of that are the current issues with the offensive line, which has to replace 3 graduating seniors, as well as work without center Isaac Seumalo, who is still recovering from a broken foot suffered against Boise St., and had additional surgery last month.
The problems were further exacerbated late in camp, when Grant Bays suffered another of these temporary injuries, and was unavailable today.
But those issues don't impact the tackle position, which Riley has said could see Seumalo move out to come fall if necessary, something he did at times last season.
Today's first team offensive line, left to right, consisted of Will Hopkins, Sean Harlow, Roman Sapolu, Fred Lauina, and Gavin Andrews.
The second unit was converted tight end Dustin Stanton, Garrett Weinrich, Sapolu, Nolan Hansen, and Bobby Keenan, who is now working at right tackle instead of left tackle.
Hopkins and Stanton are both on the light side, and while it wasn't a major problem for pass protection, the close line splits offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has employed in order to keep pressure off of Mannion and a lack of drive strength hasn't resulted in too many running lanes.
Off tackle slants and stretch runs met with some success, but they run into the speed of a defense, and that's a common quality in the Pac-12.
So who should Beaver Nation expect to emerge at wide receiver?
One good prospect is John Carroll, above. At 6'2", Carroll, who has impressed at times over the course of spring drills, and had some good catches today. I could see Carroll filling a niche not unlike Shane Morales did a few years ago, and that worked out pretty well for Oregon St. on their way to the Sun Bowl.
Hunter Jarmon, above, also had some good catches today, hauling in 3 balls, and seems to be deserving of a look for more playing time with the 1s, based on what he's done when he gets on the field.
Blair Cavanaugh could also find himself a target for Mannion this season.
One of the big questions this spring is who will back up Mannion, in the event of a disaster, and take over next year.
Make no mistake, if something does happen to Mannion, it will be a disaster.
Brent VanderVeen was the first quarterback to work behind Mannion, but Luke Del Rio, above, got the majority of the reps among the 3 reserve quarterbacks, and appears to be getting the chance to take the job, if he hasn't already been handed it by Riley. Kyle Kempt was relegated to late afternoon mop-up action. But based on performance, there is no apparent #2, with Del Rio, VanderVeen, and Kempt 3A, 3B, and 3C.
Del Rio may have elevated above VanderVeen based on having more velocity on his delivery, but he's still highly predictable, and will need to develop better balance on the field, something both VanderVeen and Kempt are better at, and address the things that often tip the play. Del Rio also forced balls into tight coverage on multiple occasions.
VanderVeen could use a dose of speed, and Kempt has work to do on getting comfortable in the pocket.
Terron Ward, above, had another good day, and seems likely the best bet to get the first start at tailback, though Storm Woods did get the first snaps today.
Woods was used sparingly though, and those calling for an increased role for Chris Brown, below, found substantiation for their opinion today as well.
Damien Haskins ran well late in the day's drills, albeit against defensive 3s and 4s, but its hard to see where reps will come from for a 4th back.
Defense Deep and Fast
Turning to the defense, the thing that jumps out is the overall speed of the back 7. Steven Nelson, below defending Bolden, is as fast as ever, but has added a lot of coverage technique to his game. Last year, Nelson didn't always appear to know what he was doing, but his speed got him on the field. This year, it appears he's made a major move in addressing that, and looks like he could be a contender for an All-Pac-12 season.
With D.J. Alexander and Michael Doctor both healthy, and Alexander now apparently healthy for the long haul, after surgery just before Christmas that kept him out of the Hawaii Bowl to address bone spurs in his neck, and Jabral Johnson moving inside, the linebacking group, all 3 seniors, was expected to be stout. With 3 more seniors in the secondary, as both safeties Peter Murphy and Tyreque Zimmerman join Nelson, it makes for a very experienced, and very fleet, back 7.
The good news is that appears to carry over to the entire second back 7 as well, so if some of those 2s have to step up, the Beavers should have about as much speed in that back 7 as ever.
On several occasions, the Beaver defense showed walk-up blitzes only to drop out of them, and though the defense was not going to deliver hits to quarterbacks, they were able to simulate them, and in the case of the blitzes, cause disruption without ever sending more than 4.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker has never been prone to a lot of blitzes, and it is risky in a conference of gunslinger quarterbacks (10 of 12 teams in the conference have returning trigger men this season). But the speed on this defense presents options.
Dashon Hunt appears to have held on to the corner back spot replacing graduated Rashaad Reynolds, though Larry Scott, the anticipated heir to the job, could still make a move in summer camp.
Expect to see both Hunt and Micah Audiss in the nickel role, depending on the nature of the needs the opposition imposes on the defense, speed or size, assuming Scott regains his form after suffering a pulled hamstring this spring.
Turning to the defensive line, expect to see a lot of Dylan Wynn at tackle as well as at end, based on how frequently he moved inside today.
But then Wynn is going to be everywhere, from designated chainsaw operator, above, to multiple positions on the d-line, to most of the special teams, including kickoff coverage, place kick defense, and punt protection.
And as we see above, Wynn has been working on his hand technique!
One of the persons of interest this spring has been DT Jalen Grimbe, a transfer from Miami. Today, he was with the 2s though, as Edwin Delva and Siale Hautau got the first snaps in the defensive interior.
Grimble has game, but got turned by offensive linemen on several occasions, and still has work to do on his technique. But when he gets loose, look out! Certainly something to watch develop as summer camp and the season unfold.
Another of this spring's interesting experiments was the move of former WR Obum Gwacham to DE. There's still a lot of work to be done, and his slight build, 230 lbs. on a 6'5" frame, is an issue against power running formations. But that length, as displayed above, is a weapon, and so is his speed on the edge.
The Beaver offense on a couple of occasions resorted to committing either Hamlett or Clute to chip Gwacham. Expect to see some pass rush packages involving Gwacham this season.
Special Teams Something Of An Adventure
Several questions swirl around special teams, not the least of which are who will return kicks.
The answers will still be yet to be determined in summer camp, but today, it was Malcolm Marable, who returned kickoffs last season, and Murphy the first pair back.
Bolden and Brandon Arnold also got turns on kick returns, as well as Ward, and Bolden and Nelson got looks at punts.
Ward took a kickoff back for a touchdown, and Bolden did the same with a punt, though in both cases, close but don't hit hard orders instituted to avoid injury producing big hits were partially responsible for the big returns.
The problem with kick returns continues to revolve more around problems with blocking, and to a degree, decision making about when to return kickoffs and when to take the touchback, rather than the runback ability of the returners.
Keith Kostol looked solid punting, and Trevor Romaine's kickoffs were serviceable, though they could be longer, but it looks like "Magical Trevor" could be in for another adventurous year with field goals. No point afters were bothered with, but Romaine missed a 35 yard field goal. Garrett Owens had no such mis-kicks.
One piece of good news was that there were no apparent injuries, even minor ones, today.
Literally everything can change between now and kickoff against Portland St. on August 30, never mind the conference opener in the Coliseum against USC on Sept. 27, but a defense built on speed, and an offense built around Mannion's passing, are in place, and relatively few position battles seem to be up in the air, though those that are are going to be key to the Beavers' success.