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Oregon State Football: Is there hope for defensive improvement?

Will the new faces be enough to drastically improve a poor defense?

NCAA Football: Oregon at Oregon State Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t need me to tell you that the Oregon State Beavers’ defense this past season was bad... Historically bad. In almost any other season they would have been ranked as the worst defense in college football, but (thankfully) UConn had basically the worst defensive season in FBS history saving the Beavers from that deplorable honor.

Bottom 10 - FBS Defenses

Oregon State’s defense gave up more points (45.7) and total yardage (536.8) per game than any other team in school history. Every P5 opponent had at least 500 yards total offense against the Beavers. Arizona, Arizona State, Cal and Oregon ran right through OSU, while Washington State and Ohio State just sliced the secondary up.

Run defense was the biggest problem for Oregon State. They gave up 281.8 yards per game on the ground, including 442 to Arizona, 396 to Arizona State, 392 to Oregon and 375 to Ohio State.

The good news is that the only seniors the defense will lose are Dwayne Williams (transfer), Jonathan Willis and Kalani Vakameilalo. The Beavers return their top nine leading tacklers and should welcome back a fully healthy David Morris who racked up 75 tackles in 2017 as a true freshman.

Jalen Moore who recorded 102 tackles as a junior should be back to help anchor a more experienced secondary that could provide more resistance if they remain healthy. David Morris won’t be the only injured player the Beavers will welcome back. Jay Irvine and Omar Hicks-Onu should be significant returning contributors next season to help bolster the secondary.

Here’s my way-too-early prediction at the depth chart for the secondary:

DB - Shawn Wilson, Jaydon Grant, Jaden Robinson

DB - Jay Irvine, Isaiah Dunn, Kaleb Hayes

S - David Morris, Jeffery Manning Jr, Omar Hicks-Onu

S - Jalen Moore, Trajon Cotton, Charles Moku Watson

The secondary has been decimated with injuries the past few seasons which has been the biggest factor in this group under-performing. On paper, the 2019 secondary should be solid and if they stay healthy, they could even be a reliable piece for this Oregon State squad.

The linebackers showed flashes of promise in 2018. They were extremely young and inexperienced though. Despite some positive signs and strong play from a number of true freshman they were not able to prop up the defense for any significant portion of time.

Here’s my way-too-early prediction at the depth chart for linebackers:

LB - Kee Whetzel, Hamilcar Rashed, John McCartan, Omar Speights

LB - Shemar Smith, Avery Roberts

LB - Isaiah Tufaga, Doug Taumoelau,

LB - Andrezj Hughes-Murray, Matthew Tago

The addition of Avery Roberts should help add some much needed physicality to this defense. The Beavers still have quite a few play-makers that can help the defensive line pressure opposing quarterbacks. The biggest thing that stands out to me is that the Beavers (assuming they stay healthy) should finally have good depth at the linebacker position. When you add in the incoming freshman this group is still young, but they should take a strong step in the right direction next season.

The defensive line was the biggest question mark going into 2018 and they remain a giant question mark headed into the 2019 season. Isaac Hodgins had a strong season as a true freshman and it will be nice to have Elu Aydon back, but a lot will be riding on newcomers.

Junior college transfers like Jordan Whittley, Simon Sandberg (and potentially Raymond Vohasek/James Rawls) will be relied on heavily on the defensive line. Oklahoma transfer Addison Gumbs was one of the top pass-rushers in the nation coming out of high school and will be needed to pressure opposing quarterbacks, but it remains to be seen how he looks after suffering a season ending knee injury. Newcomers Omar Speights, Evan Bennett, Cory Stover and Kelsen Hennessy will all have the chance to contribute immediately, but the transition from high school football to college football is never easy.

Here’s my way-too-early prediction at the depth chart for the defensive line:

DE - Jeromy Reichner, Isaac Garcia, Miki Fifita, Jaelen Bush, Cory Stover

DT - Elu Aydon, Isaac Hodgins, Jaelen Bush, Jordan Whittley, Evan Bennett

DE - Addison Gumbs, Simon Sandberg, Kelsen Hennessy

Looking at the projected depth chart here, it’s hard for me to be completely optimistic about the defense headed into 2019. There’s definitely some nice pieces, but the overall depth and experience on the defensive line is just not there yet. The coaching staff made great strides in trying to remedy the weaknesses on the defensive line, but they’re still in rebuild mode.

Last season Oregon State mostly played in nickel packages. Which is not surprising for any Pac-12 school or really any college football program. Formation-wise, they mostly went with a 3-3-5 and a 3-4 for obvious running situations. Unfortunately, the defense just did not have the bodies on the defensive line to disrupt the running lanes.

My fear still resides in the defensive line disrupting the running lanes. If healthy the linebackers and secondary should be able to hold their own, but defense is a group effort. If the defensive lineman cannot provide any pressure on opposing quarterbacks and/or clog up running lanes for opposing running backs it almost doesn’t matter how much improvement is shown in the defense behind them. Looking over next season’s projected depth chart I see an improved and more experienced defense. I also see a defense that is going to struggle and probably rank in the bottom third of FBS football. Now that’s a considerable improvement from ranking 125th, but it’s certainly not going to be a quick fix for the Beavers.