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Sun Bowl Players to Watch: Farewells and Opportunities

Syndication: El Paso Times GABY VELASQUEZ/ EL PASO TIMES / USA TODAY NETWORK

Changes to the transfer portal have made non-college football playoff bowl games a strange world over the last few years. Neither the Beavers nor Fighting Irish will look anything like the teams that were contending for a playoff berth at various times throughout the season but head to El Paso in a top 25 matchup. It will be the third time the two teams have met, and Oregon State will look to keep their record perfect against Notre Dame after wins in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl and 2004 Insight Bowl.

The lineups will be different, but it will be a good opportunity to send off a number of seniors on the team likely playing their final season of college football including Kitian Oladapo, Jaden Robinson, John McCartan, Joe Golden, James Rawls, Jake Levengood, and Deshaun Fenwick among others. Freshman such as Melvin Jordan IV, Noble Thomas, and Takari Hickle should see playing time against a high-quality opponent to build experience heading into the 2024 season.

With all of the changes on both sides, this preview will focus on Oregon State players to watch rather than specific matchups.


Beavers on Offense

Oregon State Players Out (snaps): QB DJ Uiagalelei (709), RT Taliese Fuaga (701), LT Josh Gray (680), RG Heneli Bloomfield (629), TE Jack Velling (584), WR Anthony Gould (519), RB Damien Martinez (489), K Atticus Sappington (121), K Josh McCormick (0), P Josh Green (98), QB Aidan Chiles (95), TE Jake Overman (54)

Notre Dame Players Out (snaps): LB Marist Liufau (595), CB Cam Hart (572), CB Thomas Harper (438), S Ramon Henderson (304), DE NaNa Osafo-Mensah (252), S Antonio Carter (72), DT Aiden Keanaaina (40), CB Ryan Barnes (16), S Luke Talich (6), DE Aiden Gobaira (0)

Kudos go to Notre Dame site 18 Stripes for the rundown of players who have opted out of the game for whatever reason (transfer, draft, etc.)

Stats are a hard thing to judge in a game like this, so while Notre Dame has had a solid defense that has kept points off the board for much of the year it's hard to tell how much that translates into this game. It is worth noting that the Irish faced more of a run-heavy attack from opponents than many of Oregon State’s Pac-12 foes across the year.

Notre Dame is bringing most of their front seven into this game including DL Howard Cross III and edge defender Javontae Jean-Baptiste, who lead the Irish with 36 and 35 QB pressures respectively. That will be the primary challenge to an Oregon State offensive line replacing 3 of 5 starters. There is more turnover in the back end where Notre Dame will be missing two of their three leading corners, including Sam Hart who has been their highest graded corner. Benjamin Morrison will be the only starter in this game, while reserves Jaden Mickey and Christian Gray have both seen over 150 snaps across the season.

It is worth noting that the Beavers will have changes at both kicking specialist positions in this game. Everett Hayes will make his return to the field for kicking duty, and freshman AJ Winsor will replace Josh Green as the punter. Those changes might make the coaching staff a bit more aggressive on 4th down, even without Damien Martinez or the running abilities of DJU or Chiles.

QB Ben Gulbranson

After being jumped on the depth chart by two quarterbacks last offseason, Gulbranson saw just 4 snaps this year in mop-up duty against Stanford and did not throw a pass. His patience has been rewarded with a second consecutive bowl game start. Although he will be missing a couple reliable pass catchers in Gould & Velling, Gulbranson will have other experienced options to go with. It’s likely that the coaching staff will look for quick passes and end-arounds to get the ball in the hands of Silas Bolden and others and relieve pressure on Gulbranson and a new offensive line.

Speaking of the line, junior LT Jacob Strand and sophomore RT Tyler Morano will be making their first career starts protecting Gulbranson and are likely in the mix for starting jobs next year.

TE Riley Sharp

Sharp saw action in every game this year despite being third on the depth chart at tight end. Teammate Jermaine Terry II will likely be the primary tight end, but the Beavers loved to have two on the field with an experienced offensive line and that is unlikely to change for the Sun Bowl. Sharp received 7 targets to Terry’s 5 this year despite being out-snapped 363-111. It would not be shocking to see Sharp play the Velling role in the offense and serve as Gulbranson’s release valve in the middle of the field.

Beavers on Defense

Oregon State Players Out (snaps): LB Easton Mascarenas-Arnold (740), S Akili Arnold (657), LB Calvin Hart (586), CB Jermod McCoy (411), DT Isaac Hodgins (294)

Notre Dame Players Out (snaps): LT Joe Alt (713), RT Blake Fisher (710), QB Sam Hartman (678), C Zeke Correll (588), RG Rocco Spindler (559), TE Mitchell Evans (425), WR Rico Flores (404), RB Audric Estime (388), WR Tobias Merriweather (378), TE Holden Staes (369), WR Chris Tyree (276), WR Braylon James (22), TE Kevin Baurman (0), RT Michael Carmody (0)

Sophomore QB Steve Angeli will be starting for the Irish in place of Hartman and will be without the top 5 pass-catchers in terms of targets. Angeli’s 74 snaps this year have all come in mop-up duty. With former Duke QB Riley Leonard coming in to play for Notre Dame next year, this game is an opportunity for Angeli to prove himself to either the Irish coaching staff or another school should he choose to enter the portal.

Similar to Oregon State, Notre Dame will be without it’s feature back along with 4/5 of its starting offensive line in this game. Audric Estime set the Notre Dame single season record for rushing touchdowns this year and his taking his 5’ 11”, 227 frame to the NFL draft. All-American LT Joe Alt will be headed there with him. RT Blake Fisher, C Zeke Correll and RG Rocco Spindler are all headed in the same direction as their more heralded teammates and will make for opportunities for a mostly intact Oregon State defensive front.

ILB Isaiah Chisom

The one part of that defensive front that is not intact is the Beavers middle linebackers. Both Mascarenas-Arnold (transfer portal) and Hart Jr. (undisclosed) are out for this game. Melvin Jordan IV has been the primary backup since Makiya Tounge went down with a knee injury early in the season, but this game will be the first real opportunity for Isaiah Chisom. The freshman saw his first and only action against Stanford but will be relied upon to hold up in the middle of the field against an inexperienced but talented Notre Dame offense.

CB Noble Thomas and CB Josiah Johnson

The depth chart released by Oregon State did not specify which corner will be starting alongside veterans Jaden Robinson and Ryan Cooper Jr. Freshman Jermod McCoy took the role mid-way through the season and his departure in the transfer portal was a blow to the future of this secondary. Both Thomas and Johnson have gotten playing time this year, each having played meaningful snaps in place of injured Beavers ahead of them. Whoever plays is likely to be targeted early and often by Angeli and the Notre Dame passing attack. If they can hold up and give the offense a chance to control the ball the Beavers will have their best shot at a win.