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May 23, 2013

Five questions heading into Summer

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About a month has passed since Oregon State's spring game, so the start of the 2013 season is gradually coming into view. Just the summer months now separate the Beavers from the start of preseason camp on August 5. At this point, five key questions surround OSU:

1. When will Mike Riley decide on a starting quarterback?: Not anytime soon. Riley is content to continue watching Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz battle for the starting job, so the final answer likely won't come for another three months until both signal callers have had an opportunity to resume working with the first-team offense in fall camp.

"The best way to say it right now is neither one of them really surprised us in the spring as far as not getting behind," Riley said recently in a teleconference with reporters. "They both improved as players in the spring and have done some really good things in the past. We didn't have any negative surprises. It wasn't like they digressed or didn't play well in the spring. They both know what they have to work on for fall camp."

Is Riley giddy about having two capable quarterbacks at his disposal when called upon? Yes. Vaz started five of the 13 games last season, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,480 yards, while Mannion (18 career starts) started eight games and threw for 2,446 yards while completing 64.5 percent of his passes. The presence of Vaz and Mannion means OSU returns 100 percent of its passing yards in 2013.

"What's going on is real good for the Beavers. We have two quarterbacks that can win and they're older kids now," Riley gushed. "They know what we're doing, so they both go in and normally always function pretty darn well. They both had a lot of great moments last year and did some nice things. I have confidence in both of them.

"They're both good enough based on their pasts to say they can start and win games for us, but they can always improve. That's good for us. It's best left at that until we get a better handle on it through the summertime."

Riley is reluctant to say who leads the hotly contested race until the two quarterbacks spend the summer making thousands of throws, always getting better. But he will continually search for clues.

"We're now evaluating the spring and where we're going to head in the fall," Riley said. "As we go through June, we'll take a good look as to who we think might be ahead. It could be difficult to say. We may carry this competition into fall camp. We'll study it hard. Right now, we're pleased with both of them. They both had very good springs and both got a little bit better."

Two important intangibles Riley said that he will carefully scrutinize in the fall are the leadership skills exhibited by each quarterback and how they're handling the competition from a mental standpoint. Both attributes are unmistakably crucial for success in the Pac-12.

"It's a fact of their life right now," Riley said.

2. Has anybody grabbed the lead at cornerback?: Riley views the competition between Sean Martin and Steven Nelson for the right to replace Jordan Poyer at cornerback as another battle that was "good for the Beavers." Just like at quarterback, no clear frontrunner has emerged.

"My goal out of this is both guys become bonafide starters," Riley said. "They both won't necessarily start on first down. If they proceed to grow as we saw them through their competition in the spring, you'll see them both playing together a lot on third down defense and in nickel or dime. We naturally need both of them to be considered as starters."

Martin served as the backup to Poyer last season, but rather than simply ascending to the starting job, he found himself in a tussle with the talented Nelson that hasn't yet been determined.

"Sean Martin has improved dramatically in the course of two years here," Riley said. "Steven has all the athletic tools to be a corner in our league and be a good player. He needs to learn more about what we do and how he fits into that. He is very conscientious. He'll make that move."

Just like the quarterback battle, Riley eyes the competition lasting deep into fall camp, but that OSU will emerge from the other side as a better team.

"It has all been very good," Riley said. "But I'm not ready to say which one of them is going to come out of the fall as the starter. My goal is for both of them to be ready to play and contribute and be good solid players in the fall."

3. Can the Beavers again crank out a productive ground game?: Two years ago, Oregon State averaged the paltry sum of 86.9 yards rushing per game, last in the Pac-12. A season ago, behind Storm Woods (940 yards) and Terron Ward (415 yards), the weekly average rose to 124.4 yards per game, an increase of 37.5 yards. Although pleased with how effectively the Beavers ran the football at times last season, Riley wants to see that 'ground it out mentality' year in and year out.

"We'd certainly like to be more consistent with our running game," Riley said. "It was better (in 2012) and that was a good sign. It was one of the most helpful things in making us a better football team last year. But we all want more."

Riley wants to see a more balanced rushing attack as far as diversity of play-calling is concerned. The Beavers were adequate running between the tackles last season, but lacked a threat on the outside. Meaning defenses weren't stretched as much as Riley wanted.

"We actually have to expand it a little bit," Riley said. "We didn't have a very good perimeter running game with our tailbacks. We're looking for the best ways to get Storm and Terron Ward outside and be able to threaten the defenses a little more that way.

"We're looking for improvement from our backs and growth of our offensive line. Those are areas where we just need everybody to step it up. As the running game goes, so goes us. We have to be able to run the ball."

4. Is anything settled at defensive tackle?>: No. The biggest void on defense were the departures of both starting defensive tackles, Castro Masaniai and Andrew Seumalo. The duo combined for 38 career starts, and was a major factor in OSU finishing third in the Pac-12 in rushing defense.

Understanding Masaniai and Seumalo wouldn't be around next season, the Oregon State staff focused on signing multiple defensive tackle prospects from the junior college ranks in February. Two of them were early enrollees Edwin Delva and Siale Hautau. However, the latter broke his hand about a week after spring practice started and missed the final three weeks of workouts. Kyle Peko joins the program this summer.

5. Will the positive vibes from last season and spring practice carry over into the 2013 campaign?: Oregon State won nine or more games for the fourth time in seven seasons in 2012, so Mike Riley has traveled down this road before. Just like a year ago, he hopes a solid spring practice hints at success on the gridiron in the fall when the real games count.

"There is definitely a carryover," Riley said. "A year ago, the spring time is when I started to get pretty good vibes about that group in terms of work ethic and enthusiasm for trying to get something positive done. A team is a year in the making. All the parts that go into it are important for the success you're striving for in the fall."

Despite a 3-9 record in 2011, Riley was able to quickly turnaround the Beavers' fortunes last season by eliminating the distractions around the program and relying on solid senior leadership from players such as Markus Wheaton and Jordan Poyer. Riley longs to see the same thing happen again in 2013, although the seniors on this year's team have a slightly easier task since OSU is coming off a successful season.

Being one of the more experienced teams in the Pac-12 could help matters. OSU expects to return a total of 294 combined starts from the 2012 team, so they should possess the experience needed to overcome any adversity that might crop up.

"You would hope that if it was something negative, it could be addressed somehow during the summer and a plan made for it," Riley said. "But it's definitely something you should not neglect. It can become (a) real (problem) in the fall."



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