For the second time, Jonathan Smith is looking to lead a rebuild at Oregon State. The challenge may be more immense as a coach than when he took over as the Beavers' quarterback under coach Mike Riley (who is now his assistant).
Previewing Oregon State Football's Offense for 2018
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Jake Luton is back at quarterback after a thoracic spine fracture ended his junior season in its fourth game. The 6'7" former junior-college All-American leads the transition from a spread offense to an up-tempo pro style. Luton has a strong arm but will need to improve his decision making in the new scheme to keep OSU from having the lowest-rated passing offense in the Pac-12 for the fourth year in a row.
Luton will have some experienced pieces around him, starting with junior running back Artavis Pierce. Pierce saw his production and usage drop last season, but he is a shifty runner with hands that make him a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, helping to diversify the offense while making up for the losses of Ryan Nall and Thomas Tyner.
In the passing game, the Beavers have a pair of big targets with wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins and tight end Noah Togiai as well as a reliable possession receiver in Timmy Hernandez. They will need to get more production from complementary pieces such as Trevon Bradford and other less experienced pieces.
Left tackle Blake Brandel is the leader of an offensive line that struggled in 2017.
Previewing Oregon State Football's Defense for 2018
Oregon State regressed defensively in every category last season, falling to 121st nationally in total defense (473.1 ypg) and 128th in scoring defense (43.0 ppg). But the Beavers are not without talent on this side of the ball, despite losing leading tackler, team captain and former inside linebacker Manase Hungalu. Senior inside linebacker Jonathan Willis is taking a leadership role on defense, especially after outside linebacker Bright Ugwoegbu left for the NFL supplemental draft. Willis will have to mesh with talented but unproven recruiting classmates Shemar Smith, Andrzej Hughes-Murray, Kee Whetzel and Hamilcar Rashed -- all of whom were part of the class of 2016.
Cornerbacks Xavier Crawford (back) and Dwayne Williams (knee) are back after losing most of the 2017 season to injuries, while formidable safeties Jalen Moore and David Morris fill out the Beavers' hard-hitting back line. Moore and Morris were Oregon State's second-leading tacklers last season at 75 apiece.
The biggest question mark is on the defensive line, undoubtedly the thinnest position group on the roster. Kalani Vakameilalo has had the most productive career of the group with the versatility to play nose tackle or move outside in the 3-4 scheme. Elu Aydon has the potential to be a key complementary piece to Vakameilalo in the middle, although the American Samoa native has dealt with issues keeping his weight down.
Previewing Oregon State Football's Specialists for 2018
Jordan Choukair is back as the placekicker and will be attempting to show off improved leg strength. He made all 30 extra points last season but was 12-of-19 on field goals, including 3-of-9 on kicks of 40 yards or longer. Alex Bland and Daniel Rodriguez look to replace Nick Porebski at punter. Bland, an Australia native, supplanted Porebski as a starter late last season when the senior struggled.
The Beavers aren't trying to snap a streak of 28 consecutive losing seasons like in 1999, but the gap between them and the rest of the Pac-12 felt as wide as ever last year. Still, if OSU can buy into what Smith is selling and move past a disastrous 2017, his first season as a head coach will be considered a success.