Oregon State took some meaningful steps forward last season on the road to rebuilding itself into a Pac-12 North contender again. A big question looming for the Beavers as spring practices get underway on Tuesday is if they can take the next step and reach a bowl game.
Becoming bowl eligible does not seem like a far-fetched prospect like it appeared a couple of seasons ago. Head coach Jonathan Smith helped Oregon State win five games for the first time since 2014 — Mike Riley's final season in Corvallis — and his 2019 team was arguably a couple of plays from reaching a bowl game. While the Beavers do have some holes to fill, enough experience returns on both sides of the ball to give them hope that 2020 can be a breakthrough season.
5 Storylines to Watch During Oregon State's Spring Practice
1. Who will succeed Jake Luton at quarterback?
Redshirt sophomore Tristan Gebbia appears to have the inside track at succeeding Luton as the starting quarterback. Gebbia appeared in four games last season and made his first start in the regular-season finale against Oregon. He threw for 243 yards while completing 65 percent of his passes against an elite Ducks defense. That doesn't mean Gebbia won't face competition. Junior college transfer Chase Nolan will also get a shot with the first-team offense. Nolan is a dual-threat quarterback and his mobility could fit well into an Oregon State offense that tends to favor the run.
2. Can the Beavers see continued growth from the linebackers?
One reason why Oregon State's defense showed improvement last season started with stronger play from the linebackers. Avery Roberts led the Beavers with 83 tackles and 6.5 tackles for a loss in his debut season. Omar Speights hit the ground running as a freshman, racking up 73 tackles and 7.5 TFL. Hamilcar Rashed had the biggest impact, racking up a Pac-12-best 22.5 tackles for a loss and a total of 131 TFL yards. Rashed will be limited in spring while recovering from a broken thumb suffered in mid-November. Andrzej Hughes-Murray also suffered a setback in his recovery from a broken foot. Still, Oregon State is stacked at linebacker and it will be interesting to see where all the players fit into the mix at spring's end.
3. Will Jermar Jefferson emerge as the featured running back again?
Jefferson exploded onto the scene as a freshman, piling up 1,380 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Injuries caused Jefferson to take a step back last season and opened the door for Artavis Pierce to be the featured back for much of the season. Now that Pierce is graduated, Jefferson is the likely candidate to be the No. 1 back again. Still, the junior should get a nice push from B.J. Baylor, Calvin Tyler, and Ta'Ron Madison in the backfield.
4. Can the receivers replace Isaiah Hodgins' production?
It may be impossible for a single receiver to duplicate what Hodgins did during his final season with the Beavers. He racked up 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns on 86 catches. The next closest receiver, Champ Flemings, had 457 yards and three scores on 32 receptions. If Trevon Bradford is healthy, he has the skills to be a primary target in the passing attack. Bradford totaled 649 yards and six touchdowns two years ago before injuries sidelined him for the bulk of the 2019 season. Flemings and Jesiah Irish are both speedy receivers who could emerge as deep threats. Both players also saw time as return specialists last season.
5. Will the defensive line take a step forward?
Stopping the run was a weak point in Oregon State's defense a year ago. The Beavers gave up 169.5 yards per game on the ground, which ranked 10th in the Pac-12. It represented progress from an abysmal 2018 campaign, but the defensive line has enough depth now that more improvement should be expected this season. Auburn transfer Charles Moore and junior college product Tavis Shippen have the tools to make an immediate impact up front. Isaac Hodgins has made 23 career starts over two seasons. He has tallied 48 tackles, 8 TFL, and 3.5 sacks during that time. His experience will be valuable to the Beavers.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.