Coach Jonathan Smith enters the second year of "The Return," which is how his alma mater has billed the return of the record-setting former Oregon State quarterback to Corvallis.
In some ways, the Beavers looked dramatically improved from the 2017 season, when head coach Gary Andersen left unexpectedly in the middle of a 1–11 season. They snapped a 22-game road losing streak and looked much more capable on offense. Other struggles continued, though, and defense continued to be an Achilles heel as OSU finished 2–10.
But Oregon State has added a bevy of transfers since Smith's arrival, which could pay dividends as the former Chris Petersen assistant attempts to get the Beavers back to bowl eligibility for the first time in six years.
Previewing Oregon State's Offense for 2019
Jake Luton returns for a sixth year of eligibility — his third season at Oregon State — following two years in which the 6'7" senior displayed a big arm but played only 12 games due to injuries. Luton played well in stretches last season (10 touchdowns, four interceptions) but is expected to be challenged for his starting role by Nebraska transfer Tristan Gebbia, a former four-star recruit who is eligible after sitting out in 2018.
Whichever signal caller gets the start will have the benefit of playing with one of the Pac-12's rising stars in the backfield. Jermar Jefferson rushed for 1,380 yards (on 5.8 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns, setting the Oregon State true freshman record for rushing yards in a season. He will have support from senior Artavis Pierce (408 rushing yards and four touchdowns), who dealt with injuries while taking a back seat to Jefferson last season.
Junior wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins (59 catches, 876 yards, five touchdowns) returns as the Beavers' leading pass catcher. The rangy 6'4" wideout has shown the potential that made him one of the top targets of Andersen's final OSU recruiting class, despite playing with four different starting quarterbacks in two years. He’ll be joined by 5'9" former four-star recruit and (like Gebbia) Nebraska transfer Tyjon Lindsey, as well as senior Trevon Bradford (56 catches, 649 yards, six touchdowns), who along with Hodgins helped Oregon State jump from ninth in Pac-12 passing offense to fifth last season.
Oregon State schemed more creatively under Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren. But while the Beavers progressed in the passing game, it came with a price. They allowed a nation-high 48 sacks and will be tasked with finding three new starters on the offensive line in 2018. Smith has noted that a number of the 48 sacks came from the desire to take chances by extending plays.
Previewing Oregon State's Defense for 2019
Oregon State's defensive woes have now spanned three different coaching staffs over the course of the decade. Last year was rock bottom, as the Beavers finished 129th of 130 FBS teams in both scoring defense (45.7 ppg) and total defense (536.8 ypg).
The defense suffered from being paper thin up front. Smith has brought in more players to build depth, but the Beavers remain inexperienced on their defensive line beyond ends Jeromy Reichner and Isaac Hodgins (Isaiah's younger brother) and mammoth nose tackle Elu Aydon. This could pose a problem for a run defense that also finished 129th nationally. Junior college transfer Jordan Whittley will also have the chance to make a quick impact in his one year of eligibility.
The linebacking corps will also get a fast infusion of talent in Nebraska transfer (sensing a theme?) Avery Roberts and Oklahoma transfer Addison Gumbs, who each sat out last season. An improved pass rush will be at the top of defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar's wish list, given that his unit finished with only 15 sacks.
The Beavers created just eight turnovers all season (five fumble recoveries and three interceptions), making them the only FBS team with fewer than 10. Getting safety David Morris back from injury to pair on the back line with hard-hitting Jalen Moore, who led the defense with 102 tackles, could help.
Previewing Oregon State's Specialists for 2019
The Beavers return all of their primary specialists, led by sophomore Champ Flemings. The smallest player on the roster at 5'5" and 140 pounds, Flemings is also one of the most elusive. He showed flashes of potential as the Beavers' lead kick returner, taking three returns for gains of 50 yards or more as a redshirt freshman. Only five other players in the country had that many returns of that length.
Placekicker Jordan Choukair is back for what would be his third full year as a starter, looking to improve after making 24-of-39 field goal attempts (61.5 percent) in the past two seasons.
There were encouraging signs of progress during Smith's first season back in Corvallis, despite a roster too young and thin to compete consistently. After adding a slew of transfers, Oregon State will be put right to the test when hosting Oklahoma State in Corvallis on Aug. 30. Pieces are in place for the Beavers to get out of the Pac-12 cellar down the road. But that still may be a year away given the youth and inexperience they have in multiple position groups, even as the team's overall talent is improving.
National Ranking: 95
(Top photo by Karl Maasdam/Oregon State Athletics)