To call 2021 a make-or-break season for head coach Jonathan Smith heading into his fourth year at Oregon State is a bit premature. But it's fair to say that it's time to show fans something.
Oregon State hasn't been to a bowl game since 2013. The fan base has endured several terrible seasons along the way, although the Beavers were competitive in every game during last year's pandemic-shortened season.
The next step is a winning season and a bowl bid. "I'm confident in our approach," Smith says. "The coaches here, the players that we have, I'm confident that we're going to continue to take the next steps."
Previewing Oregon State's Offense for 2021
Generating offense with a balanced approach has been the highlight of Smith's OSU teams. The Beavers averaged 197.6 yards per game on the ground and 211.3 through the air in 2020, and they have averaged 30.3 points per game during the past two seasons.
The quarterback position is a four-man battle among junior Tristan Gebbia, Colorado transfer Sam Noyer, sophomore Chance Nolan and freshman Ben Gulbranson (out indefinitely due to shoulder surgery). The favorite is Gebbia, who started the first four games of 2020 before heading to the sideline for hamstring surgery. Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren feels that Gebbia, in his first year as the starter, was beginning to hit his stride when his hamstring gave way. "Tristan was on an upward bend, and we're confident in what he can do around here," Lindgren says.
In his four games, Gebbia led Oregon State to wins over California and eventual Pac-12 champion Oregon. The 6'2", 200-pound Gebbia is a pro-style quarterback who averaged a modest 6.4 yards per attempt in 2020.
With Gebbia sitting out most of spring ball, Nolan and Gulbranson got plenty of action to state their cases. Nolan, a dual-threat type, was not terribly efficient last season, completing 50.5 percent of his attempts. Lindgren says he'll be shocked if competition for the starting job doesn't go deep into August.
The only significant loss on offense is at running back, where all-conference selection Jermar Jefferson left for the NFL. There isn't a Jefferson type on the roster, but the coaches are confident that a veteran offensive line can continue to open holes for junior B.J. Baylor, transfer Deshaun Fenwick and freshman Isaiah Newell.
Baylor is likely to get first crack at taking over for Jefferson after scoring four touchdowns and averaging 5.3 yards per carry as a backup the past two years. Fenwick played 15 games over three seasons at South Carolina, running 97 times for 523 yards.
There are plenty of options at receiver, but OSU is searching for a go-to guy. Tre'Shaun Harrison, a Florida State transfer, showed flashes when he became eligible late in 2020. Other capable targets include Trevon Bradford, who caught 56 passes in 2019, and Makiya Tongue, a Georgia transfer and former four-star prospect.
There's no shortage of experience on the offensive line. The starting five, including a seventh-year senior in center Nathan Eldridge, have a combined 82 career starts.
Previewing Oregon State's Defense for 2021
If OSU's defense inches closer to matching the production of its offense, a bowl berth is possible in 2021. There's been slow improvement. Last year was the best defense of Smith's three seasons. Arizona State was the only team to amass more than 500 yards against the Beavers. But OSU still ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in scoring defense and total defense.
Smith has identified takeaways as an area in which the Beavers must improve. They've forced only 30 in 31 games over the past three years, third fewest among FBS schools behind Connecticut (which didn't play in 2020) and UTEP.
The news isn't all bad. The Beavers boast one of the Pac-12's top inside linebacker duos in junior Avery Roberts and sophomore Omar Speights. The duo ranked 1-2 among Pac-12 tacklers with 69 and 63, respectively, last season. Among the backups is Jack Colletto, a valuable weapon as a two-way player; last season, as a short-yardage QB, he ran 15 times for 128 yards and two TDs.
The Beavers have some depth at outside linebacker, including senior Andrzej Hughes-Murray, a two-time captain.
Oregon State has had difficulty finding playmakers among its defensive line and will hope that juniors Simon Sandberg and Isaac Hodgins (30 career starts) can turn a corner. Jordan Whittley was expected to be a key cog up front, but he transferred to Michigan in May.
In the secondary, there is promising youth in Alex Austin, Akili Arnold and Jojo Forest, as well as versatile Jaydon Grant, who has played in 32 games and started 16. There could be some experimentation early in the season, as the Beavers are replacing a pair of starting cornerbacks.
Previewing Oregon State's Specialists for 2021
Sophomore Everett Hayes, OSU's regular placekicker since the middle of the 2019 season, is 7-of-10 for his career on field-goal tries. Champ Flemings (kickoff returns) and Bradford (punt returns) have multiple years of experience.
It comes down to defense and non-conference play for Oregon State. If the Beavers' defensive front is reasonably effective, and OSU sweeps its non-conference slate of Purdue, Hawaii and Idaho, the team's first bowl berth in eight years is attainable.
National Ranking: 73
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