There is a window of opportunity for Oregon State heading into the 2022 season. Are the Beavers capable of climbing through and taking advantage?
The Pac-12 North is in chaos. Washington, Oregon and Washington State have new head coaches. Stanford is not the program it once was. California hasn't so much as shared a conference or division title since 2006.
Oregon State has momentum, coming off its first bowl appearance in eight years. The Beavers appear stable under fifth-year head coach Jonathan Smith. If the defense improves under new coordinator Trent Bray, and the Beavers get the quarterback right, OSU figures to be a prominent player in the Pac-12 North.
The guts of an offense that ranked among the conference's top five in rushing, total offense and scoring offense is back. The defense has a new attitude, promising pass rushers and depth in the secondary. There's confidence and consistency, as five of the 10 assistant coaches have been on the staff since Smith took control of the Beavers' program in 2018.
Previewing Oregon State's Offense for 2022
Though Smith didn't name a starting quarterback during the spring, Chance Nolan is the likely candidate. The fifth-year junior started 12 games during the 2021 season, passing for 2,677 yards and 19 touchdowns. What separates Nolan from others on the roster is his dual-threat ability. Nolan can extend plays with his legs and occasionally run when asked, rushing for 286 yards and three scores last season.
Senior Tristan Gebbia, who hasn't played since tearing his hamstring in November 2020 against Oregon, and redshirt freshman Ben Gulbranson, out last season after shoulder surgery, may push Nolan with a strong preseason camp.
The strength of OSU's offense is its running game. Though the Beavers lose first-team All-Pac-12 running back B.J. Baylor, they're deep in the backfield. Deshaun Fenwick ran for 448 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season, while Trey Lowe caught 23 passes as a third-down back. But it is the additions at running back that have Beaver fans talking, particularly freshman Damien Martinez. The 6'0", 228-pound Texas native looked the part of Oregon State's next star running back during spring practice after graduating early from high school.
"That kid's a stud. He came up all over the film all spring making great plays," Nolan says.
The Beavers' offensive line, one of the Pac-12's best a year ago, should be formidable again. Three-year starting right tackle Brandon Kipper moves inside to right guard, replaced at tackle by Taliese Fuaga. At 6'6" and some 330 pounds each, the Beavers have a mountain on the right side. The left side returns a pair with starting experience in tackle Joshua Gray and guard Marco Brewer.
Leading the receiving corps are junior tight end Luke Musgrave and senior receiver Tre'Shaun Harrison, second on the team in receptions and receiving yards a year ago.
"If everybody takes a step in their game, I think we could be good," Smith says of the offense.
Previewing Oregon State's Defense for 2022
Oregon State is retooling its defense under Bray, who moves from inside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in 2022. The high-energy Bray isn't married to the Beavers' former 3-4 scheme, as he'll mix looks up front and try to increase pressure on the quarterback.
"He's been here a couple years, and the connection he had with the players, knowing his energy and competitiveness, that was part of the reason we hired him," Smith says.
The Beavers are noticeably better on the edges, with junior John McCartan and Florida transfer Andrew Chatfield Jr. leading the way. OSU's defensive line, featuring two-year senior starter Simon Sandberg, hopes to get a boost with the return of Isaac Hodgins. A three-year starter, Hodgins missed the 2021 season with a broken foot.
Where OSU could see a significant upgrade is its secondary, where it added a second assistant coach in Anthony Perkins during the offseason. The Beavers were improved in pass coverage during spring practice. They'll need a boost, as OSU had one of the conference's worst pass defenses in 2021.
The Beavers return their starting cornerbacks in sophomore Alex Austin and senior Rejzohn Wright. Also back is nickel Jaydon Grant, who enters his seventh year in college with 28 career starts.
Leading the middle of Oregon State's defense is junior inside linebacker Omar Speights, a two-year starter who had 89 tackles last season.
Related: Pac-12 Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing Oregon State's Specialists for 2022
The Beavers are in good shape here, as punter Luke Loecher and placekicker Everett Hayes return off solid seasons. Loecher averaged 47.1 yards per punt, which would have ranked among the top 10 nationally, but with 31 punts in 13 games, he didn't qualify. OSU opponents rarely did much with kickoffs, as Hayes had 52 touchbacks among 74 kickoff tries. The Beavers will have new faces among their kick and punt returners, jobs likely to be divided between speedsters Anthony Gould and Jesiah Irish.
If Oregon State gets the QB right, this offense could be as productive as it was a year ago. The Beavers' defense has the personnel to increase its big-play capability. At a minimum, expectations are a return to the bowl scene. If OSU starts the season fast — no given, as it hasn't won an opener since 2015 — momentum could lead to a Pac-12 North title run.
National Ranking: 46
Podcast: Top 25 Megacast! Complete Top 25 Breakdown, Rankings and Predictions Explained