Three months removed from an Alamo Bowl loss to Texas that only slightly dampened an otherwise pleasing 2012 season, head coach Mike Riley, his assistant coaches and the Beaver players are ready to begin preparations for what most analysts believe will be another promising season in Corvallis.
Since returning in 2003 for his second coaching stint at OSU, Riley has guided the Beavers to four seasons of nine or more victories, including the gaudy 9-4 mark in 2012. Will 2013 be the fifth?
The yes-or-no answer to that tantalizing question will be slowly unveiled starting April 1 when the Beavers open spring practice for the upcoming season. The spring game is scheduled for Friday, April 26 at Reser Stadium, meaning Oregon State will work diligently through a busy April schedule with 15 workouts in less than four weeks.
What will fans see when practices begin? If early prognostications prove accurate, the Beavers should be solid contenders in the Pac-12 North division race, enjoy a preseason Top 25 ranking (OSU ended the 2012 season ranked No. 19 in the final USA Today/Coaches Poll and No. 20 by the Associated Press) and easily attain bowl eligibility for the 11th time in the past 15 seasons dating back to Dennis Erickson's first campaign as head coach in 1999.
The causes for optimism by those inside and outside the program are everywhere, ranging from a productive winter conditioning program, stability on the coaching staff, a solid core of established players and a pair of veteran quarterbacks capable of leading the Beavers to victory.
Once recruiting wrapped up in early February, Riley and the staff turned their attention towards developing the plan for the spring and beyond. While the OSU coaches were staying busy putting that together, the players stayed fit with a rigorous winter conditioning program under the watchful eyes of the strength and conditioning staff.
Often, the amount of enthusiasm and excitement weaving through a team is measured by the percentage of players participating in winter workouts. This week is voluntary because it falls between semesters, but even then a high number of players elected to remain in Corvallis and work out.
"I go over there just about every day and I've been impressed with the enthusiasm of the work. Our weight coaches have had that same impression," Riley said. "We'll see how it transfers, but I think they've had a real good January, February and March. I went in there yesterday (Tuesday) and there had to be 25 guys working out. That's a good thing to see."
"It appears to have been a real good off-season program. I know our weight coaches have been very positive about how that has gone to this point. We're getting to the point where we're ready for spring."
Leaders typically surface during winter workouts and the Beavers shouldn't suffer a shortage in that critically important area in 2013 because they return a total of 302 combined starts, one of the highest figures in the Pac-12.
"We'll see more of that develop as spring practice takes place," Riley said. "I asked the guys in January to pay attention to that, so when they elect captains, they have a reason for their selection. There are some obvious ones. Rashaad is one of those guys that is well respected. Brandin Cooks is also a guy people look up to.
"We have some good guys that are a little bit older and been around. There are plenty of names. Michael Doctor has shown more growth than just about anybody in the program from the time he was a freshman to today. He's definitely a leader."
Team captains will be elected near the end of spring practice, Riley said.
When the players stroll onto the practice fields shortly before 11 a.m. for the first day or workouts on April 1, they will recognize every face on the Beaver coaching staff. In an era when assistant coaches frequently come and go quickly, Riley was somehow able to keep his 2012 coaching staff intact with a few minor changes.
Assistant head coach and tight ends coach Jay Locey was promoted to Chief of Staff and former Beaver star Trent Bray was elevated from graduate assistant to full-time linebackers coach, the position he held for two seasons (2010-11) at Arizona State.
"I'm really excited about Jay's new role and what he's already doing with our team," Riley said. "He's taken on this new job and really run with it. He's taken a very active role with the counseling and mentorship part of his job. Jay was a perfect choice for this new position."
Elevating Bray gives Oregon State four full-time assistant coaches on offense and defense to create balance on both sides of the ball.
"I watched closely the dynamics of our defensive staff last year and really liked it," Riley said. "Trent added a lot to us defensively. He freed up Coach Banker to be the coordinator and gave us a guy who, although young, was an experienced coach in our defense. He fit very well into the dynamics of that defensive staff. That group in total looks good to me. It's a good picture."
However, just because Riley's nine assistants chose to return for another season in Corvallis doesn't mean other programs both from within the Pac-12 and beyond didn't come calling. They put significant offers on the table, but couldn't lure any of the Beaver coaches away. In fact, based on the genuinely high level of interest shown by other schools, Riley's ability to retain all of his assistants is remarkable.
Southern Cal energetically pursued offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, who interviewed with the Trojans in early February and was reportedly offered the job. But he turned them down in order to return to Oregon State.
Speculation also swirled around defensive coordinator Mark Banker.
"There were actually some close calls," Riley said. "People called about a number of different guys on our staff. They have to personally decide if that's best for them, their families and their career. If they decide that in the end, I'm all for them. If you have good people, continuity is a good thing. I was certainly happy they stayed despite some good opportunities."
Spring practice promises a few fireworks mainly because of the looming and well-publicized quarterback battle between Mannion and Vaz. The former was listed first on the pre-spring depth chart released Tuesday by OSU ahead of Vaz, Richie Harrington and Brent VanderVeen.
Riley, though, cautioned against reading too deeply into that ranking, maintaining nothing will probably be decided in the spring unless either Mannion or Vaz convincingly demonstrates that he is much better than the other.
"We're going to split their time evenly," Riley said. "I even talked to the (Sports Information Director) about putting an 'or' between them."
Based on their performances last season and ranging into winter workouts, Mannion or Vaz delivering a knockout punch before the end of April is unlikely, so the battle will likely extend into preseason camp in August.
"I probably won't make a decision until we're into fall camp," Riley said. "We're just going to let them play and grow and try to get better during this spring. We'll give them absolutely even terms as we go unless somebody just takes the bull by the horns and separates. They both did a lot of good things and they both had some rough moments (last season)."