Oregon State will take the first step on April 1 towards turning the page to the 2013 season when they begin spring practice in Corvallis. The Oregon State offense averaged 32.5 points per game last season utilizing a two-quarterback rotation. But leading wide receiver Markus Wheaton has taken his 91 receptions to the NFL. Here are the top five storylines for the Beavers' offense heading into spring practice:
1. The time frame for Mike Riley finally naming a starting quarterback: With the season opener still five months away, Riley doesn't feel any sense of urgency to declare a winner between Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz. So, he won't. He'll likely let the pair battle through the spring into the summer and ultimately preseason camp in August before deciding who gets the privilege of directing the Beavers offense against Eastern Washington on August 31.
"It's a matter of who comes out with the most consistent and best play," Riley said. "That might take some time. They're both knowledgeable, they've both worked hard, they're both well respected and good guys. We're going to get as much preparation as we can."
Riley's philosophy is simple and straightforward - the upcoming intense competition between the duo should make both quarterbacks better and, in the end, the Beavers better as well. Hence, Riley won't do anything to curtail the battle. In fact, he relishes it.
"They have to handle the competition, and they've got to improve," Riley insisted. "Whether you like to say it or not, there's that pressure of competing that is good and the pressure of being a good teammate. That's what they have to accomplish as they go forward.
"We've talked to the both of them that's there is going to be competition. They have to handle that and, at the same time, be a great leader. They have to focus on doing their best. It will be good for both of them. It will bring the best out in both of them. Then we'll decide what to do from there. In the long run, I suppose we could come out of it stronger."
2. Impact at running back of Malcolm Agnew's decision to transfer: Two years ago, Agnew became the first true freshman in Oregon State history to start the season opener at running back. However, he was slowed by hamstring issues off and on for the season and then finished the 2012 campaign a distant third in rushing behind Storm Woods (940 yards on 192 carries), who had a breakout redshirt freshman season, and Terron Ward (415 yard on 68 carries). Behind him, redshirt freshman Chris Brown was charging hard. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Agnew transferred to Southern Illinois.
"We have good depth right there," Riley said of the trio of Woods, Ward and Brown. "I hated losing Malcolm Agnew because he's a good football player."
In addition to Oregon State's top two rushers returning and Brown emerging from a redshirt season, the Beavers will welcome a pair of talented freshmen from the Lone Star State this fall in Damien Haskins (New Boston, Tex.) and Lawrence Mattison (Spring Branch, Tex.) into the fold.
Thus, Agnew's absence shouldn't hurt OSU very much. According to Riley, Agnew's departure could harm OSU more on special teams because he was a major contributor on multiple units.
"He was all over special teams and when you watch the film from our games, he was always doing something," Riley said. "So, we'll miss. But I think we have good players there (at running back). Storm can build on his freshman year, for sure. Terron Ward looked really good in the offseason running.
"Chris Brown is a young talent trying to break in. Hopefully, he can fill some of those roles that Malcolm Agnew played and see if he can bust into the rotation and play in the games. We have good talent. And we have a couple more coming in that will add to that."
3. Production at wide receiver in the post-Wheaton Era: Statistically, Markus Wheaton left Oregon State as the greatest receiver in school history, setting the mark for career receptions in the final regular game against Nicholls State. He cemented his legendary status by finishing with 227 receptions for almost 3,000 yards and 16 touchdowns, later wowing scouts at the Senior Bowl, NFL Draft Combine and Oregon State's Pro Timing Day.
"There's a lot of plays to make up when you lose Markus Wheaton," Riley said. "There's been a lot of production through the years. Somebody is going to have to fill those shoes, or maybe a couple of guys anyway."
Surely, replacing Wheaton's 91 receptions won't be easy. The logical choice to step up and become the No. 1 receiver is Brandin Cooks, who had 67 catches for 1,151 yards in 2012. The bigger question is who takes over for Cooks at No. 2. There will be plenty of candidates this spring - Kevin Cummings is the favorite - although one of them won't be the injured Richard Mullaney. Redshirt freshman Malik Gilmore, a three-star prospect signed in 2012, could benefit the most from Mullaney's absence, along with Obum Gwacham and Micah Hatfield.
"Spring practice is a great time for Malik and a great time for Obum Gwacham to step up and step forward," Riley said. "It's too bad Mullaney is not going to be in the mix in the spring. He definitely will be in the fall, but it would be fun to have him out there this spring. We have some guys that will be better players this year."
In the fall, the current group of receivers will be joined by four promising freshman
"I don't want to be overly optimistic about freshmen, but there are four good freshmen coming in," Riley said. "All of them could make an impact or they might redshirt. I won't know until we get them into camp and see how they do."
4. Growth and development of the young offensive linemen: Four returning starters along the offensive front means this group is possibly the least of Riley's worries on offense. Building depth will be the top objective during the spring, so this is the moment to shine for young blockers such as Grant Bays, Josh Mitchell, David Keller, Chase Eldredge, Gavin Andrews (expected to get first crack at right tackle) and Garrett Weinreich (slowed by an injury).
Oregon State signed seven offensive linemen in 2012, and that emphasis on the trenches could start paying dividends this spring. Moreover, newly signed offensive tackle Sean Harlow will enroll in school for the spring quarter and participate in drills. Harlow is expected to compete with Andrews for the right tackle job.
"There are a lot of good names that can help out there (at offensive line)," Riley said. "We know somebody new will start at right tackle. Gavin will line up there first. I like what this group could be, but we'll see how they develop and play. We have more depth possibility than we've had before. It's just a matter of whether they can really do it. That's why spring practice will be big for these kids."
What's does all this depth on the offensive line mean? Oregon State could have enough players for an actual spring 'game' on April 26, a rarity during Riley's tenure.
5. Perhaps an expanded role for the tight end: The top pass catcher last season that was not a wide receiver or running back was H-Back Connor Hamlett, who had 32 receptions for 403 yards. The departed Colby Price, who started 22 straight games, had just 18 catches. With Hamlett and rising sophomore Caleb Smith (two catches in limited playing time last season) taking over, and Kellen Clute, Tyler Perry and redshirt freshman Dustin Stanton adding valuable depth, the tight end spot could experience renewed energy in 2013 in terms of becoming a larger factor in the offense.
"Caleb had a solid freshman year," Riley said. "He is a talented guy. He's had a real good offseason. I'm excited for Caleb. (Tight end) could develop into a real good position for the Beavers or not depending on how these guys play and how they come along. We have good talent there.
"Connor Hamlett has played and made a lot of good plays. I want to get more activity to the tight end in the passing game because I think he could be a weapon. Caleb is just like that. Then there's guys waiting in the wings. It has the making of a good group. It just depends on how well they play and how much we can help them."