Commentary: Projecting 2012 Starting Defense

IN PART I, we projected how the Oregon State offense looks to shape up for spring and fall of 2012 - now it's time to take a look at the defensive side of the ball. That's a tall order at this time, for multiple reasons, following the tragic and untimely death of Beaver defensive tackle Fred Thompson.

Obviously, defensive tackle is a key position of need for Oregon State as anyone who watched the 2011 Beavers can attest. The interior of the defensive line struggled with both depth and size, and Big Fred was a probable starter in 2012. Unfortunately in 2010, Thompson was sidelined by a shoulder injury and spent the fall rehabbing post-surgery.

It seems cold and borderline heartless to put together a starting projection without taking a moment to at least acknowledge the hole Thompson leaves in the depth chart, and in the hearts of his teammates and extended family, Beaver Nation. Even though we have to move on, it doesn't mean that we forget. It's a virtual certainty there will be a few wrists taped up with "FRED" written across them this coming fall. So with as much fortitude as can be summoned, we softly say "you will be missed, Big Fred", and we get to the defense…

There's no way to sugarcoat it. The run defense this past year was atrocious. The Beavers ranked dead last in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game, and were near the bottom of the barrel nationally. For a defense predicated upon placing the corners on islands and stuffing the run, in this respect, the 2011 campaign was a resounding failure.

Although it starts up front, the linebacker play left a lot to be desired for 2011 as well. The canary in the coal mine for Oregon State's rushing defense is a look at the stat sheet at how many tackles the safeties rack up.

It's a gross oversimplification but Mark Banker's gap-cancellation scheme is predicated upon the defensive line plugging the gaps and bouncing the plays to the sideline, where their speedy linebackers run downhill to make a tackle on the ballcarrier. When the safeties are consistently making the play, that signals that they were forced to commit to the run more and are unable to help enough in coverage - and more importantly, that the linebackers aren't doing their job.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that the linebacker play is poor - it could signal that the DL is having no success clogging the lanes and aren't doing a good job keeping the LBs clean so that they can run. And it is worth noting that Feti Unga was leading the Beavers in tackles before having his season derailed by a leg injury.

The projected 2012 year on defense shows some promise, but as with the offensive side of the ball, quality depth is a concern and the injury bug will play a big part in the success or failure.

The secondary inarguably should be the strength of the 2012 Beavers. At CB the Beavers are in extremely good hands with Jordan Poyer, who was OSU's lone All-Conference player, and Rashaad Reynolds, who overcame a herky-jerky start to turn in a solid performance. At safety, the immensely talented Lance Mitchell graduates, but hands the reins over to Ryan Murphy who quite frankly played his tail off in 2011 while Mitchell spent much of the season slowed by nagging groin injuries. Murphy came on particularly strong in the latter half of '11. Anthony Watkins returns as a prototypical strong safety for the Beavs. He lacks Murphy's pass coverage chops, but he proved very solid against the run, much like former run-stuffing specialists names of Beaver yore, like Laybourne, Tuimaunei, Afalava, and Turner.

At linebacker, the Beavers could resemble Beaver defenses of years past -- 2012 signals an upgrade in athleticism and instinct over the previous two seasons, the Beavers return three players with starting experience in with Feti Unga, Michael Doctor and Rueben Robinson. While the depth is quite good with this group, the song remains the same: OSU needs to stay healthy. There is a steep fall-off at middle linebacker particularly, and keeping Unga healthy and moving well will do a lot to boost the Beaver run defense. The young gun to watch is D.J. Welch, who opened some eyes with his speed and ferocious hitting during spot duty late last season, particularly in the Civil War. He could push or even overtake Robinson if his IQ even remotely matches his physical skills.

Oregon State gave up a ton of yards between the tackles. The Beavers featured two active and disruptive freshman defensive ends in 2011 -- Scott Crichton is a star in the making, while Dylan Wynn set an OSU record for fumbles recovered before October was finished. But it was clear that both depth and talent on the d-line's interior was lacking. The hole that Thompson leaves isn't just in the hearts, it will also be measured in size and physicality on game days. Castro Masaniai does return, but given his injury history, it's hard to pen him in as both starter and difference maker. Getting an instant impact guy, perhaps a Junior Salt, to Corvallis is job No. 1 with what's left in this recruiting season. Andrew Seumalo grew by leaps and bounds last season after transitioning from defensive end and if that growth continues, he will make a significant impact next season.

While the 2011 Oregon State defense had a tough year in ‘11, they weren't all that far from being good by season's end. And there are far fewer questions to answer on the defensive side of the ball than on offense. Execution wasn't so much an issue as it was that the middle of the defense simply lacked physicality. Production from the DT and MLB position would cure the core the issues that plagued OSU defensively, and if the offense can provide a breather by sustaining some drives, 2012 could signal a turnaround that has tongues wagging.

2012 Starters Projection:

CB - Jordan Poyer
S - Anthony Watkins
S - Ryan Murphy
CB - Rashaad Reynolds
SLB - Ruben Robinson / D.J. Welch
MLB - Feti Unga
WLB - Michael Doctor
DE - Scott Crichton
DT - Castro Masaniai
DT - Andrew Seumalo
*Instant impact DT could be yet to come by Signing Day
DE - Dylan Wynn

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