Bray, Banker lend insights on linebackers

CORVALLIS--The rain may have dampened the football, but it did little to antagonize the Beaver defense as they put forth a solid effort during Thursday's practice. Still, when the final huddle broke at 4:55 pm, there was something lacking from the Beav players. The energy was low, resulting in Mark Banker's slow trot toward the sideline. The last three plays of the Beavs' practice indicated why..

All three of the plays could have very well been potential touchdowns for opposing teams. RB Terron Ward ran right through the defense on numerous occasions Thursday.

"By and large it's been progress everyday by a bunch of different individuals." Banker said. "A few too many deep balls today, the offense had a nice couple of runs… As a defense you don't want to see that, but offensively you want to see that."

Banker, who has called the plays the last two practices with Mike Riley tending to his ailing father in Canada, said that the Beaver were "sloppy" on Thursday. But he seemed otherwise pleased by the hard work some of his players put in, particularly in the box.

"Well, they are a year older." Banker said about a group of linebackers who last year were notorious for handing their opponents rushing yards. "Michael Doctor seems to be a little more comfortable with himself. He has improved on some of his movements."

The corps this spring consists of three freshmen, four sophomores, four juniors and only two seniors. A relatively young arsenal..

BANKER SAID THEY may be young, but they are making decent progress, which is really all a coach can hope for at this juncture. And you have players like Rueben Robinson who are juggling roles on the field. Robinson, a senior, is currently playing both inside and outside linebacker spots when needed.

"I like their physical ability, and the finish on their tackling" Banker said. "Getting off of their blocks -- that has improved a lot too. Again, live bullets will tell a lot more, though."

WHERE WILL THE linebackers' focus lie for practices to follow? Banker explains.

"Going into this spring, the one thing that we made a statement about is this -- we have to be much better against the run game. If we don't do that, then it's tough to move on to the pass game."

"We were horrible," Banker said of 2011, shaking his head solemnly. "It's the worst run defense that I've been a part of since 2003."

PERHAPS THE welcome addition of graduate assistant and linebacker coach Trent Bray to the program will help give the "young guys" some insight.

Bray, a former standout of the Beaver defense from 2002-05, recently joined Riley's staff after a two-year assistant coach stint in charge of the linebackers under Dennis Erickson at ASU.

Bray was particularly enthusiastic on Thursday about SAM linebacker D.J. Welch, a sophomore out of Palm Desert who played in ten games last year. Bray said Welch has shown serious potential throughout spring practices.

"And Doctor has played real well. I'm really happy with those two," said Bray.

Both Bray and Banker have questions about the stability of the linebacker group as a whole against the run. Still, one question seems to have been answered -- Michael Doctor will likely be the starting weakside linebacker, at least when the defense is running nickel and dime coverage options. If enthusiasm could be used as a weapon, Doctor would have been armed to the teeth during Thursday's practice.

The junior 'backer was swift on his feet, showed great follow through on his tackles and managed well with his reads on the quarterback. A year of maturation seems to have served him well.

So with Welch and Doctor penciled in as starters for the 2012 campaign, who is the projected third man? Cade Cowdin made some impressive tackles during the scrimmage. He is a lighter, agile, go-get-it type who hits surprisingly hard for a smaller LB, (though he's listed at 6-2, 220.)

But Feti Unga, a senior who has proved valuable as a versatile linebacker on Banker's defense the last two seasons, will be filling that role at inside linebacker -- at least for the time being. But in pondering that spot and the competition that's taken place, Bray indicated that another linebacker may have his eyes on the prize.

"Rueben Robinson is right behind him at inside (linebacker)" Bray said. "Whoever we feel is the guy that has been the most productive and executes the way we want him to will be the guy that starts."

WHILE BRAY ECHOES the sentiment shared by defensive line coach Joe Seumalo -- that speed is one of the most effective weapons this defense has at its disposal -- he said speed at linebacker means little in the long run if you can't execute a blitz and stop the run, something the Beavs defense struggled with all day on Thursday.

"Right now, we are just learning how to blitz really. It's going to have to be a focus on hitting our gaps and getting skinny through our gaps. It will be a continued focus for us."

The hope for Beaver Nation is that Bray will be able to well relate to this squad of players and facilitate motivation so that they better stick their tackles and read the quarterback's eyes.

Bray came into the program this spring preaching the fundamentals. His experience in Pac-10 (now Pac-12) play may serve as a valuable asset to this quick, but occasionally inefficient defense.

"We want to play fast and get to the ball," said Bray. "I want them to read their keys and react. Not think. In doing that, you have to be willing to live with a couple mistakes, and we can correct those in the film room. The last thing I want them to do is slow down because they are worried about being wrong."

Other members of the media were focused Thursday on the recent marijuana scandal courtesy of ESPN that slapped a label not only on the Oregon Ducks, but the state as a whole. "You can only do your job you know, counseling young people," Banker said. "But our heads aren't in the sand."

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