BF.C Fall Camp Preview: SAFETY

CORVALLIS – What will the safety play at Oregon State be like under new assistant Rod Perry, a longtime fixture in the NFL coaching ranks? How big of a concern is depth, and are there any surprises on the cusp of fall camp? All of that and more as BF.C puts the safety position under the microscope…

Snapshot/Stats:
Ryan Murphy- (6-3, 213) Sophomore standing – Heads into fall camp at one of the starting safety positions. Murphy played in all 12 games last season, starting in two. Tallied 29 tackles (nine of which were assisted) one interception, and four pass deflections as a safety – moonlighted as the teams' nickel back for a good portion of the 2011 season.

Anthony Watkins- (6-1, 217) Senior – Only returning senior for the safety company under Mark Banker. One of the more physical players lining the ranks of the Beaver defense. Has proven himself as a versatile and reliable option in the secondary. Played in all 12 games, starting in 11. Amassed 85 tackles (42 assisted) leading the team in that category. Two pass deflections, and an interception (against Arizona State) returned for 40 yards in the other direction.

Tyrequek Zimmerman- (5-11, 206) Sophomore standing – Zimmerman was originally signed to the roster as a wide-out in 2011 but made the switch to safety early last fall. Played in all 12 games last season but remained primarily on special teams – Zimmerman stood out during spring ball, though. He received a lot of practice time with the defense (the result of Watkins nursing his shoulder after an offseason surgery) and displayed speed coupled with solid recognition of the pass game.

Peter Ashton- (6-1, 211) Redshirt freshman

Micah Audiss- (6-1, 206) Redshirt freshman - walk on.

Cyril Noland: (6-1,196) Freshman

Chris Miller: (6-1, 195) Freshman

Kendall Hill (6-3, 175) Freshman

The Good: For one, the addition of Rod Perry to the coaching squad is, Riley has stressed often, a tremendous asset. Perry brings NFL experience along with a previous rapport with Riley in San Diego. Riley is high on Perry's arrival to the staff, and is adamant that the beaver secondary will prove effective this year under his tutelage.

Murphy came on strong towards the end of last year, and boasts the on field experience that Zimmerman ultimately lacks. Murphy is also taller, and while he is not as speedy as Zimmerman, he often displayed this spring good enough awareness of the plays coming at him to compensate for what he may lack in agility. A skilled tackler who likes to make contact when possible, Murphy has the potential to be an elite Pac-12 safety, but work remains before he gets there.

Watkins, expected to be at full strength for the fall after nursing a shoulder injury this spring, brings more than just experience to the table – he hits big, frequently, and finishes tackles cleanly. He is possibly the most consistent tackler in the secondary next to CB Jordan Poyer, and should complement the defensive backs nicely in stopping opposing passing attacks. Watkins, who stayed away from intensive physical activity and contact throughout the bulk of spring ball, is known for his aggressiveness and overall endurance. Look at him to have a huge impact on defense if he stays healthy.

Surgery on Watkins' shoulder allowed Zimmerman valuable playing time in the spring however – and he utilized it. With better closing speed on deep pass plays, Zimmerman turned some heads. Zimmerman represents a healthy, key cog to Perry's group whether or not he starts right off the bat. His past experience as a wideout may turn out to be a secret weapon – he has a better understanding (to a veritable degree) of the general tendencies of wide receivers in the open field. It can only help him in his quest for a starting gig.

The Beavs have two really talented and aggressive safeties in Watkins and Murphy – both can stick their tackles with ease and have shown good ability to close on the ball carrier in run support. Murphy has also proven himself on special teams.

Audiss and Ashton, the two redshirt freshmen, hold promise. Riley has indicated Ashton could push for a starting position and has noted he's a talented player with an admirable knowledge of the game being a former quarterback. At the least, look for him to see a good amount of time on special teams. Audiss had a spring that turned some heads. Figuring out what his best role will be for 2012 is something OSU wants to nail down in fall camp.

The Bad: Watkins is expected to be 100 percent come August 6 and boasts the most experience at safety -- something desperately needed. But his shoulder has been an issue ever since he landed a hit on fellow teammate Jordan Jenkins. If he were to aggravate the injury again, it could mean problems for the defense.

There is a lot to be said about the lack of depth at safety, something not typically the case in recent years. It's a concern there are only two players on the roster with any actual safety experience at the collegiate level. What will happen if Watkins isn't full-go or if he reinjures his shoulder? Is Murphy then paired with the inexperienced Zimmerman? Given the lack of experienced depth, there aren't a lot of ideal scenarios should the injury bug bite.

The Beavs do have three incoming freshmen safeties in Hill, Miller and Noland, (though Hill is rehabbing an injury and is not ready to practice yet, Riley said on Tuesday.) Depending on how the rookies perform in fall camp, they might be called upon now rather than later.

But safety is not a position, unlike say, cornerback, that is conducive to a true freshman being ready to play at the collegiate level, let alone excel.

Safeties are typically one of the hardest worked and physical sets of players on a defense – they are integral to stopping the run in the open field and preventing deep plays over the middle. To lose even one of the five safeties expected to get the lion's share of the playing time could result in having to pull from the cornerback ranks. And that results in effectively thinning out certain defensive schemes and coverage packages; robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Zimmerman is arguably the fastest/most agile safety in the platoon under Perry. But he lacks experience. While speed and agility are necessary components of any starting safety, physical play and follow through with tackles is critical, too. Zimmerman this spring showed he still needs work in run support – his size is not the most opportune for making big tackles. His progress in fall camp will be critical in that regard.

Murphy is a plus for Perry, no question. But he and some other Beavs didn't walk the straight and narrow this offseason, with far too much written about the Beavs getting in trouble with the law. That will need to be a lesson learned, one-time thing for he and the others if OSU is to be focused and successful this season.

Keep your eyes peeled: For Murphy and Watkins. If those two aren't the starters coming out of fall camp, it will be a major surprise. Zimmerman is likely to be the first guy off the bench, as well as getting reps in some of the nickel packages on defense and quite possibly considerable action on special teams. But fall camp always brings surprises, so don't be too shocked if it is a closer race at safety between Murphy and Zimmerman than one would expect. Don't forget about Ashton, either. And you can never rule out a freshman breaking out and surprising everyone – even at the safety spot where and even where special true freshmen tend to generally redshirt.

The (Two-Part) Question: How will the lack of depth affect the safeties going into the latter half of the season? Subsequently, just how much of an impact can Ashton generate?

Intangibles and Final Thoughts: Overall, the safety position looks fairly secure and is part of what is expected to be the strength of the defense – the defensive backs. But the immediate concern remains -- depth. The front line guys are skilled enough to have a good season provided they remain in one piece.

Riley is counting on the secondary to have big year, and for all his unflinching optimism on all things Beavs, he has also proven in the past to be intuitive when it comes to the defensive backfield.

Zimmerman is a sleeper. It is not out of the realm of possibility he could challenge for a starting job or become a key cog who plays more than the usual sub. His speed is an undeniable weapon that can punish quarterbacks looking to throw over the middle. But he wasn't better than Murphy this spring. Murphy is the tallest guy in the OSU secondary and he's a playmaker – and that will surely count for something.

Watkins can be a big weapon, pure and simple. He's dynamic, a sure tackler and he loves to play the game. He has seniority and confidence and matches up well with the fast paced offenses on the schedule. If the shoulder holds up, he will have a big year full of big hits.

Predictions: Murphy and Watkins start with Zimmerman getting plenty of reps including play in various packages.

Watkins – 78 tackles, two for loss, one interception. May also factor in on special teams.

Murphy - 41 tackles, for none loss. Two interceptions totaling 28 return yards.

Zimmerman – 19 tackles, none for loss. Two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown (he has got the speed and agility of a wide out, remember that). Will also play a significant role on special teams.

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