What we've learned from spring: OSU Safeties

CORVALLIS -- What did we learn about the OSU safety corps this spring? Oregon State is currently only four strong in the depth chart behind starters Ryan Murphy and Tyrequek Zimmerman – is this cause for concern? Taking a look at the veterans, young guys and pondering the question of if there could be a position battle at one of the safety spots…

The Veterans
Ryan Murphy and Tyrequek Zimmerman have a high ceiling for 2013. Murphy had one hell of a spring, a sentiment echoed by Mike Riley and Rod Perry – he is a bona fide ball hawk and he likes contact. Murphy is in a receiver's grill on just about every down, executes well against the run and one just has to look at the 2012 stats to understand that he knows how to close out a play (67 tackles, 37 solo with 2.5 TFL). The junior's injury during the spring game was unfortunate, but he should bounce back at 100 percent come August, and the high caliber play should continue.

Zimmerman sat out this spring after undergoing toe surgery. The junior may seem like a shoe-in at free safety but remember that in 2012, Zimmerman took the starting safety job away from then senior Anthony Watkins under similar circumstances. Back then, Watkins missed a good chunk of time due to ongoing hip-flexor trouble, affording Zimmerman the opportunity to make a name for himself during the fall practice session. Subsequently, Zimmerman was named the starter and he proceeded to have an inspiring run of 2012, ending it with 39 solo tackles and 63 altogether. Zimmerman will head into fall camp carrying the weight of more than eight months' worth of rust on his pads – is he vulnerable? If Perry is truly all about the next man up, how secure should we anticipate Zimmerman's role to be?

Steven Christian is a fifth-year senior in the secondary -- a reliable and versatile option who frequently inhabits defensive back and safety roles during practices. Could he convince OSU to slide him into Jordan Poyer's unique rover role? He has upside with good vision and consistency as a tackler. However, Christian is not a speed demon and the spring indicated he won't be able to keep pace with faster receivers at times and can be outmaneuvered by small, agile tailbacks in the open field. In the end, Christian will be up to his elbows in competition for a spot on the two-deeps come fall camp, and it seems very likely from this chair that some of the young guns in Rod Perry's arsenal will inch ahead of him.

The Young Guys
And then there were three – Kendall Hill showed up to the Beavers last spring practice in street clothes, sporting a knee brace and with Riley saying he's out for the year. Hill has been struggling with injuries since last season. And that is a real shame – from what I observed during his time with the 2's this spring, he was a force to be reckoned with. Hill's injury and by extension his rehabilitation time, cuts the ranks of the OSU safety corps by one, leaving three young guys to pick up the slack when and where they can.

From this seat, Cyril Noland is at the top of the pecking order. Frankly, he has an off chance of putting up competition for Zimmerman in the fall if he gets a lot of productive time in skelly and in the gym over these next three months. Noland doesn't offer the size that Zimmerman does, and I wouldn't enter him in a tackling contest with other safeties around the Pac 12 just yet. Still, speed and agility is swiftly becoming the MO for Oregon State defenders, and Noland fits that mold quite snuggly. He is fast for a safety and physically aggressive in coverage. At the least, he is a more than passable back up for either Zimmerman or Murphy and the type of player that will make clutch plays if he is utilized correctly. Noland had a great spring, and I am really looking forward to what he produces this fall.

Micah Audis is a guy to watch. He tends to track the ball a bit better than Noland and Christian and packs some surprising speed considering he stands at 6-1, 207, effectively making him the third heaviest player amongst a cadre of safeties and corners at Perry's disposal. The redshirt sophomore has got the build of a powerhouse safety and a nose for the ball that rivals that of Ryan Murphy. Audiss and Noland split time filling the void left in the secondary by the absent Zimmerman, and consistently received praise for their growth. Audiss is a reliable option at safety and could look to slot as the backup for either Murphy or Zimmerman a few months from now – he would also be a nice fit on special teams.

A.J. Hedgecock remains largely unproven, but I imagine he will benefit from the Hill injury with increased reps and perhaps some time on the 2's, assuming that Hill's rehabilitation sees him incapacitated into the later stages of fall camp. Hedgecock is a good athlete that seems like he belongs in the safety corps – decent speed, tough football player with some grit and determination when defending inside the redzone. He could use some work in supplying timely defensive run support, but other than that he is simply a capable athlete that will need to work hard to stand out in the crowd.

The Most Pressing Issue
Zimmerman's return in the fall should be interesting. Will he be able to shake off the rust and play like its mid-season 2012 again? If not, it increases just how important Micah Audiss and Cyril Noland will be in the scheme of things. Zimmerman has seniority, but productivity replaces experience in many situations, as evidenced by Zimmerman's ascension in the depth chart last season due to Watkins' inability to stay healthy.

What We Have Learned
We have learned that OSU has quality depth at safety. The two deeps are certainly efficient, they have a fifth-year senior who can play corner or safety running around, and even Hedgecock has some potential looking forward. Zimmerman and Murphy are speedy, tenacious safeties. With a little refresher course in line for Zimmerman come fall camp, OSU's safeties have the potential to be one of the better units in the Pac 12 in 2013.

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