What the Oregon State offense should be aspiring to do – apart from filling Wheaton's vacated split-end role in the receiving unit – is proving that they don't need him in order to put up big numbers in 2013.
Naturally, a fair amount of that responsibility will be shouldered by the Beavs' top wideout, Cooks, at the flanker spot. We know what he is capable of -- 67 receptions for 1,151 yards and five TD's last season -- and the expectations for 2013 are even higher.
Cooks is absurdly fast. And agility and speed are two entirely different monsters – Cooks has managed to harness both of them admirably.
And don't think Pac-12 coaches haven't taken notice of the junior, whose hands often appear to be made of Gorilla Glue.
Opposing defensive backs will be all over him – to quote one of the greatest movies of all time – like a starving man on a Christmas ham. He will receive virtually no breathing room on the turf against the better-honed secondary sets in the conference -- unless OSU has another receiver capable of pulling attention away from the ever-speedy Cooks the way Wheaton did last year.
SO WHO WILL that second option be? Is it Richard Mullaney or Obum Gwacham?
Mullaney - who was initially my top candidate for playing time upon Wheaton's departure – sat out the entire spring recovering from shoulder surgery.
His prospects for earning reps in the fall and making a significant splash early on are still good. But Gwacham got a ton of reps this spring.
On the negative side, Gwacham's hands are so suspect that they have their own rap sheet.
And that in my view precludes the 6-5, 227 junior the designation of starting split-end. He is certainly skilled, and he can certainly run. He has impressive leaping ability and more often than not gets good body position on a defender simply by virtue of his size – he's the biggest wideout Riley has at his disposal.
Still, none of that matters if a player can't consistently catch a pass.
Confidence goes both ways. A quarterback is not going to feel safe throwing to a guy if he has thus far proven to be mediocre at best in his ability to bring in a pass.
Unless Gwacham has made/makes significant improvements in reeling in the zingers, OSU may well need Mullaney to come back not only 100 percent but also improved from last season without the benefit of a spring session.
BUT OSU ASSISTANT coach Brent Brennan does have two seniors in the ranks that will add some "oomph" to the passing game in various schemes -- especially the four-wide sets, which might see a little more love in the playbook this year. They're meant to stretch a defense and fit a guy in under backpedaling LB's in a grab-n-go fashion.
I'm tabbing it as doubtful that either Kevin Cummings or Micah Hatfield will get a lot of run at split end this spring. Cummings is the odds-on choice to start in the slot. Both are listed at 6-1, 180 – compared to the 5-10, 181 Cooks (built for speed).
They are taller, skinnier and likelier to get nailed by larger safeties and DB's. But they can contribute in other ways and at another spot.
MY OBSERVATIONS from the spring and this past year indicate that Cummings and Hatfield will be the top two battling it out for the slotback job, with whoever comes up short at the end of fall camp fitting into the playbook as a frequent utility player – more likely seeing the bulk of his time as the third-or fourth look in sticky third-down conversion situations.
Cummings is tenacious and really has a knack for getting in the heads of defensive backs with his aggressive style of play.
There's a lot to like about Cummings. He may lack the physical upside and speed to really make noise but he's likely to surprise some teams, and in stretches, this season.
Hatfield on the other hand has impressive agility and hands – but his size brings into question how much of a consistent impact he might have.
Redshirt freshman Malik Gilmore was briefly in the running to swoop up playing time at split-end during the initial stages of spring ball. But a lack of consistency saw him slide further behind Gwacham as camp progressed.
Personally, I love Gilmore's potential upside. But the 6-3, 214-pounder has yet to realize much of that potential. He generally failed to "pop" in the spring, will that change this fall?
ANOTHER SENIOR, walk on Mitch Singler, saw virtually zilch as far as PT goes last season. His athleticism, hands, speed and maneuverability in the middle of the field – none of it blows you away.
But having depth is important, especially when the injury bug bites. Singler's reps have generally been limited to scout team play and the occasional look on the two's.
Two redshirt freshmen walk ons, J.C. Grim and Blair Cavanaugh, are smaller receivers who will be tasked with kicking it into high gear if they want to impact the stat sheets in 2013. It is not unreasonable to assume that both Grim and Cavanaugh will continue through fall camp and the impending regular season in the same fashion that they did last year and this spring – limited looks, primarily with the scout team.
Addressing their flaws at an early stage will inevitably be the recipe for their success in years to come – from this chair, neither of them is ready to assume a steady and impactful role in the Beaver offensive game plan.
AS FAR AS the four incoming wideouts are concerned – Victor Bolden, Jordan Villamin, Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones, no one expects them to fill the gigantic shoes left by Wheaton after just four weeks on the OSU practice field in August.
Yet therein lies the beauty of this sport – you never really know who is going to make an impression until you get a peek at them with your own two eyes. Fall camp opens on Aug. 5, and I'll be right there on the sidelines.