Searching for Mullaney

CORVALLIS – Sometimes it's easy to look at the forest and not pay attention to the trees. Over the last month-plus, a question has been building in my mind about an OSU wideout when it comes to the Beaver offense and what has ailed it. After a strong first half, where the hell has Richard Mullaney gone? In search of answers, BF.C asked wide receivers coach Brett Brennan to step up to the mic…

Through the first six games of the season, Mullaney accounted for 30 receptions, 521 yards and two touchdown receptions.

Compare those figures to Mullaney's production during the last four games – 16 receptions for 181 yards and a score. Given that Mullaney is generally thought to have the best hands on the team, those numbers become even more striking.

Why hasn't he stood as out as much in this recent stretch of games as he did earlier in the season? Mullaney's last touchdown came against Cal, a night where he accumulated just two receptions for 17 hashes.

Brennan says that nothing has "happened" to the 6-3, 195-pound sophomore. Rather, he's just now budding in the system, said Brennan.

Only two games remain in the regular season but Brennan says Mullaney is still adjusting to a variety of in game variables and the process of learning the ropes may be at least partially responsible for the production decline. And opposing coverage has been tighter on Mullaney these past four games, said Brennan.

"I think it's just him developing as a player," Brennan said. "It's his first year playing, (starting) so the speed and the strength of the guys he's playing against is a lot different than it was in high school. He just needs to keep growing as a player, improving his strength and his quickness and his ability to separate, because obviously he is really good at finishing on the ball.

"The next phase of that (growth) for him is getting that separation, so that Sean (Mannion) can fit a ball in there."

Let's take a closer look at those two nuggets from Brennan.

First, that there is varnish left to slap on Mullaney before he will really turn heads in the Pac-12. He's shown up big in 2013 against teams whose pass defense is statistically ranked low. Again the bigger, stronger, better statistically-ranked secondaries, Mullaney has struggled to find space in the red zone, haul in those third-down chain movers or pick up big gains.

Second, Mullaney is very good at finishing on the ball. That's true, damned near outstanding in fact. He was a machine in the red zone during fall camp, and made some unreal catches earlier this year, during the Utah game in particular. But time is a hot commodity in college football, and Oregon State players are no different and can sometimes take their fair share of it before breaking out.

Brennan said Mullaney thirsts for the ball on Saturdays, but there are things standing in the way of that. Only a few are related to physical development.

"He wants to catch balls because he is competitive and he wants to help," Brennan said. "For him… he knows what his challenges are, what his limitations are, and what he needs to improve on. So those are the things he continues to work at and grind at in practice.

"He doesn't have the same speed that say, Brandin (Cooks) does, right? But he does have some size to him and he can jump, so he's got to use his body to create separation. Brandin creates that space with speed, quickness – Richie doesn't have as much of that as Brandin does… He is going to be a different type player than Brandin, the throws that go to him are going to be different type throws that he is going to have to use his body, his ability and his timing to finish."

My observations over the last three losses also are that Mannion might be looking more at other targets, although that's hard to say for certain. Mullaney does not pose the same deep threat as Cooks nor the big-body receiving/blocking threat that is Connor Hamlett and to a lesser degree, Caleb Smith.

"The throws haven't gone his direction, the reads that our quarterback was getting was taking him with the ball somewhere else (away from the red zone)," Brennan said. "I don't think it was any reflection of Richie at all."

At the end of the day, Mullaney is working within his means, and he's still travelling on his learning curve. And of course there's also something else.

A wideout can only really shine if the guy throwing to him is doing the same. And Mannion has been struggling these last three losses. Seven interceptions in just last two games, as compared to three over the previous eight contests, is a stark contrast indeed.

But Brennan also said through each game in his estimation, Mullaney has been adding, never subtracting from his skillset.

"I think he's gotten better in press coverage, I think he's grown there," Brennan said. "Press-release is different for every person based on who you are. Running routes is different based on who you are.

"Brandin runs routes much differently than Micah (Hatfield), or Mullaney, or even Victor (Bolden), because he's got a combination of speed and strength. They've got to figure out what works for them. I thought (Mullaney) did a really good job Saturday night against press coverage."

The next step in Mullaney's process comes Saturday night in Corvallis, as the Beavs play host to another 6-4 team in Washington. (TV: ESPN2, 7:30 p.m.) The Huskies are ranked No. 16 nationally in pass efficiency defense.

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