Major rebuild awaits 2008 OSU defense

THE DEFENSE WAS the driving force behind Oregon State's 2007 season, a 9-4 campaign that saw the Beavers ranked in the final AP poll for the second straight year. But OSU will have to replace the entire starting defensive front seven in 2008, and 14 starters all told. That's a herculean task, but head Mike Riley says there is talent in waiting.

"We've had such great play from that group and are losing such key players, it's not going to be easy. We have enough talent behind them that we'll be all right, but it will take some development," Riley told the Portland Tribune recently.

Linebacker looks to be well stocked numbers-wise, with 51 tackles in 2007 spread amongst five players -- Bryant Cornell (13), Dennis Christopher (4), Isaiah Cook (9), Keaton Kristick (15) and Keith Pankey (10). Additionally, there are up and comers in Will Darkins and David Pa'aluhi who showed promise while redshirting this past year.

The defensive line is another matter when it comes to proven depth.

The only experience returning up front resides in defensive ends Victor Butler (25 tackles in '07) Slade Norris (16), and DT Pernell Booth (11). Last season, Oregon State rotated as many as 10 d-linemen during a game, and it paid dividends. That luxury will likely not exist this year, not to that degree anyway.

Whereas Riley is cautiously optimistic, OSU defensive line coach Joe Seumalo is undaunted, saying the Beavs will not only be faster up front but that they will be better than the '07 crew, the rationale in part being the new starters and key contributors will be hungry for their turn in the spotlight.

Perhaps, but it's a whole lot of production to replace. How quickly Simi Kuli is able to make the transition from junior college to Pac-10 play could go a long ways in arresting any decline.

DT Steve Paea will also arrive before fall camp. The Beavs were dealt a blow last month when the NCAA declined starting d-tackle Gerald Lee's appeal for another year of eligibility.

As good as the secondary was last season, they might have to be even better in '08 if the Beavs are to be as successful on defense as last season.

The defensive front's performance helped key the standout Beaver secondary last year, and the line in '08 may need the secondary to pick up their game even further. The group returning may have the chops to do just that.

Brandon Hughes (57), Tim Clark (32) and Keenan Lewis (15) return at cornerback. The trio combined for six interceptions and 22 pass breakups last season.

At safety, Al Afalava was third on the team last season with 64 tackles. Greg Laybourn (49) and Bryan Payton (23) ranked Nos. 6 and 12, respectively.

The class that signed this past Wednesday was a small one numbers-wise, but two points are key here. Seven grayshirts who signed last year enrolled in January and have joined the team. The Beavs also redshirted 29 players last year.

Their collective development, how fast and how far, will determine if the Beavers make it three straight years being ranked in the final polls of the year.

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