STRETCH RUN: Linebackers

DON'T LOOK now but, after shaking off early season growing pains, Linebacker U, as Mike Riley likes to call Oregon State, is rising again. You win with defense, the saying goes, and the black and orange linebackers corps will be tested when the Beavs enter the final regular season stretch. During this bye week, a closer look at the stop corps and today, the 'backers.


Depth chart*

SLB: Keaton Kristick (Jr.), Isaiah Cook (Sr.), Dennis Christopher, (Sr.), Paul Jones (RFr.), Kameron Krebs, (Fr.)
MLB: Bryant Cornell (Sr.), David Pa'aluhi III (RFr.), Casey Noack (Sr.) Walker Vave (So.)
WLB: Keith Pankey (So.), Dwight Roberson (So.), Keo Camat (So.), Will Darkins (RFr.)
*Not an official depth chart but based on observation of games and practice.

A look back at the storyline this summer: Mostly a quiet time. Keith Pankey was one of three true freshman to play last season, storming in as a freshman and becoming a special teams standout in 2007 before shooting up the strongside depth chart for the coming season.

A look back at the storyline coming into fall camp: Losing all three starters was a major concern. Still, before the season, many people were in agreement it was more reloading than it was rebuilding, despite the talent of the trio that would need to be replaced from the '07 campaign.

A look back at the storyline after two games: The linebackers group had trouble getting their swerve on. Kristick was the most visible and had made a number of good plays but the group, as a whole, had also had a number of high profile misses, against the run, in both the Stanford and Penn State games and the Beavs now sat at 0-2. It only takes a split second for a misread and react to spell disaster at linebacker, and it was even more noticeable when the Beavs went in rotation and particularly at the MIKE spot. The Beavs had done some decent things, it wasn't that they were playing badly -- they just weren't playing great, not for a school Mike Riley likes to call Linebacker U.

The storyline headed into the final stretch run: As the d-line took off, when the d-tackles began to win the battle in the trenches, so too did the linebackers corps turn the corner. The reveal was that as the d-line occupied the offensive linemen to a greater degree, that in turn allows the linebackers (and defensive backfield) to make more plays as they no longer had a 300-pounder in their lap as much of the time.

Kristick played even more solidly, showing himself capable of being a true sideline-to-sideline patrol force, and his pass coverage has been noteworthy on more than a few occasions. A huge test in coverage will come when the Beavs play Arizona, whose tight end is well capable of carving up any Pac-10 defense at any time. The SAM usually draws the assignment on a tight end, with help from the secondary, and whoever wins that battle may be the tipping point for whether the Beavs or Cats come out on top of what could be a decisive game in the Pac-10 race.

During the Penn State loss, in the latter half, Roberson, also a great special teams player last season, came in and turned the coaching staff's heads at the strong side with some inspired, hard nosed play. He's seen his playing time increase ever since. Pankey has in turn upped the level of his game. The end result is a stronger 1-2 punch at the WIL, with Pankey remaining the starter and Roberson serving as a 1A.

Heady Oregonian Bryant Cornell doesn't get noticed as much as other Pac-10 middle 'backers do, his game is quieter, but he has made more and more plays as the season as gone on roaming the middle of the field. He actually brings more speed than did Alan Darlin last year, hits hard and in the last few games, the Beavs are seeing the benefits of all the experience under his belt. Pa'aluhi III and Noack are learning the position and the best way to learn is by doing. The light bulb is burning brighter for each in recent weeks and the stretch drive will tell more on if it has turned on all the way.

At SAM, experienced backups Isaiah Cook and Dennis Christopher have of late provided a solid, experienced three deep rotation on the outsides.

Kristick was the one many pegged as the next great OSU 'backer, an aggressive tackler with big play potential, and he's proven worthy of those projections with a number of high profile sticks. Offenses will key more on him down the stretch. To mangle an old saying, when you take away from Peter you free up Paul, and while Kristick will undoubtedly still make his share of plays, it will likely also be up to Kristick's linebacker mates to take advantage of the opportunities that creates.

Incoming recruit this past fall: Tony Wilson (Fr.)
Walk-ons who arrived this fall: Zane Norris
Expected to redshirt: Anthony Watkins, Wilson, Norris

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