Cornerback a key focus for Riley this spring

THERE ALWAYS EXIST a myriad of goals and areas of focus headed into spring drills. It's a new year and older faces are gone and the youth returning is more experienced. But two positions in particular, said Mike Riley, are front and center when Oregon State kicks off the 15-practice spring session in Corvallis later this month.

Cornerback and offensive tackle. Those were the two areas with the biggest question marks Riley named last week that need to be answered headed into the spring. Indeed, Oregon State will be replacing some of their best players from a year ago at those two spots.

If you're solid at corner and have the personnel to play consistently solid man coverage, it allows a defense to be much more aggressive -- and '08 starters Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis are now NFL Draft prospects.

When spring drills begin March 30, Tim Clark and Patrick Henderson, both seniors-to-be, will be the Beaver starters out on the islands, Riley said this past week.

Barring something unforeseen, Clark would seem a virtual lock to start on the left side when the season begins -- he was the first corner off the bench in '08 and played extensively over the course of the year.

But with two new starters, the Beavers could also rotate in at corner more than they did last season. And Henderson, a wily veteran, could also see some fierce competition on the right side between now and the season opener.

"We've got some good prospects behind them," said Riley.

The list includes James Dockery, Brandon Hardin, Keynan Parker and David Ross. With Brian Watkins, the Beavs have seven corners headed into the spring.

Parker, who was a football and track star in Canada during his prep days, is one who could end up making the biggest splash this spring.

"He has a lot of ability, I'm excited to see him. I think he had a good redshirt year," said Riley.

Hardin also has a boatload of speed, and he's a big corner at 6-foot-2. At a dead sprint, as seen on special teams last season, he has few peers.

But what Oregon State will need to determine, Riley said, is if Hardin has those other things critical to cornerback play -- hip turn and change of direction to name a couple.

Hardin could also conceivably end up at safety, said Riley. Beaver coaches may be cautious in letting Hardin go full contact this spring as he works his way back from an injured shoulder.

"I know he's a football player. He'll find a place to play on this team," said Riley.

Meanwhile, Dockery looked to be on the cusp of earning increased playing time last year on special teams and at corner before a fall camp knee injury in the weight room shuttered his year. Athletic and with a nose for interceptions, it won't be a surprise if he makes an impact this spring.

Ross, added Riley, is someone who "made strides" this past season.

How it all plays out on the islands during OSU's spring practice remains to be seen but one thing is for certain. It's going to be compelling to watch.

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