POST-SPRING BREAKDOWN: Safeties

CORVALLIS -- With the loss of Al Afalava, one of the bigger hitters in Oregon State history, as well as the guy who took home more Pac-10 Player of the Week awards (3) than anyone else, in Greg Laybourn, Beaver Nation had every right to feel apprehensive about the safety position heading into spring ball. The duo of Suaesi Tuimaunei and Lance Mitchell, however, allayed some fears this spring.

This year's safeties are more athletic than their predecessors. But will that translate to being better? Will it ultimately be "addition by subtraction"?

Suaesi Tuimaunei put numerous offensive players in their place throughout the spring, and is expected to carry on the hard-hitting tradition that Afalava, a high school teammate in Laie, Hawaii, provided in the secondary.

With 21 tackles and one for loss over his career at Oregon State, Tuimaunei is the most experienced in a young core of Beaver safeties. He will be expected to take on a leadership role at the position.

While Tuimaunei may be the brawns of the safety relationship, Lance Mitchell might be the brains, showing an ever increasing ability this spring to read and react to a play the way pursuit football is supposed to be played.

The 6-foot-2, 205 pound Mitchell is a pure ball-hawker, he spent much of the spring roaming about centerfield and picked off several passes during the month of practices.

Mitchell, a sophomore out of Pasadena, Calif., was rated 29th in the nation at the safety position in his recruiting class, and could possibly be starting alongside Tuimaunei coming this fall, but he will likely be pushed hard by fellow sophomore Cameron Collins, who was also able to make a few impressive plays throughout the month.

COLLINS HAS THE advantage over Mitchell as far as tackles go in the pair's career, but that is not saying much, as neither player has seen any appreciable playing time outside of special teams.

Collins has a good 10-plus pounds on Mitchell, but the question as to which safety has more athleticism is arguable.

One of the more impressive interceptions of the month came in the second team scrimmage by Collins, when he perfectly read a Ryan Katz pass that was intended for freshman Jordan Bishop. Collins stepped in front of the throw, which was nearly into the hands of Bishop, and pulled the ball away from the receiver.

Mitchell came out of the spring seeming to hold the upper hand on Collins, but Collins served notice he may push Mitchell in the fall, if not for the starting assignment than at least for quality minutes.

Four other safeties are on the roster, but none were able to make as lasting an impression during the spring as did Tuimaunei, Mitchell and Collins.

Redshirt freshmen Josh LaGrone, along with brothers Brian and Anthony Watkins will certainly add depth to the position, but probably did not do enough in the spring that would indicate they would seriously challenge the above trio. Keep an eye on LaGrone, though, he got plenty of snaps this spring and the redshirt freshman showed potential in mostly running with the twos.

Walk-on sophomore Colin McLeod, the only safety on the roster to be homegrown in Oregon, could play a role on special teams.

ALTHOUGH BOTH THE strong and free safety positions will be manned by underclassmen this year, the players expected to take on starting roles certainly have the athleticism to succeed.

Indeed, they are more athletic than were Afalava and Laybourn, which would seem to augur for a better showing against the pass and in particular, the long ball, an area the Beavs struggled with at times last season.

However, the safeties did get burned at times this spring in the passing game -- playing a read and react position like safety is a learning process, one that sometimes takes years, and more lessons remain. There is also something to be said for the wiliness of the departed seniors that doesn't always show up in the box score.

Afalava and Laybourn were also better in run support last season than they got credit for -- something this year's safeties will need to continue to work on in fall camp.


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