COMMENTARY: Grading the OSU defensive depth

CORVALLIS--Despite replacing the entire front seven, the 2007 Beaver stop corps finished ranked No. 8 in total defense and led the nation in rush defense, yielding but 70.6 yards per game. The 2008 Beaver D had to replace some of the best linebackers ever at OSU. But names such as Kristick, Pa'aluhi, Pankey and Roberson emerged and quickly allayed fears over losing Doggett, LaRocque and Darlin.

The task for the 2009 Beavers is seemingly just as daunting -- however it is the secondary that is the area of concern with the front seven looking to be the strong point of the Beaver D.

Gone are now-in-the-NFL cornerbacks Brandon Hughes (Chargers) and Keenan Lewis (Steelers). Safeties Greg Laybourn (NY Jets) and Al Afalava (Chicago) have departed as well, leaving all four starting positions in the OSU defensive backfield vacant.

From this chair, the two areas of emphasis for success on defense in 2009 will be pressure from the defensive ends and coverage in the secondary.

Normally requiring a subscription, this article has been made free content. It's Travis Rice's second article with BF.C, and we think he has some interesting things to say. Enjoy.

Defensive Line: B-
Stephen Paea anchors what should be a stout interior d-line. Paea is a preseason All-Conference and national honors candidate. Alongside the 6-1, 285 pound junior-to-be Paea will be Mitchel Hunt (Jr.), Latu Moala (Sr.) and Sioeli Nau (Sr.).

Nau is one of the strongest Beavers and appears the favorite for the starting spot opposite Paea headed into fall camp. Hunt saw time in nine games in 2008 and while injuries slowed him early in his OSU career, he looks to be healthy and ready to battle for a starting spot in Mark Banker's rotation. Moala played his JUCO ball at College of San Mateo, saw time in all 13 games last season and has the good strength. The foursome should provide quality depth for the Beavers in the middle.

Defensive ends Victor Butler and Slade Norris combined for 22 sacks in 2008, production that will need to be replaced if OSU wants to be successful on D this year.

Senior Ben Terry and sophomore Kevin Frahm figure to be the starters. Terry saw extensive time last season and ended the season playing on a decided uptick. Terry (6-2, 242) reminds many of Butler – he has tremendous speed and athleticism. If Terry can develop into a factor in the run game, his natural abilities as a pass rusher should help make him Victor Butler v2.0.

Frahm is the "wild man" of the group and has been labeled a "workout warrior" by many around the program. He saw playing time last year in rotation but on balance remains inexperienced and untested. On the plus side, he has a non-stop motor with great strength on the end of the line. Ultimately, he is still young, and Frahm will need to prove his mettle on a consistent basis in '09.

Converted tight end Gabe Miller has opened the coaching staff's eyes and is expected to see time in the rotation this fall. Miller was an the 4A Defensive Player Of The Year coming out of Lake Oswego High and already feels comfortable back at the d-end position after three years in Corvallis at tight end.

Taylor Henry, a redshirt frosh, and Matt LaGrone, a fourth year junior, round out the rotation at defensive end. Henry plays fast, like Butler and Terry, but he is young and untested thus far. LaGrone was nursing an injured hand this spring. LaGrone should be healed up when camp kicks off on Aug. 10 and Beaver Nation is hoping he will, with his 6-6, 256 pound frame, emerge and make a considerable impact coming off the edge.

Once again, as has been the case in years past, OSU defensive coordinator Mark Banker looks to have a rotation of 9-10 on the defensive line this season. That should play a key role in helping him find plenty of production with this group.

Linebacker: A-/B+
Call it "Linebacker U" like Mike Riley does, call it what you will, but Oregon State again looks to be fielding a dominant set of freakishly athletic starting linebackers in 2009.

Keaton Kristick broke out last season and solidified himself as the next great Beaver linebacker last season with 82 tackles and 3.5 sacks. The strongside outside ‘backer returns this season looking to improve on his second team All Pac-10. There's even been talk about plugging him inside in certain defensive schemes.

The end of last year for the Beavs also saw the emergence of a monster in the middle. David Pa'aluhi III will only be a sophomore this year, but the OSU middle linebacker position and is poised for a breakout season if '08 was any indication. At 5-11, 233 he's a black and orange brick. And yet his 4.6 speed will provide quicks in the middle that OSU, or most other teams for that matter, are not used to having with such size.

The two-headed monster at the weakside linebacker spot look to be on exhibit yet again in '09, with juniors Dwight Roberson and Keith Pankey appearing poised to share time in the Oregon State box. Roberson provides a more aggressive run stopping threat and potential sack master, while Pankey is lean and polished in pass coverage. Whatever the situation calls for, these two should be effective in the proper downs and distances.

Backing up the starters are junior Keo Camat, junior Walker Vave and sophomore Paul Jones. Camat and Vave are seasoned veterans who can play in the middle, have contributed on special teams and know the OSU system. Zane Norris and Kameron Krebs could also see meaningful minutes in rotation as the Beavs look to build up experience.

Whether or not middle linebacker Tony Wilson (knee) will return from injury to have an impact on this season is yet to be determined. If so, the Beaver linebacker depth becomes a good deal more solidified. The coaches are high on the redshirt freshman from Salem and the depth on the inside took a bit of a hit when he went down this spring.

Secondary: C-
Nightmares of the 2005 season circled in the more pessimistic of Beaver fans' heads this offseason. Indeed, '05 was the last time OSU had to replace both starting corners were with the before mentioned Lewis and Hughes. Needless to say, they took their lumps.

The potential is there this season in the Beaver secondary, but experience is seriously lacking in the ‘09 unit.

Senior Tim Clark will start at left cornerback. He worked in as a third starter last season when injuries hit and this year will need to serve as Oregon State's shut down corner. Clark will be expected to be a leader on the field, and has the swagger to do so.

The other corner spot has three contending for starting time. Senior Patrick Henderson has seen the field on special teams for years and played in late-game situations last season. Henderson is a veteran, very athletic has kick return skills.

Another name to consider is Brandon Hardin. Hardin has safety size and corner speed, yet he's very raw and hasn't seen the field at the corner position yet in game situations. Between the two, Banker might be more inclined to lean towards experience (Henderson) early, but look for Hardin to push him in fall camp.

Before injuring his knee last season during fall camp, James Dockery was moving up the depth chart and showcasing great athleticism. Dockery got his first look at OSU at safety before settling in early on at corner and the junior is a vocal leader on and off the field.

The safety position has been completely made over at Oregon State. Al Afalava hit like a ton of bricks and Greg Laybourn lead the Pac-10 in tackles in 2008. Taking their spots this spring, respectively, were sophomore Lance Mitchell and junior Suaesi Tuimaunei.

Mitchell is incredibly athletic and has good size for a safety (6-2, 205). The OSU coaches are excited about his potential, but nothing is set in stone and he's yet to prove anything on the field. Tuimaunei saw a decent amount of time in 2008 in rotation at safety, and will need to be an impact leader in the secondary along with Clark. And Tuimaunei will need to be a sure-tackling force in the run game like his predecessors if OSU wants to churn out another highly ranked defense this season.

Among those backing up the two potential starters are Cameron Collins, Josh LaGrone, Anthony Watkins and Brian Watkins. Collins looks the part at 6-3, 225 but has yet to separate himself from the group. LaGrone and the Watkins brothers are young and inexperienced. The athleticism is there, but there are concerns on their effectiveness in crunch time if the injury bug hits.

Travis Rice was born and raised in Corvallis and has been going to Beaver games since before he learned to speak. A close observer of the Oregon State football program who regularly watches fall camp and spring ball practices at OSU, Rice is a former first team all-conference selection from his prep and collegiate playing days in both football and baseball.

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