It’s gonna take Jonathan Smith a while at Oregon State

Timmy Hernandez

Jonathan Smith was an intriguing hire, but he’s not going to have much to work with for a while.

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Sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes the tea leaves mislead you.

Heading into 2017, I thought we were seeing what we needed to see from Gary Andersen. The enigmatic head coach had a decent rebound in 2016, and it appeared the Beavers had the pieces to improve again.

The school pulled off a coup in stealing Andersen from Wisconsin, but he inherited a two-deep that was not nearly as well-stocked as it had been a couple of years earlier. He has won six games in two years.

Of course, he was only 8-16 after two years at Utah State. He then went 7-6 in his third year and 11-2 in his fourth. He has proved he doesn’t mind taking his time to set things up.

Close losses prevented a drastic change in the win total, but Oregon State was far more physical, athletic, and competent.

Andersen’s career has featured the unexpected. After working his way up from Ricks College to Idaho State to Utah, he landed the Southern Utah head gig in 2003, only to return after a year to a position coach role at Utah. He brought unexpected highs to Utah State nearly a decade later, and after two years and 19 wins at Wisconsin, he lurched back to the left coast.

And midway through his third season at OSU, he left.

The last one was not quite as unexpected, at least. Andersen has proved that if things don’t feel right, he won’t feel the need to remain. With Oregon State at 1-5 and looking like the worst power-conference team, and with Andersen “frustrated with a culture he couldn’t change,” he resigned, leaving $12 million on the table.

Andersen’s departure lit an ever-so-brief spark. Interim coach Cory Hall led the Beavers to near-upsets of Colorado (36-33) and Stanford (15-14), but abominable play soon resumed. OSU lost its last four games by a combined 110 points, completing the team’s worst season since 1995.

In all, under Mike Riley and Andersen, Oregon State has regressed in five of the last seven years.

Oregon State S&P+ progression

Dennis Erickson and Riley sustained an unheard-of level of success, with nine bowl bids and four ranked finishes (including the program’s lone top-five finish) from 1999-2009. But as I say a million times, hard jobs remain hard. Occasionally a program can revive its infrastructure enough to change its ceiling and floor; most of the time, though, you simply regress toward your historical mean.

So now, OSU finds itself back in the mid-1990s. Jerry Pettibone won seven games in his last three seasons in Corvallis (1994-96), and the Beavers brought in the 42-year-old Riley, USC’s offensive coordinator and the former head coach for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers and WLAF’s San Antonio Riders.

This time around, the school is skewing younger. Smith, Oregon State’s quarterback during the historic 2000 season, spent the last six seasons as a Petersen assistant and the last four as Petersen’s offensive coordinator at Washington.

Smith’s entire career has unfolded in the Pacific Northwest. He held jobs at Idaho and Montana before joining Petersen at Boise State. He holds Favorite Son status in Corvallis, and while we overlook résumé flaws with Favorite Sons, spending a long time with Petersen suggests he has learned a few things about program maintenance.

As first-time head coaches are sometimes astute to do, Smith brought in a pretty experienced staff:

  • Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren has nine years of OC experience at Northern Arizona, SJSU, and Colorado.
  • Defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar has eight years of DC experience from North Dakota, Kansas State, the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, and Purdue and spent the last three seasons as Paul Chryst’s OLBs coach at Wisconsin.
  • DBs coach Greg Burns has two decades of experience and served as Pete Carroll’s DBs coach at USC for four years.
  • Offensive line coach Jim Michalczik has nearly three decades and served as Erickson’s defensive line coach at Miami in 1990-91.
  • Riley’s back! Smith named the 64-year-old, two-time OSU head coach as his assistant HC and tight ends coach.

Historically, the odds are against the hire working. But the logic of both the Smith hire and Smith’s hires was sound. And if he’s got enough Coach Pete in him, it might just work out. Eventually.

Offense

2017 Oregon State offensive radar

The structure of the 2017 offense was about what I expected; I just expected the Beavers to be better at it. A foursome of running backs (Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce, Thomas Tyner, and Trevorris Johnson) averaged 28 carries per game and didn’t move backward much. That allowed the Beavers to create manageable third downs and occasionally control the ball.

Unfortunately, OSU was so devoid of big-play potential that “ball control” tended to mean “move the chains a couple of times before punting.” You can’t get away with so few big plays unless you’re at a Navy level of efficiency.

2017 Oregon State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

The four backs combined to average just 4.6 yards per carry and gained 5 yards on just 36 percent of their carries, well below the national average. And then three either graduated (Tyner, Johnson) or left early (Nall).

Pierce should carry a load (and could get involved in the passing game), but after that it’s unclear who might tote the ball. The most likely candidates are a trio of sophomores: former four-star cornerback Christian Wallace, 5’8 Calvin Tyler Jr., and walk-on Hunter Mattson. Redshirt freshman B.J. Baylor could carve out a niche.

They should be running behind a sturdy line. The Beavers had decent line stats last year and return all but one member of the two-deep (right tackle Fred Lauina). Left tackle Blake Brandel might be the offense’s best player.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon State
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Artavis Pierce

Smith’s play-calling philosophy at UW was in the “protect your QB from awkward situations” model: throw in run situations and run in passing situations. 2017 Washington threw 4 percentage points more than the national average on standard downs and ran 5 percent more than average on passing downs. Lindgren’s play-calling was the opposite (run 2 percent more than average on standard downs and 11 percent less on passing downs), but with this personnel, I would expect the former philosophy to win out.

That should offer early-down targets for Oregon State’s possession receivers. Tight end Noah Togiai had a plus-14 percent marginal efficiency, and wideout Timmy Hernandez was at plus-13 percent. Four-star sophomore Isaiah Hodgins was at plus-6 percent and seems to have upside (even if he didn’t get a chance to show much of it last year). So, too, might junior slot receiver Trevon Bradford, who gained 204 yards in just 11 catches.

Great. So … who’s going to be throwing? Jake Luton was the starter for the first four games of last year before suffering a scary spine fracture. He seemed to battle to a draw with junior Conor Blount in spring ball, with JUCO transfer Jack Colletto still in the race.

The 6’7 Luton completed 62 percent of his passes with a plus-4 percent marginal efficiency. In theory, he set a high enough bar that, if Blount beats him out, Blount’s probably decent.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at California
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
Noah Togiai

Defense

2017 Oregon State defensive radar

The Beavers surged to 49th in Def. S&P+ in 2016 thanks to a lovely pass defense, and while the secondary was young enough to suggest regression, a couple of injuries made it much younger, and the defense collapsed. They went from ranking 31st in Passing S&P+ to 112th, while the run defense remained awful.

Tibesar was part of two Grey Cup champions with the Alouettes, and his 2012 Purdue defense wasn’t the only reason Danny Hope couldn’t save his job that year. After three years as part of a top-10 defense at Wisconsin, he could have fun ideas. And last year’s growing pains could lead to a rebound in pass defense.

Including cornerbacks Xavier Crawford, Isaiah Dunn, and Jay Irvine, who each missed about half the season, OSU returns its top seven DBs from 2017, and they’re all either sophomores or juniors. Crawford had 11 passes defensed in 2016, and safety David Morris had four tackles for loss as a freshman last fall. At the least, we should see the makings of a good 2019 secondary.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at California
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
David Morris (12)

Tibesar’s Wisconsin outside linebackers were absurdly successful last year — three of them combined for 31.5 TFLs and 17.5 sacks and took part in a combined 22 run stuffs. Just a little bit of that pressure could go a long way; with everything else going on, the pass rush was nonexistent. All of last year’s OLBs return, including senior Bright Ugwoegbu and sophomore Kee Whetzel, but they combined for just 5.5 sacks. Senior inside linebacker Jonathan Willis should bring some stability and solid run support on the interior.

There’s turnover on the line, though that would matter more if the line had been any good. Tackles Kalani Vakameilalo and 380-pound Elu Aydon return, but you, dear reader, had as many tackles as the leading returning end did. Some combination of senior LaMone Williams, junior Thor Katoa, redshirt freshmen Isaac Bush and Jaelen Bush, and JUCO transfer Jeromy Reichner (who was in for spring and looked solid) will be forced into the lineup.

So yeah, the pass rush will probably have to come from the linebackers.

Oregon State v USC
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Jonathan Willis

Special Teams

Credit where it’s due: Oregon State’s kickoff coverage was very good. Despite Jordan Choukair rarely booting touchbacks, the Beavers ranked a solid 39th in kickoff efficiency.

Unfortunately, that was OSU’s only strength. And with the change in kickoff rules, there’s a chance that the Beavers will have fewer opportunities to use it.

The return game was subpar, and we don’t really know about the punt returners, since opponents barely punted last year.

Choukair is automatic inside of 40 yards, and junior punter Alex Bland kicked unreturnable, if short, punts, at least.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Ohio State 1 -39.2 1%
8-Sep Southern Utah NR 7.4 67%
15-Sep at Nevada 101 -4.5 40%
22-Sep Arizona 33 -15.0 19%
29-Sep at Arizona State 57 -14.6 20%
6-Oct Washington State 41 -12.6 23%
20-Oct California 65 -8.7 31%
27-Oct at Colorado 89 -7.6 33%
3-Nov USC 15 -21.2 11%
10-Nov at Stanford 20 -24.2 8%
17-Nov at Washington 4 -36.2 2%
23-Nov Oregon 23 -18.6 14%
Projected S&P+ Rk 110
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 92 / 115
Projected wins 2.7
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.1 (85)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 60 / 56
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -14 / -5.0
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (58%, 76%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 1.8 (-0.8)

The best possible news is that there are almost no senior difference-makers, especially if Blount or Colletto overtake Luton as starting QB. The odds are good that whoever assumes leadership roles will return in 2019. This is a definitive Year Zero situation, in which Smith will spend the season arranging chess pieces, then get started on his actual building job in 2019. (And hey, Smith might have already gotten his biggest first-year screw-up out of the way!)

The Beavers are taking on a downright cruel schedule. They begin at Ohio State (projected No. 1 in S&P+), and once they have likely run out of gas late, they finish with four consecutive games against projected top-25 teams. There are some win opportunities in between — visits from Southern Utah, California, and Washington State, plus trips to Nevada and Colorado — and odds are good that the Beavers will at least top last year’s win total.

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