CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — When Jonathan Smith returned to his alma mater, the goal was to rebuild Oregon State to where the Beavers are now.
Competitive? Smith and the Beavers have already proven that. Contenders? That’s the expectation No. 18 Oregon State will carry into this season – the last one with the Pac-12 in its current state.
“You want to embrace the expectations. It can be a distraction either way — people telling you you’re no good or telling you that you’re really good,” Smith said. “But you’d rather be on the side where you’ve built something to where people are telling you that you’ve got a chance to be good, understanding how hard it is to win.”
Oregon State went 10-3 last season and returns its most talented team since Smith arrived in 2018 to take over a program that had been 1-11 the previous season amid coaching turmoil.
Additionally, the Beavers will be playing their home games inside renovated Reser Stadium after their home field spent most of last year as a construction zone.
“It was rocking in there with only half a stadium,” wide receiver Anthony Gould said. “It’s going to be fun when that new stadium is opened up.”
The Beavers are hoping the product on the field can keep the remodeled stadium rocking like it did a season ago when Oregon State won seven of its final eight games, including a rivalry win over Oregon and a 30-3 thumping of Florida in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Most of the attention will be at quarterback, where Clemson transfer DJ Uiagalelei seems likely to win the starting job. The Beavers also bring back Ben Gulbranson, who went 7-1 as the starter last season and was MVP of the bowl game. Thrown into the mix is freshman Aidan Chiles, who enrolled last winter and was impressive during spring practices.
While it seems Uiagalelei will get the majority of snaps, the Beavers offense will be driven by the deepest crew of running backs in the conference, highlighted by Damien Martinez.
Defensively, Oregon State led the Pac-12 in scoring and total defense last season, but will need to fill some key vacancies to match the numbers from 2022.
Uiagalelei was one of the biggest names in the transfer portal during the offseason and his arrival in Corvallis was seen as a coup for the Beavers. Uiagalelei started 28 games in his three seasons at Clemson and threw for 2,521 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. But shaky play late in the season led to Uiagalelei being benched.
“Some of his physicality, I mean just his strength, the size of him, he can move his feet, that is a little bit different than we’ve had around here in a long time,” Smith said.
If Uiagalelei falters, the Beavers saw what Gulbranson could do in the offense last season, including the bowl game win over Florida when he threw for one TD and ran for another. Chiles is the wild card but seems unlikely to play immediately.
Martinez was the Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year after rushing for 982 yards and seven touchdowns, but most of those yards came starting with Oregon State’s seventh game. Martinez had six straight games where he ran for at least 100 yards, including a career-best 178 yards and three touchdowns against Colorado.
Martinez enters this season as the clear leader. Oregon State also has Deshaun Fenwick, who rushed for 553 yards and seven TDs, and Jamious Griffin, who added 488 yards and four TDs. All told, it creates the deepest running back unit in the conference.
STAYING ON TOP
A year ago, the best defense in the Pac-12 belonged to the Beavers. Oregon State allowed barely 100 yards per game rushing, and a conference-best 20 points and 332 yards per game in total offense. The Beavers return safety Kitan Oladapo and interior linemen Isaac Hodgins and James Rawls. The question is at linebacker where star Omar Speights transferred to LSU.
The schedule sets up for Oregon State to have a big season. The Beavers’ nonconference schedule doesn’t feature a Power Five opponent before opening conference play with a showdown at Washington State. From there, the Beavers’ biggest Pac-12 matchups take place at home with Oregon State hosting No. 14 Utah, UCLA and No. 10 Washington before closing the regular season in Eugene against rival Oregon. It will be the final time the Ducks and Beavers meet as conference foes.