Pac-12 preview: Oregon State

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Oregon State won games last season with both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz as the No. 1 quarterback, so which one draws the starting job this season?
That decision, along with finding playmakers to replace receiver Markus Wheaton and cornerback/kick returner Jordan Poyer, figures to determine the fate of the Beavers, who reversed field to go from 3-9 in 2011 to a 9-4 record last season, ending with an Alamo Bowl loss to Texas.
The Beavers seem set in so many ways -- enough so to rank No. 25 in the preseason poll by Associated Press -- but can a team ever be comfortable with a battle for playing time at quarterback?
Mannion was the unquestioned starter last season, until an injury created an opening for Vaz, who responded with a strong performance himself until an injury for him put Mannion back as No. 1.
Statistically, Vaz had the better passer efficiency rating (142.5 to Mannion's 138.8). Mannion started eight of the 13 games and completed 65 percent of his passes, but had a troubling 13 interceptions while throwing for 15 touchdowns. Vaz completed 59 percent of his passes, and had only three interceptions while throwing for 11 touchdowns.
"We know they both can play and we know they both have high character, great leadership," OSU coach Mike Riley said. "We know they both can win."
Riley said the decision will come down to consistency, and which player has improved the most from last season.
So which will be chosen to start the opener on Aug. 31 against Eastern Washington?
"That's going to be hard," Riley said. "It's not an easy deal, but it's still a good thing."
One interesting development in the off-season was OSU players casting their votes for Mannion to be one of their captains. That's a repeat duty for him as he was voted a captain prior to his sophomore season, but at that time, he was the definite starter.
Riley was still undecided at the end of last week, when concern over a rash of injuries took precedence. There were so many players sidelined with a variety of nicks and bruises that Riley canceled practice Thursday.
The team returned to practice Friday, and on Saturday had a tension-releasing Slip-'n-Slide contest, with players running and sliding on a wet Slip-'n-Slide. There was some controversy who slid the longest running back Storm Woods or defensive end Dylan Wynn.
Regardless, Riley had not solved the key controversy at quarterback, which is expected to happen this week.
Whoever plays quarterback will hope that the wide receivers stay healthy. There is little depth there.
Most intriguing among them is Brandin Cooks, a junior who will need to set the tone for the offense. His breakaway speed makes him a threat to score on every play. It's that deep passing game that opens up so much for the Beavers in the running game, and a definite factor in last season's offensive success was the threat of Wheaton and Cooks getting behind the secondary.
The Beavers also look to Richard Mullaney to have a breakout year at wide receiver. Mullaney set a California high school record with 122 receptions in 2010, then reluctantly redshirted his first fall at OSU due to the depth at the position. As a backup to Wheaton last season he had 13 receptions for 156 yards, including four catches for 70 yards in his one start when Wheaton was held out with an injury.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Beavers open with a home game against Eastern Washington and then follow it with Hawaii in Corvallis before consecutive road games that should give an early indication of how the season will go for OSU. The Sept. 14 game at Utah, where past OSU teams have struggled, will be the opener of the Pac-12 slate so it's obviously crucial to show whether the Beavers can contend in the Pac-12 North. That game is followed by a road game at San Diego State and then the month concludes with the conference home opener against Colorado. Those two road games pose challenges, but anything less than a 4-1 start would be very disappointing, particularly with the difficulty of the schedule in the final month, when conference title contenders Stanford, USC, Arizona State and Oregon are among the final five games for the Beavers.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The Beavers have four of their five starting offensive lineman back, and feel good about filling the open spot, but depth remains a question for this unit. "In this league, linemen are like gold," OSU coach Mike Riley said. "We want to continue to develop our depth where we have lots of guys who are ready to play in a game." A touted group of recruits from the 2012 signing class will be either redshirt freshmen or sophomores this fall, and that's where most of the backup candidates will come from, but the lack of game experience could be telling and the Beavers need to get them in for some plays in the opening two games.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The rebuilding of OSU's interior defensive line will likely be the key to how the defense plays this season, and it hasn't helped that three junior college players ticketed as contenders for playing time up front had their eligibility in doubt, with Lyndon Tulimasealii ruled out of joining the team for this season and Kyle Peko and Charlie Tuaau awaiting NCAA clearance on their addition. Even if they are allowed to join, they've missed valuable practice time. The Beavers have their returning ends, Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn, but they need to find two tackles and some depth for the front four, where injuries aren't unusual once the games begin.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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