Spring football practice is a time to sort through the roster and begin the process of molding a team for the upcoming season.
There usually are quite a few questions, and Oregon State coach Mike Riley started looking for answers on Monday.
Brandin Cooks’ eye-catching performance at the NFL combine just reinforced what most OSU fans already knew: He is going to be a tough one to replace.
Cooks decided to go pro after finishing last season with 128 catches for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. He won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
“All we have to do is replace 128 catches,” Riley said. “Where is all that going to come from and how all that is going to fit together?”
Victor Bolden steps into the flanker spot left open by Cooks. Bolden showed last season that he has the basic tools to pick up some of the slack, particularly as a running threat on the fly sweep.
Richard Mullaney is back at split end after catching 52 passes for 788 yards and three scores.
The Beavers are loaded at tight end with Connor Hamlett (40 catches for 364 yards and five touchdowns), Caleb Smith (25-343-4), Kellen Clute (19-159-2) and Tyler Perry (7-58).
Riley and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh will be taking a long look at the situation up front.
The Beavers lost starting left tackle Michael Philipp and guards Josh Andrews and Grant Enger.
“We’re losing three starters on the offensive line,” Riley said. “We need to find out who can play in the Pac-12 and then get that line put together. That will be a big issue.”
To make matters even more difficult, the Beavers will be without starting center Isaac Seumalo and guard/center Josh Mitchell for the spring as they rehabilitate injuries.
“You’d like to start developing the chemistry with the starting five as soon as you can,” Riley said. “Because of competition reasons and because of the injuries, we’re not going to be close to that during spring ball. We just have to develop players and find out who might fit into that top five.”
Riley and Cavanaugh will get to evaluate transfer Bobby Keenan, who is penciled in as the starter at left tackle on the spring depth chart.
Sean Harlow (6-foot-4, 288 pounds) will get time at guard and tackle and Gavin Andrews (6-5, 340) will step into the right tackle spot he held before a bout of mononucleosis set him back at the start of last season.
Grant Bays and Roman Sapolu should get plenty of work in the interior.
Getting the line situation sorted out is a big step toward developing a strong running game.
The Beavers want more balance to their offense and want to allow quarterback Sean Mannion more comfort in the pocket by running the ball effectively.
Oregon State struggled in losses to Stanford, USC and Arizona State last season, in part because of a lack of offensive balance.
OSU ran the ball for 231 yards in a 36-35 loss at Oregon and for 195 in a 38-23 win against Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl.
“The last two games of the season were a better picture of who we want to be,” Riley said.
“Those were two good-looking football games offensively. That is a way better picture of our ideal look.”
Storm Woods and Terron Ward both return at running back, but expect Chris Brown and Damien Haskins to get a chance to show their skills.
End Scott Crichton is gone from the defensive line, but Miami transfer Jalen Grimble (6-2, 300) will be available to play at tackle.
Grimble beefs up the depth at a spot where the Beavers also return Siale Hautau and Edwin Delva.
Sophomore Noke Tago and junior Brandon Bennett-Jackson provide depth.
“He’s big, he’s explosive and very strong,” Riley said of Grimble. “He’s got those physical attributes to play in the middle. He was very disruptive on the scout team against our first-string line. I thought he was really good, hard to block.”
Dylan Wynn returns at right end, while Riley said he was encouraged by the speed of Titus Failauga and the late-season play of Jaswha James, who are at the top of the depth chart on the left side.
Rashaad Reynolds is now preparing for a shot at the NFL, but the Beavers are deep in the defensive backfield.
Larry Scott and Dashon Hunt will compete for Reynolds’ old spot at right cornerback.
Steven Nelson holds down the left side, and safeties Tyrequek Zimmerman and Ryan Murphy both return.
One question at linebacker for the Beavers is Joel Skotte. A graduate of Bend’s Mountain View High School, Skotte opened last season as OSU’s starting middle linebacker as a sophomore. He was replaced in the starting lineup by the fourth week, and his playing time was reduced further following toe and neck injuries. He finished the season with 23 tackles in 11 games played and underwent surgery on his neck in the offseason. Skotte’s prognosis is still uncertain.
Still, the Beavers appear to be loaded with experience at linebacker.
D.J. Alexander returns on the outside, and Jabral Johnson moves inside along with Rommel Mageo to make room for the return of Michael Doctor.
Doctor has been granted a fifth year of eligibility after missing most of the season with an ankle injury.
“I think Michael will be poised to have a great year,” Riley said. “He’s already proven to be one of our best players. He’s a perfect outside ’backer for the Beavers with his speed and ability to make plays. I think he will be very, very hungry for a good year and I think he’ll have one.”
The Beavers’ annual spring game is set for May 3. Their 2014 season opener is Aug. 30 at home against Portland State.