The final minutes of the longest, weirdest college football season were about to end last December when Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith turned to freshman quarterback Ben Gulbranson.
In a nutshell, Smith asked Gulbranson, wanna play?
Wanna play? You mean after graduating early from high school and enrolling at Oregon State in January? Having spring practice pulled and wondering for months if there would be a football season because of coronavirus? Then when a season finally emerges, playing games inside empty stadiums?
“I was all for it,” Gulbranson said.
That one series, culminating in an 18-yard touchdown pass to Zeriah Beason on the final play of Oregon State’s 2020 football season, served as Gulbranson’s college baptism. It’s a piece of proof that enthusiasm for the 6-foot-3, 216-pounder with a big arm has merit.
“It was huge for his confidence,” offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren said. “Just the fact that I went out there, I did some things, I made some plays, in the Pac-12. OK, I know I can do this. I can build on this.”
Given Gulbranson’s position of quarterback, that final series was beyond personal.
“I think it gives his teammates confidence,” Lindgren said. “It kind of opened everybody’s eyes around the program, coaches and players.”
That one series, combined with Gulbranson’s work last fall in practice, confirmed that he’s ready to challenge as Oregon State’s next starting quarterback. This spring, Gulbranson and redshirt sophomore Chance Nolan are taking turns with the starting unit, as Tristan Gebbia heals from hamstring surgery. Those three are expected to duel for the starting job when preseason practices commence in August.
“He’s very much like Tristan. Really sharp, really understands the game. Loves football,” Lindgren said. “One of those guys that’s kind of a gym rat, always around the facility trying to get more information.”
Gulbranson knows what it’s like to compete yet be a good teammate. He’s a twin, and one of five children. Gulbranson’s twin sister, Abby, is finishing her freshman year at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. She’s not a college athlete, but played four sports in high school.
“She’s always been by my side,” Gulbranson said.
Gulbranson comes from a professional family, his father Scott a doctor and mother Amy an engineer. The classroom is important to the Gulbransons, but the parents wanted the children to be well-rounded. Ben tried most of the traditional sports before settling on football and basketball heading into high school at Newbury Park in California, northwest of Los Angeles.
Gulbranson said about eighth grade, he believed college football was in his future. At Newbury Park, Gulbranson had a measuring stick and role model in quarterback Cameron Rising, who was two years older and on the radar of most college football programs. Rising eventually signed at Texas. (Rising is now at Utah.)
“Coaches would come out and watch him throw and I’d be able to throw a couple balls with him,” Gulbranson said.
Gulbranson initially committed to California following his junior season at Newbury Park. But it was short-lived, as the Bears made a change at offensive coordinator to Bill Musgrave. The two parties decided they weren’t a good fit, and Gulbranson’s name was back on the college mark in the spring.
Oregon State quickly moved into the picture. Gulbranson said he had a good feeling about the coaches, and particularly Lindgren. “They’re really genuine people that can maximize a player’s ability. I felt like I could come in here and develop under them,” Gulbranson said.
Lindgren said he first watched Gulbranson during a camp at Cal Lutheran prior to his commitment to California. Once the Bears dropped out of the picture, Lindgren and coach Jonathan Smith went hard after Gulbranson. The relationship grew when Lindgren and Smith visited the family home, and they ended up playing the basketball game of Horse in the driveway.
“It was a pretty good time,” Lindgren said. “I think I won.”
Gulbranson ultimately picked Oregon State over Kansas State. Gulbranson quickly wrapped up his senior year academics and graduated in time to enroll at Oregon State for 2020 winter quarter. Then life hit. The pandemic struck in early March, and what was going to be a bonus spring practice for Gulbranson turned out to be a trip home for the rest of the school year.
Summer came and the Pac-12 initially held firm and said it wouldn’t play football in the fall. Gulbranson said at no time did he think he made a premature move in giving up six months of high school.
“I was really bummed out about it, of course, but just any opportunity to go and practice with the guys … it was awesome,” Gulbranson said.
Eventually a shortened season and practice time emerged. Gulbranson said he approached his freshman year in a two-fold manner: to learn everything that he could, with the idea of earning a starting berth.
“I always think I have a shot to play,” Gulbranson said.
Gulbranson describes his game as a “gritty, pro-style player. I can make any throw on the field. I have enough mobility to make plays when needed.”
With 2 minutes, 46 seconds left in the season, Gulbranson got his chance to publicly show those skills. Arizona State was clearly in command of the game with seven minutes left when Smith asked Gulbranson if he wanted to see his first college action.
Gulbranson excitedly got ready, but the Sun Devils were on the verge of taking away his opportunity. The Sun Devils, leading by 19, began running the ball and the clock. The clock ticked under three minutes when, on fourth-and-4 at the OSU 29, the Beavers defense stopped ASU and gave the ball back to the offense.
Gulbranson said he felt some nerves on the first snap.
“After that it was like, yeah, I’ve been here before. I’ve done this a thousand times,” he said.
Gulbranson appeared like a veteran, too. A couple of running plays got a first down, then Gulbranson went to work through the air, completing six passes for 64 yards, including the 18-yard touchdown strike to Beason.
“Pretty impressive” was Lindgren’s short description of what he saw from Gulbranson.
“I think I proved that on a windy and rainy game, cold, too, I can come in whenever needed and perform,” Gulbranson said.
Now he’s looking to regularly perform. Gulbranson has four months to prove he’s a worthy starter over Gebbia and Nolan. As interesting as the battle should be in August, there’s often a predictable conclusion: someone wins the job, and at least one looks to transfer to another school.
Gulbranson insists win or lose, he’s at Oregon State for the long haul.
“I definitely plan to stick it out, continue to compete and grind every day,” he said.