Pac-10 Position Breakdown: Secondary – Oregon State Beavers
The 2009 Oregon State secondary has a lot to prove. After losing four starters off of a defense that ranked 22nd nationally against the pass, this will be a defining season for these Beavers defensive backs, and their performance as a unit could determine how far OSU goes this year.
For folks in Corvallis, the current DB situation may bring back memories of 2005 when a group of inexperienced players were attempting to offset the losses of all-league performers Mitch Meeuwsen, Brandon Browner and Aric Williams.
It’s hard to forget CB’s Keenan Lewis and Brandon Hughes suffering through that Louisville game in ‘05 where they gave up 428 passing yards as wide-eyed freshmen. But four years later, Lewis and Hughes are gone, and they exited OSU as two NFL-ready corners looking to make an impact on Sundays.
Now, highly respected defensive coordinator Mark Banker must start the process over again, although this group is primarily made up of upper-classmen. The unit could take its fair share of hits in 2009, but there is enough talent in place at both cornerback and safety to ensure a serviceable season at the third level.
The featured member of the new-look defensive backfield is senior Tim Clark. Clark has the most experience of any DB on the roster, playing in all 26 games over the last two seasons (six career starts), and he finished 2008 with 17 tackles and three pass breakups while serving as a key member of the Beavers corner rotation.
Many remember Clark as the cornerback that called out former Cal superstar WR DeSean Jackson right before his first start at corner. He was matched up with Jackson that week, and surprised everyone by shutting down the prolific Bears wideout as the Beavers went on to defeat #2 Cal in Berkeley. The supremely confident Clark will now enter the spotlight as a full-time starter.
At 6-0 180 pounds, Clark is an extremely aggressive defender who is always looking to get inside the opposition’s head. He has tremendous speed, as his 4.40 40 time was tops among all Beaver players (including James Rodgers). He shows good instincts, and can smother a receiver with his tenacity, but more than anything, Clark is hungry for this opportunity.
The Compton (CA) native has been sharp this fall, and he will be counted on as the shutdown corner and leader of the secondary.
Junior James Dockery and senior Patrick Henderson are engaged in a close competition for the second spot opposite Clark.
Big things were expected from Dockery in 2008, but a severe knee injury derailed his entire season. After an off-season of hard work and dedication, he is back in contention for a starting cornerback spot.
At 6-1 180 pounds, Dockery possesses excellent size and strength, which should allow him to match up with bigger receivers in the Pac-10 this year. His physical style is especially valuable in Mark Banker’s press-coverage scheme, which requires a lot of jamming from CBs at the line of scrimmage.
Although Dockery is short on experience (12 career tackles), he understands the game as well as any player in the secondary. The intuitive junior is also a great teammate, who makes everyone around him better because of his willingness to teach.
Dockery has made nice progress since his injury, making a number of great defensive plays in fall camp, but also giving up a few. While a starter has yet to be determined, the La Quinta (CA) native will be a big contributor this season.
Patrick Henderson trails only Clark in the experience department. He has played in 40 games, but mostly on special teams. Last season, Henderson made six tackles and one interception as a backup corner, while also serving as a kick return man (along with James Rodgers). He totaled 281 yards on 10 returns (28 yards per return).
At 5-10 187 pounds, Henderson is a fantastic athlete with fluid hips and good burst. He has solid speed (4.5), and should be able to cover some of the quicker receivers in the conference. The Oakland (CA) native’s role as a reserve corner has been limited (only 18 career tackles), but he has the tools to make his senior year a memorable one.
If fall camp is any indication, Henderson has a slight lead for the starting spot over Dockery, as he has taken a few more reps with the first team lately. Nonetheless, the competition is not likely to end until the season opener, so he must continue to improve.
The most intriguing option at corner may be sophomore Brandon Hardin. At 6-2 210 pounds, Hardin provides OSU with a physically imposing athlete who has spent time at safety. Like Dockery, Hardin should excel in the man-press scheme with his tremendous combination of size, strength, and deceptive speed.
The Honolulu (HI) native was a standout on special teams in 2008, but only logged thirteen tackles for the year as a backup DB. He has a great chance to be a difference maker for the Beavers in 2009.
Replacing Al Afalava at strong safety will be junior Suaesi Tuimaunei. Tuimaunei started two games last season, making 15 tackles on the season. Although he only has 21 career tackles, his brief experience as a starter should serve him well.
At 6-1 205 pounds, Tuimaunei has the size to be an effective run-stopping presence at SS, and he will provide the secondary with a sure-tackler who loves to hit. He also possesses great athleticism, as he was a standout high-school sprinter.
The Laie (HI) native has essentially locked up a starting spot, and he will be a critical piece of the secondary in 2009.
Sophomore Lance Mitchell will assume the role of starting free safety. Mitchell played sparingly as a reserve last season, making 11 tackles and contributing primarily on special teams.
At 6-2 205 pounds, Mitchell is an outstanding athlete with keen instincts. He has a knack for baiting quarterbacks and exciting closing speed. Both qualities will be valuable assets for Banker’s defense. His excellent ball skills should allow him to thrive in Greg Laybourn’s old position.
Mitchell’s biggest problem is experience, but he has a very high ceiling, and could become a mainstay in this Beaver defensive backfield if he continues to progress. The Pasadena (CA) native is nursing a hamstring injury, and has been held out of fall practice lately as a precaution, but the injury is not serious.
Sophomore Cameron Collins will be a key reserve at safety in 2009. At 6-2 220 pounds, he is the most physically impressive of the safeties. Collins still has a lot of developing to do, but his combination of speed, size, and range is exciting. He is a sideline-to-sideline playmaker who explodes into the ball carrier. Collins is versatile enough to fill running lanes in the box, as well as seamlessly drop back into coverage.
He still has plenty of upside, and could be a force at safety with a little more experience. The Santa Monica (CA) native has been held out of fall practice lately because of injury, but like Mitchell, he should be ready for the season opener.
Other players competing for time are: freshmen Josh LaGrone, Sean Martin, Keynan Parker, Rashaad Reynolds, Zeke Sanders, Anthony Watkins, Brian Watkins, Jordan Poyer, Kaua Olds, Levi Levasa, Dax Dilbeck, and sophomore David Ross.
Losing four productive starters is never easy, no matter the program, but it’s especially difficult to replace two four-year starting corners with NFL skills. Lewis and Hughes accounted for a combined 88 starts, 282 tackles, and nine interceptions; so Beaver fans have a right to feel anxious about this season’s unit.
In previous Beaver articles I have made it clear how I feel about Mike Riley, and that’s why I’m not too worried about this group. For my money, Riley is one of the best talent developers in America, and I expect he and Mark Banker to be successful again this year.
Therefore, while I have my concerns about this defensive backfield, I expect the unit to be productive.
Clark has shutdown potential, and I believe he will rise to the occasion this season. The key will be who joins him as a starter. The battle between Henderson and Dockery is still too close to call, so uncertainty remains at that spot. I actually like Hardin more than either of them because of his size, but he still has learning to do at CB.
At safety, Tuimaunei’s speed will be a nice addition at SS, but I am especially high on Mitchell. He has a chance to be a special playmaker if he can master the mental side of the game.
Even with four new starters, look for Oregon State to have a solid year at the third level.