Do you miss the way things used to be? Does college football's new world order make you uncomfortable? Were you startled by the occasionally thuggish manner in which Oregon State put the wood to Notre Dame in a 41-9 Fiesta Bowl win over the Irish?
Get used to it. The Beavers, who finished last season ranked fourth in the nation (and racked up 18 penalties against Notre Dame, five of them for unsportsmanlike conduct), are only getting better. The defense will be deeper, faster and more in-your-face than the Oregon State units that led the Pac-10 in total defense the last two seasons. What's more, while it may take all of September for senior quarterback Jonathan Smith to get in sync with a new crop of receivers, that's not a huge obstacle considering the Beavers open with Fresno State, New Mexico State and Montana State and then have a bye week before their conference opener, at home against UCLA.
The leading indicator of the direction in which this program is headed comes not from the number of returning starters (five apiece on offense and defense), or the $100,000 budgeted for the Heisman campaign of sensational senior running back Ken Simonton, or even the construction of a $10 million indoor practice facility on campus. The best clue that coach Dennis Erickson's team isn't going away anytime soon can be found among the 17 freshmen that just arrived, a handful of whom should see action this fall. There's Josh Hawkins, an explosive and coveted wideout from Long Beach ( Calif.) Poly High, who chose Oregon State over defending national champion Oklahoma. There's Derek Anderson, a 6'6", 230-pound quarterback out of Scappoose (Ore.) High who runs a 47 40 and threw for 3,603 yards and 40 touchdowns last year. He chose the Beavers over Florida State.
Since when do blue-chip quarterbacks opt for Corvallis over Tallahassee? Since Oregon State kicked butt in a BCS bowl last winter. "That'll get you respect," says offensive coordinator Tim Lappano, who tries to remain calm while describing Anderson's upside: "He's got a gun. He throws with accuracy and with touch. Who knows where he can take this offense?"
It isn't likely he'll be taking it anywhere this season. Smith, the 5'10", 202-pound former walk-on who was the offensive player of the game in that rout of Notre Dame, remains at the controls of Erickson's spread offense. He isn't concerned that three of his receivers—wideouts T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson, plus tight end Marty Maurer—have moved on to the NFL. Slot receiver James New-son and junior wideout Seth Trimmer looked impressive in spring practice. To add depth, the Beavers visited Jucos R Us, plucking a pair of burners.
"We may not make as many big plays as we did in the passing game last year," says Smith, "but let's face it—we're not going to need as many. Our running game's going to be even better, and the defense will be flying around again."
Simonton, a 5'11", 202-pound senior, will again be called upon to get big yards without the benefit of a blocking back. Linemen in the Beavers' single-back scheme zone block, leaving Simonton to choose the seam through which he wants to run. "He's great at it," says Smith. There is irony in the fact that the two most important players on the nation's most improved team are these sawed-off seniors. If Smith and Simonton were finishing their high school careers, they wouldn't rate a look from arriviste Oregon State. Erickson has spent three years needling Smith, telling him he can't wait until he has a quarterback to look up to. Don't believe it. "When he gets his little swagger going, we're a dangerous unit," says Simonton of Smith. "I've come to expect greatness from him."
The same must be said of the Beavers. We've come to expect greatness from them.