Mike Riley looked around not long ago at a meeting of Pac-12 coaches when the realization came to him.
“Wow,” he thought. “I’m not only the longest-tenured guy, I’m the oldest.”
He turned 60 in July, bringing him to this quirky, yet understandable, notion: “It seems like prior to this, I always thought I was pretty young.”
Riley, entering his 13th year at Oregon State, says he’s as energized as ever, preaching his own enduring philosophy. While much of the rest of college football dabbles in some form of the spread, zone-read offense, Riley insists on continuing the pro-style offense, which, oddly, makes the Beavers a little different these days.
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They were that way back in the unfortunate ’80s, when Dave Kragthorpe came in and threw the ball all over at a time when that wasn’t vogue. In the ’90s, they ran the wishbone under Jerry Pettibone when nobody was doing that.
The big difference: For Riley, this works.
“It’s a topic I’ve thought about a lot,” Riley told me earlier in camp. “I think we have at least six versions of the spread offense in our conference, and it is enticing. But one of the most important elements in coaching is deciding what you want to do, who you want to be, and almost more importantly, who you’re going to do it with.”
Riley has tweaked his system, such as he did with eminent success when he had James Rodgers running fly sweeps. He calls those “curveballs” — offshoots of the foundation in place.
“We’ve maintained the same terminology, the same base plays; we’re always going to have a foundation of what we can run,” he said. “Kids have a chance to grow in the system.
“But if you keep changing, you never get to the curveballs, the stuff that might be a good addition, because you’re teaching something new.”
Last year, the Beavers made a six-win improvement to 9-4. This time, Riley’s three-pronged to-do list includes running the ball better (even as they improved markedly a year ago), goosing a pedestrian 34-percent third-down conversion rate and minimizing losses up the middle in the defensive front seven.
Even with Storm Woods running for 940 yards, OSU was 10th in rushing in the league, and, Riley says: “We have to be better than we were. I would love to have people say, ‘They’re a good running team, and we’ve got to stop the run.’ ”
That would suit Grant Enger just fine. Enger, a senior from O’Dea High, is a seasoned guard on a line that returns four starters and looks formidable.
“There’s a ton of potential,” Enger said. “I think we could be a great offensive line, absolutely.”
Enger is in the mold of most of Riley’s state-of-Washington recruits, a player who developed over time after high school.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” says Riley. “He was elected a team captain.”
Much of the third-down question could be solved by advancement in the ground game, and by whoever wins the long-running quarterback derby between Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz.
Two principals in the quest to find defensive tackles are seniors John Braun and Mana Rosa, while sophomore middle linebacker Joel Skotte, says Riley, “has to stay healthy and play like crazy.”
The Beavers have had a camp riddled with mostly minor injuries, causing Riley to cancel a scrimmage this week. Worst of them is linebacker D.J. Alexander’s knee, which could keep him out a couple of weeks.
It’s tempting to think the Beavers maxed out last year. They had an uncommonly good 29.3-percent third-down defensive rate, they led the league in red zone offense, scoring on 53 of 58 trips, and their turnover margin was plus-eight.
But it can be done better, Riley will tell you. That’s where some of those curveballs come in.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org