Oregon State football head coach Mike Riley takes a question from the crowd Monday at Centennial Golf Club. - Andy Atkinson

Riley optimistic for turnaround

Monday was an opportunity for local Oregon State followers to see just how far the programs guided by Mike Riley and Kelly Sullivan have come during a Beavers Chalk Talk at Centennial Golf Club.

Sullivan exuded excitement given the recent groundbreaking for an $8 million track and field facility that has been badly needed since the program was reinstated in 2004 after a 16-year absence.

Riley spoke to how far the OSU football program has come as it looks to rebound from a 5-7 campaign in 2010 that caused many sleepless nights in Beaver Nation. OSU posted a losing season and subsequently missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2005.

"When we came in 1997, win five games and they're having a parade," Riley said with a smile. "It shows where the program's come. I love it that the expectations are high and it's tremendously disappointing (to go 5-7). It would be strange now if it wasn't."

After flirting with Pac-10 Conference championships the previous two years, Riley's team fell prey to one of the toughest schedules in the nation last fall and some games where the big plays didn't go their way.

"What we also learned is your season hinges on maybe two or three plays," he said. "We get beat on the last play of the game by UCLA and we miss a chance to win on the last play of the game against the (Washington) Huskies. Those two games dramatically change the whole perception of the year. We had some great moments but not enough consistency."

"We bit off a lot last year," added Riley, entering his 12th season in two terms at OSU. "If you don't play two of the top five teams in the country early (TCU and Boise State), you're in a bowl game. Those are choices that we made and we could have overcome that, but we didn't. To me now it's onward and upward."

Riley's optimism stems from a host of top returners, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and a sense that the Beavers weren't that far off track from an eight- or nine-win season last fall. At issue, however, is a rash of injuries that kept starters like quarterback Ryan Katz (wrist surgery) and receivers James Rodgers (two knee surgeries), Jordan Bishop (ankle surgery) and Joe Halahuni (shoulder surgery), among others, out of spring camp.

"It's not a good thing, but everybody has to remember that the main focus is fall," Riley said. "The bad thing is we didn't have them for this spring, the good thing is that for most all of them, they'll be ready to go in fall camp."

Rodgers has been able to do some jogging but likely won't see much action until the end of fall camp, with Halahuni likely not available until September and Bishop aiming for a July return. Katz, who threw for 2,401 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore last year, has been able to do some running and throwing.

"We need them all because you're talking about four or five offensive starters," Riley said, "but a quarterback with his wrist who's a passer, it is concerning. But he threw a lot this spring so I think he's going to be back 100 percent. He's not able to lift 100 percent nor take snaps yet, but we don't do that in the summer. By the time he gets into fall camp, he'll be fine."

Other than having to replace half of the defensive starters, OSU's biggest question involves the vacancy at running back after Jacquizz Rodgers jumped to the NFL. Ryan McCants and Jordan Jenkins combined for six carries and 22 yards last year, Malcolm Marable led the team with 102 yards on 13 carries during the spring game and Terron Ward and Jovan Stevenson also expect to be in the mix.

Riley isn't opposed to playing a freshman if that's who deserves the nod.

"Everybody thought that when we lost Kenny Simonton and Steven Jackson and Yvenson Bernard," Riley said. "Now somebody else has got to fill in for Quizz, and it may be a couple or three guys. It might not be a one-man gang, but that part of it will play out. We just have faith that we're still going to try to do what is the foundation of our offense and that's run the football so that we can play-action pass and so that we get the ultimate goal, which is balance.

"It's not easy for me to say that there's a favorite because each one of them brings a little something to the table. There's probably a guy or two that I think has a little bit of a lead, but I'm not ready to say it because I'm going to let them go into fall camp and do some of that. It's not really anybody's (job) yet, some guys just made some good impressions."

Riley said he was particularly pleased with how his team appeared to be shaping up this spring even without a few regulars.

"I really like how this team worked and what I saw gives me the feeling that we're going to surprise some people," he said.

Sullivan is similarly optimistic about the track and field program, which hasn't had its own facilities since the former site was torn down to make room for the OSU Softball Complex.

"There was a time when I would have been happy with just a cinder track," said Sullivan. "It's the first time I've ever had to do this (job) without having an actual track facility. But once it's done, it will be a shining light for the campus."

The OSU track is being built to handle all the necessities with an eye on future expansion. There will be seating for 2,500 once it's complete, with 9-foot high turf berms at the ends adding to that total.

Phase one of the project includes the entire oval and turf inside and out for all field events and will be completed by the end of November. Phase two includes the parking lot, entry plaza and expanded seating, and Sullivan hopes the funds will be in place to complete those aspects by this time next year.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or email Follow him @Kris_Henry

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