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UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt sacks Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz (12) in the second quarter at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Saturday, November 6, 2010. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/MCT) - MCT

Under the radar

CORVALLIS — If there's beauty in anonymity, Oregon State is gorgeous right now. Mike Riley likes it that way.

There are all sorts of reasons Oregon State's sustained respectability over a dozen years now is a story line relegated to the back burner — the advent of the Pac-12, a rugged North Division, the goings-on down the road at Oregon.

Oh yes, and the departure of OSU's two best players — defensive tackle Steven Paea and running back Jacquizz Rodgers. All of it has conspired to make the Beavers an afterthought in the public reckoning.

"We love coming from that vantage point," says Riley, who begins his 11th football season at OSU with a 69-54 record, leaving him five wins shy of Lon Stiner's (1933-48) school standard.

Since spring, there has been an air of uncertainty surrounding the Beavers, owing largely to some unsettled injury-related issues. Through it, Riley is counting on the bedrock principles of a program that went to four straight bowls before sitting home in 2010.

"We lost two of the best players in the history of our school," says Riley. "Everybody's got to step it up. Everybody's got to be better and be right. Everybody's got to be at our best, the teaching and coaching and effort and execution by our players."

The easy conclusion is that with the dynamic Rodgers gone a year early to the Atlanta Falcons, the Beavers will become more of a throwing team with quarterback Ryan Katz, even as Katz spent much of the offseason rehabbing from wrist surgery. But Riley shuns the idea.

"I hope not," he says. "We've been there in our life. There was a year after Steven (Jackson) where we didn't run the ball very well, but it was hard. It's always easier when you can run the ball."

After a recent practice, Riley related a conversation he had had the night before with Yvenson Bernard, who emerged to become OSU's third-leading career rusher from 2004-07.

"I said, 'We gotta find another Ev,'" Riley said.

Indeed, Riley's zeal for the run is more than lip service. He has coached OSU's top four career rushers — Ken Simonton, Rodgers, Bernard and Jackson — through part or all of their college careers.

The Beavers would like a breakout from 225-pound senior Ryan McCants, but he has never really blossomed. The bulk of the job could go to a true freshman, 5-foot-7 Terron Ward of De La Salle High in California.

Katz says he's healthy, but the rehabilitation of a couple of his targets will be paramount. James Rodgers, Jacquizz's productive older brother, had a severe knee injury last year at midseason, had two surgeries and has looked fit but is still not participating fully in practice.

"Guys (outside the program) have written him off a little bit," says Katz.

Riley has declined to put a time frame on Rodgers' return, but no doubt OSU would love to get him on the field by the Pac-12 opener against UCLA Sept. 24.

Meanwhile, a shoulder injury also has backed up the return of senior tight end Joe Halahuni, who has 66 career catches. He played through shoulder discomfort in 2010 — including a tough drop that cost an overtime victory at Washington — but when he felt better during the winter, surgery was tabled. Then the pain returned in the spring and he had an operation in May, and the target for his return is also against UCLA.

"We have four tight ends right now," Halahuni sighed, "and three of them have never played a snap of college football."

One could factor in early. Connor Hamlett of Meadowdale High, 6-7 brother of ex-WSU defensive end Casey Hamlett, caught 11 balls in the spring game.

On defense, Paea, who started 37 games and had 29.5 career tackles for loss, leaves a huge gap.

"I think I'll be a little more nervous before every game," joked defensive tackle Kevin Frahm.

This week, Frahm sustained a knee injury that required arthroscopy, and cornerback Brandon Hardin needs a shoulder procedure that will sideline him until sometime in October.

Those are disruptions to the kind of vision Riley has for this team.

"We're going to have to play like crazy," he said. "When plays are there to be made, we're going to have to make them.

"The margin for error will not be great."

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