Trent Bray knows good linebacking when he sees it.
He was a three-year starter and a two-time Pac-10 all-star during his playing days at Oregon State (2002-05).
Bray played alongside future NFLers Nick Barnett, Richard Seigler and Keith Ellison. He subsequently mentored current NFL standout Vontaze Burfict and all-leaguers Colin Parker, Josh Banderas and Dedrick Young during coaching tenures at Arizona State and Nebraska.
So when OSU’s new linebackers coach says he likes what he’s seen from his charges in the first two weeks of spring practice, it’s good news for a program a decade removed from an era when it was considered the West Coast version of “Linebacker U” for its excellence at that important position.
“I’ve been happy,” Bray said following Monday’s workout at Prothro Field. “We’ve been working on a lot of things, and they’ve been working hard, locked in and trying to get better.
“They’re making corrections from practice-to-practice, which is what we’re looking for, (players) who don’t make the same mistakes twice. I’m very pleased, but we still have a lot of work ahead of us.”
He has ample personnel to develop an effective unit in the 3-4 defense being fashioned by new defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar.
Senior Jonathan Willis (inside) started all 12 games in 2017 and had 68 tackles, six tackles for loss and three sacks. Junior Andrzej Hughes-Murray (inside) played in 12 games, started four, and had 21 tackles and a sack.
Sophomore Kee Whetzel (outside) played in 12 games, started three and had 26 tackles and three sacks. Junior Shemar Smith (outside) played in 10 games, started four and had 14 tackles and a sack.
“It’s always good, there is nothing like game experience,” Bray said. “Having guys who have played in games and who know what it’s like to compete against the athletes we face at this level is a big thing.
“You need those guys to help the younger guys. There are signs of leadership there, we just have to grow it and cultivate it.”
Added Hughes-Murray: “The experience is a big help. Guys know what it’s like to be out there, they’ve seen game situations and how other teams play.”
Hughes-Murray said playing “fast and physical” is the objective.
“We’ve all been in the film room, and we’re coming together, playing together, and getting on the same page,” he said. “The want-to factor is there, from the top down. Everyone is more bought-in.
“I’m going to fight to be on the field and to be the best player I can be. We just want to be the best players and the best defense we can be, because that will make us better than last year.”
The Beavers lost defensive cornerstone Manase Hungalu, the 2017 team’s leading tackler, to graduation. He was honorable-mention all-Pac-12, and a finalist for Polynesian College Football Player of the Year honors.
Several other returning veterans were lost to attrition in the offseason. Senior Bright Ugwoegbu, a two-year starter, was suspended indefinitely and has not participated in spring drills. Sophomore Kesi Ah-Hoy and redshirt sophomore Shemiah Unutoa-Whitson retired for medical reasons.
Still, sophomore Doug Taumoelau and junior Hamilton Hunt (inside); redshirt freshman Emony Robinson, senior Adam Soesman, redshirt sophomore Hamilcar Rashed Jr. and redshirt sophomore Luke Leonnig (outside), and redshirt freshman Isaac Garcia and redshirt junior Kameron Carroll (undetermined) provide substantial depth.
Taumoelau played in 10 games in 2017 and had 11 tackles; Soesman played in eight and had a tackle and a quarterback hurry.
Taumoelau, Soesman and company all must push the veterans and develop themselves into quality backups or future starters.
“You need to be two-deep (with backups) who can come in and play winning football,” Bray said. “The big thing this spring is creating quality depth, and finding more guys who can play.”
Bray assisted at Nebraska the past three seasons, when the Huskers evolved from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 he likes because of the “indecision” it can cause on the opposing offense.
OSU also ran a 3-4 under the previous coaching staff so the holdovers already have a basic grasp of the concepts.
“They have a background, but we’ve doing different things,” Bray said. “The big thing is technique, where to fit in the run, and understanding what you do in the passing game.
“What makes a 3-4 great is, (offenses) don’t know who is rushing. The more guys you rush, or the different guys you rush, changes the responsibilities in pass defense,” so understanding where to be, and when to be there, is paramount.
Bray said his expectations won’t change over the final two weeks of workouts, which conclude on April 28 with the spring game at Reser Stadium.
“I want to see what I’ve been seeing,” he said. “Continue to get better, continue giving great effort at every practice. That’s what we’re after.
“We have a good group of young guys. We’re on the beginning of building.”