CORVALLIS — It will take more than a couple of losing seasons to shake the smile from Mike Riley's face. Oregon State's relentlessly optimistic head coach insists he is bullish on the Beavers in 2012.
"Every year you feel like a rookie," Riley said Wednesday on a media conference call. "I've been through enough seasons to know that you don't dwell on 'em."
The Beavers' 2011 season could have hardly been worse, with an 0-4 start, including a loss to lower-division Sacramento State, and a 3-9 overall record. Coupled with a 5-7 tally the season before, a winning season is necessary to counteract the downward trend.
Fall camp begins Monday, and Riley, now in his 12th year at the helm, has plans to institute some structural changes that he hopes will make a difference when the Beavers kick off the season Sept. 1 against Nicholls State.
While last season's focus was on an increased tempo in practice, Riley is planning to put the emphasis on teaching and technique early on. The idea is to eliminate the poor fundamentals that plagued the team last year, including sloppy blocking on the offensive line and a weak situational defense. Riley has also moved practices from afternoons to mornings.
The Beavers' fortunes will likely rest heavily on the performance of sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, who wrestled the job last year from Ryan Katz and showed considerable promise. The 6-foot-5 pocket passer threw for 3,332 yards and 16 touchdowns, completing 64.5 percent of his passes.
Even with the loss of James Rodgers, Jordan Bishop and Joe Halahuni, three of his favorite targets, Mannion should have plenty of options with the passing game, including Biletnikoff Award candidate Markus Wheaton, speedy sophomore Brandin Cooks and 6-foot-5 sophomore Obum Gwacham.
"The receiver corps is the least of our worries," Riley said.
The big worry is the running game, which averaged only 86.9 yards per game last season, partly because no running back emerged as the obvious successor to Jacquizz Rodgers and mostly because the Beavers' blocking was atrocious.
"Very simply, our offensive linemen have got to get on blocks and finish," Riley said. "We basically came off too many blocks last year and didn't finish them."
The Beavers have big plans for four-star recruit Isaac Seumalo, whom Riley said will likely start at center. Riley said junior college lineman Stan Hasiak has not completed his academic requirements and will not join the team this season. Riley hopes that Michael Philipp, an All-American selection in 2009, will return to form after switching from left tackle to the right side and redshirting in 2011.
The tailback position is wide open going into camp, with as many as five running backs in the mix. Sophomores Malcolm Agnew and Terron Ward, senior Jovan Stevenson, redshirt freshman Storm Woods and highly touted true freshman Chris Brown will all get a shot at the job.
The Beavers return eight starters and a lot of experience on defense but Riley pointed out several deficiencies that need to be corrected, such as on third down and in the red zone.
While Riley pointed out there were areas where the team needed significant improvement, he made it a point to talk about how much he liked his team, raving about the offseason work ethic and cohesiveness of the players. He especially liked that several players have gotten together to hold voluntary workouts.
Prognosticators have not given the team much respect in preseason voting — the Beavers were slated to come in last in the Pac-12 North in the conference media day voting.