CORVALLIS — Last season the comparison was made that Brandin Cooks was Robin to Markus Wheaton's Batman in Oregon State's dynamic receiving duo. Now Wheaton has moved on to the NFL and Cooks is ready to shed his sidekick status.
"It means I've got to work harder, to be honest. I can't rely on knowing I have Markus on the other side," Cooks said. "Now I've got to carry that load and make sure the younger guys make plays, too. I'd say my leadership ability has to be on top this year."
The Beavers went 9-4 last season and finished third in the tough Pac-12 North, coming in at No. 20 in the final AP Top 25. It was a dramatic turnaround after the team went a disappointing 3-9 the year before.
Wheaton and Cooks were perhaps the highlight of Oregon State's offense, each with more than 1,000 yards receiving to become the second tandem in school history to hit those numbers. They were considered among the best wide receiver duos in the conference, along with USC's Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Cooks, then a sophomore, had 1,151 yards receiving to average 88.5 yards per game. He led the conference with an average of 17.2 yards per catch, ranked No. 2 nationally, and had five touchdowns.
Wheaton, who was a third-round selection in this year's NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, caught 11 touchdown passes and averaged 95.7 yards receiving a game. His 1,255 receiving yards rank sixth in Oregon State history.
Cooks has been named to this season's watch list for the Biletnikoff award recognizing the top receiver in college football. He was also voted one of five team captains for the Beavers this season.
He is one of 17 starters who are returning this season to Oregon State, which was selected to finish third in the Pac-12 North in a preseason poll of reporters who cover the league. Rival Oregon was expected to finish first and win the conference.
"Last year a lot of people doubted us, and look what we showed," Cooks said. "We're still getting doubted. All that does is fuel the fire and makes us work harder. With that being said, I feel like we can go down and win the Rose Bowl and win this conference. That's something we're shooting for. We set our standards high."
While the Beavers' turnaround last season was remarkable, Cooks said the Beavers fell short of two key goals, leaving them hungry this season.
"We didn't win 10 games. We didn't win our Bowl game. We lost some tough games that could have gone either way. That's what fuels us," Cooks said. "We gotta understand that we were right there. We were always in the mix. Now it's all about finish."
So who will take on the role as Robin this season to Cooks' Batman? Among those in line are Richard Mullaney, Obum Gwacham and Malik Gilmore.
The larger question at the moment is who will be Oregon State's quarterback. Coach Mike Riley is still undecided between Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz, who traded off last season.
Mannion started Oregon State's first four games, averaging 339.5 yards passing a game. But the 6-foot-5 quarterback injured his left knee and required arthroscopic surgery, giving Vaz the ball for the next two games. It went back and forth from there.
In the end, Mannion threw for 2,446 yards and 15 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions, in 10 appearances. Vaz, who was hampered down the stretch by an injury to his left ankle, threw for 1,480 yards and 11 touchdowns, with three interceptions, while appearing in seven games.
Cooks said he has confidence in both quarterbacks, and was diplomatic about the differences between the two.
"Sean's taller," he joked.
The Beavers opened fall camp this week and it was noted that Cooks was often wide open during drills. While that could be an issue for the defense to address, Riley said he expects nothing less from Cooks.
"He's now coupling great ability with the knowledge of how to run around," Riley said. "Frankly, with the stuff we do, he should get open."