CORVALLIS — As a 23-year-old offensive assistant, Kevin Cummings is tasked with some of the Oregon State coaching staff’s less-desirable duties. Throughout fall camp, for example, the former third-down machine must stay in Finley Hall with players to monitor curfews.
Cummings doesn’t mind. The extra hours mean more chances to mentor Malik Gilmore and Hunter Jarmon, the two underclassmen hoping to replace the aspiring coach at starting slotback. While checking beds some nights, Cummings quizzes Gilmore and Jarmon on the playbook.
“It’s awesome to have him back,” Gilmore said Friday. “Kevin’s going to be a great coach if that’s what he decides to do because he’s so passionate about it.”
Wide receivers coach Brent Brennan appreciates the assistance. Eleven days into camp, he loses sleep thinking about the task remaining before him. He has two weeks to prepare a youthful receiving corps for OSU’s season opener. The group’s nagging injuries, of course, make solidifying a depth chart difficult.
Slotback is an ideal case study. At the start of the week, Jarmon seemed the clear frontrunner. He had used quality route running and dependable hands to earn the majority of first-team reps.
A strained groin, though, has sidelined Jarmon the past two practices. Gilmore capitalized on opportunity, scraping together his best workouts of camp. The 6-foot-3, 209-pound sophomore has limited mental miscues and breezed past diminutive defenders for several highlight-caliber grabs.
Concentrating on one position produced the improved performances, Gilmore noted. After spreading his attention to split end since the spring, he is now solely at slotback.
“Bouncing around from X to R can be challenging because you’re constantly trying to focus on different things,” Gilmore said. “It’s nice to be able to get in a rhythm a bit.”
Gilmore’s emergence has ratcheted up the competition’s intensity. At this point, Brennan conceded, “it’s hard to say” who is leading. Both players have oscillated between stellar and frustrating. In coming days, Brennan hopes one emerges as the clear choice.
Jarmon expects to return to practice early next week.
“I’m excited we still have time left before that first game,” Brennan said. “Especially in my position, we have a lot of stuff to figure out.”
During spring practices, Jarmon figured he had a shot at beating the more-experienced Gilmore out for the first-string job. So the Beavers’ resident Bo Jackson quit the baseball team to focus on football. The redshirt freshman studied schemes and added several pounds of muscle.
Gilmore, meanwhile, tried to become the mature player Brennan demanded. He had labored through growing pains when a Cummings wrist injury pushed him into a larger role late last season. So Gilmore, who totaled seven catches for 76 yards in 2013, wanted to develop into a reliable target.
It was all part of the learning process, Brennan said. These days, head-scratching errors — like quitting on a route, or running the wrong one entirely — are increasingly rare. Gilmore understands the schemes, and he has the physical tools. He just needs to relax at times.
Midway through Friday’s practice, Gilmore dropped a Sean Mannion pass while finishing an arrow route. Brennan calmly pulled him aside, looked in his eyes and told him to relax.
Jarmon, meanwhile, often receives the opposite reminder. When healthy, Brennan said, Jarmon tends to lack urgency. He moves too slowly through his progression, overthinking things at times.
Of course, Jarmon should feel the urgency when he rejoins practice. Gilmore has tightened the gap on the slotback competition, a reality that makes Jarmon proud.
Some nights, Cummings finds Jarmon and Gilmore in a Finley Hall dormitory quizzing each other on the playbook.
“That’s the only way we can get better as a team,” Gilmore said. “Whether I’m starting or he’s starting, someone’s going to have to be there to produce.”