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Woods seeks return to form for Beavers

CORVALLIS — The feeling crept up on Storm Woods during late summer nights alone in Valley Football Center's running backs room.

As the Oregon State Beavers junior reviewed last year's film, a pit formed in the bottom of his stomach. The runner on the screen, the one dancing behind offensive linemen and bracing for contact, wasn't the same player who had enjoyed a breakout 2012 season.

Sometimes, Woods sat in that room until 1 a.m. He diagnosed every missed tackle. He envisioned the juke moves that could've turned a 3-yard run into a 10-yard gain. Then he walked home, eager to wake up and make sure he would never feel sick watching 2014's film.

"I promised myself that I would return to my old form," Woods said recently.

Two years ago, Woods was one of the main headliners of a 9-4 Beavers resurgence. The redshirt freshman from Pflugerville, Texas, captivated fans with highlight-reel runs. His potential hinted at a chance to become an all-time great.

After beating out Terron Ward for the starting job in fall camp, Woods toted the confidence of a skilled veteran. He romped for 940 yards and 13 touchdowns. He emerged as a threat in the passing game, hauling in 38 catches for 313 yards.

At the time, Woods recalled, football was carefree. No one had been expecting much from the newcomer with the unique name. When he stepped on the field, Woods reveled in the moment. He attacked holes with the same aggression that had characterized his all-state senior year at Pflugerville High School.

"I had nothing to lose," Woods said. "I didn't care about anything. It was just going out there and playing."

The turning point came during the fourth quarter of last September's win at Utah. While diving to block for quarterback Sean Mannion, Woods took a knee to the helmet. He left the game in an ambulance.

Eventually, the headaches and sensitivity to light subsided. But that concussion lingered in Woods' performance when he returned three games later. He was timid. Instead of rolling into runs, he was tipping. He often waited for tackles, a far cry from the rugged redshirt freshman who thrived on initiating contact.

Noticing the change, coaches asked Woods if he was thinking about the concussion. He dismissed such a notion, leaning on phrases like "it's football" and "injuries are part of the game."

But film doesn't lie. These days, Woods acknowledges that his concussion may have subconsciously shaken his confidence.

Self-belief is a tricky commodity, of course. Once it wanes, it's difficult to retrieve — especially midseason.

Woods grew frustrated as weeks passed without marked improvement. When Mike Riley called pass plays on 3rd-and-1, the former three-star recruit didn't fault his coach. That's what happens when running backs don't produce, he thought. Carries must be earned.

"You could tell that he had this thing in his head just from being knocked out and waking up in an ambulance," Ward said. "That's not a good thing from a sport you love."

Woods settled into somewhat of a rhythm late in the season, scraping together his top two outings in the final two games. But the narrative had already been written. Woods finished 2013 with just 477 rushing yards, his longest run being 17.

Though he had been a quality pass catcher out of the backfield, shortcomings on the ground plagued Woods' thoughts. He had joined OSU to help continue its strong lineage of powerful runners. Yet there the Beavers were, ranking 115th out of 123 FBS teams with 94.4 rushing yards per game.

"I'm not selfish at all, but I knew I could've done more for my team," Woods said. "I think that was the toughest thing. I felt like I let those guys down."

Disappointment fueled focus. Throughout the offseason, Woods balanced each aspect of his life — family, friends, school — with an eye toward his junior season.

This summer, he followed a regimented daily routine. Woods woke up at 7 a.m. and lifted weights. He then ate, worked on footwork, ate, lifted, honed blocking, and ate before watching film and collapsing in bed.

To call his concentration "tunnel-like" would be an understatement, Woods said. He has "blinders up." Media or message board chatter about OSU's stagnating run game hardly pierces his thoughts.

"He is really dialed in on trying to improve his game," running backs coach Chris Brasfield said. "He has high expectations for himself. It's been fun."

The past three-plus weeks, an intensive offseason has translated into Woods' best preseason to date. He is squeezing through holes, bulldozing past tackles and finishing runs.

"When he's in there, there's a seriousness about him," offensive coordinator John Garrett said. "That carries over to the rest of the team."

At this point, Woods is listed behind Ward on the depth chart. But starting games isn't his concern. Woods wants to capitalize on available opportunities. He wants to prove that 2013 was an aberration.

Come winter, Woods hopes to review the season's film with no pit in the bottom of his stomach.

Storm Woods was slowed by the after-effects of a concussion suffered early last year. AP PHOTO