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Developing defense

CORVALLIS — The play of the defense will be key for the Oregon State football team this season.

Last year did not go well for the Beavers on that side of the ball.

The transition to a new scheme and rash of injuries was too much to overcome.

The statistics are telling. The Beavers ranked 115th nationally in total defense, giving up 481.5 yards a game and were No. 113 in scoring defense (37 points a game).

Opponents rushed for 225.5 yards a game against the Beavers (No. 114). They rarely got to the quarterback, finishing with 17 sacks in 12 games and ranked 119th in pass efficiency defense.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Clune said this is the 2016 Oregon State defense, not 2015, so the Beavers are moving forward with a new outlook.

Clune said the Beavers are miles beyond where they were in the spring when they began the bulk of the work under his teaching.

"There's a million steps to take to becoming a good defense and we've taken a lot of them," Clune said. "We're still going to take a few more this week and it's more about honing in to the game plan and the opponent we play.

"We'll continue to take those steps as the year goes on with each opponent and so we're always going to be working to improve."

Clune replaced Kalani Sitake, who spent one season at OSU before leaving to become the head coach at Brigham Young.

The Beavers will still focus on a three-down scheme, but Clune has brought his own tweaks to the system.

He said the players have done a good job learning the schemes, although the younger players and newcomers are at different stages.

"But at the ones group I feel real good that they're going to handle their business and now it's about locking into the situational stuff, the small pieces of the game, the red zone, the goal line, the two-minute drill, whatever it may be," Clune said. "They've got to lock in on those fine details and then execute it on the field."

The Beavers need to play well up front to stop the run game. The Beavers do have some size in nose tackle Elu Aydon (6-foot-3, 327 pounds) and Kalani Vakameilalo (6-3, 311), and experience in defensive end Baker Pritchard and nose tackle Sumner Houston.

Pritchard said the Beavers have been tough against the run in fall camp.

"We've improved really well in the run game as well as our tackling," Pritchard said. "I think our tackling has gotten a lot better and just being able to work as a defensive unit has gotten a lot better as well."

There were moments last season when it seemed as if the OSU defenders were lost at crucial moments and unable to stop big plays from developing.

Pritchard said that has improved as well.

"I feel like the awareness has improved," he said. "I feel like we have the right guys on the defense and the right leaders on our team that are leading us to where that awareness is always there and I think that's where it starts with is with our leaders and what they preach to us is what we're going to do on the field."

The linebackers are solid with Bright Ugwoegbu, Manase Hungalu, Jonathan Willis, Caleb Saulo and Titus Failauga, along with plenty of depth.

The safeties have experience with junior Brandon Arnold and senior Devin Chappell.

There's a young group of corners working to get playing time on the right side opposite left corner Treston Decoud.

Sophomore Dwayne Williams and redshirt freshmen Jay Irvine and Xavier Crawford should all see action.

"We got a young defensive back group, but we catch on pretty fast. We all pick up on everything," Irvine said. "With coach (Cory) Hall teaching us a new technique, it really brung us a lot. Last year we were doing one technique, but this year we've got like, seven, eight new techniques. So we can just put it in a bag."

Decoud said Crawford, along with outside linebacker Shemar Smith, safety Landry Payne and inside linebacker Wesley Payne are among the younger players or newcomers that have stood out.

"There's a lot of guys," Decoud said. "I think as a defense that nobody really knows us as a defense. I think we all stepped up as a player and then I think we're all in our playbooks like we're supposed to be and I think we're all going to show what we got.

"I think we're just going to make more plays than we did last year. I think we're more focused. I think we're a whole new team, actually. So it's going to be exciting to see what happens here in a couple more days when we go to Minnesota."

Oregon State defensive linemen from left, Kalani Vakameilalo, Elu Aydon and tight end Tuli Wily-Matagi work on protecting the punter during a recent practice. The defensive line is now coached by Gary Andersen. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS