Oregon State looks to continue its defensive strength with a new cast of characters

Can Oregon State put a defense on the field this season that was as good as the Beavers’ 2022 unit?
It’s a tall ask. OSU’s defense was one of the top stories of Pac-12 football a year ago, as it led the conference in scoring, rushing and total defense.
Many of the key performers are no longer in Corvallis, having moved on either to the NFL or a high-profile college. Nonetheless, there’s hope the Beavers’ defense can be useful in 2023, pairing with an improved offense that hopes to make a run at the Pac-12 championship.
What it will take is simple to defensive coordinator Trent Bray.
“It’s young guys stepping up,” he said. “They have as much ability as last year, but it’s, can they be disciplined, be confident, play as fast as they did last year?”
The make-or-break areas as to whether the Beavers can continue a strong defense are cornerback and inside linebacker. OSU lost cornerbacks Rejzohn Wright and Alex Austin to the NFL, as well as a capable nickel in Jaydon Grant. Three of the top four inside linebackers are gone, with only junior Easton Mascarenas-Arnold returning from last year’s two deep.
Oregon State has a wide range of experience competing for cornerback play. There’s senior Jaden Robinson, who begins his sixth year in the program with one career start, the 2022 Las Vegas Bowl. Redshirt freshmen Joe Swen, Noble Thomas, Drake Vickers and Sam Mason Jr., third-year sophomores Jack Kane and Josiah Johnson, and JC transfer Tyrice Ivy Jr. are in the mix for time, perhaps even to start.
“They’re long, and I think they can run. Those are two really good things we’ve kind of had the last couple years with Ray and Alex,” Bray said of this year’s corners. “If they’re a step behind, that length makes the quarterback put a little bit more air on the ball and allows time for recovery.”
The height is noticeable, as Ivy and Vickers are 6-foot-3.
Mascarenas-Arnold is the centerpiece of the Beavers’ inside linebackers. Mascarenas-Arnold played in 25 games during his first two years with the Beavers, all as a reserve. Still, he’s made 52 tackles, including 6½ for losses.
To prepare for his new role as a starter and leader, Mascarenas-Arnold has added weight, now up to 230 pounds. He said eating is now “like a job” as he tries to stay in a range of 230 to 235 pounds.
“He’s moving better with that heavier weight, and then he’s got so much energy and speed. And he’s smart. When he’s in, you can really tell the difference,” Bray said.
Mascarenas-Arnold is no secret to those who have watched the Beavers defense the past two years. The difference in 2023 is there’s no Omar Speights or Avery Roberts to now overshadow Mascarenas-Arnold.
“This year will be like the complete me, just knowing the playbook so I can play as fast as I can,” Mascarenas-Arnold said.
Interestingly, the defensive area with the fewest questions is defensive line. It’s been a process, as OSU went from having one of the worst defensive fronts in FBS in 2018 to an effective, run-stopping unit of late. It’s a unit with veterans like James Rawls and Isaac Hodgins, and newcomers like freshmen Kelze Howard and Thomas Collins.
“I like where we’re at up front. I thought they had a great spring, and now they’ve had a great summer,” Bray said. “There’s a couple young guys who are going to help us.”
Bray had a veteran defense last year in his first full year as coordinator. This group could have more talent, but not quite as much experience. But the greatest challenge for Bray is remaining fresh.
“How do we tweak ourselves a little bit?” Bray said. “People are going to watch from last year, and start trying to focus on attacking us. So how can we add wrinkles to our coverages, to our fronts, and have some curveballs for those guys?”
-- Nick Daschel | ndaschel@oregonian.com | @nickdaschel

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