- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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If the Dictionary of Phrases needs a demonstration of what "cautiously optimistic" sounds like, they might want to chat with Mark Banker about his Oregon State defense.
He makes a good case for optimism. And he's got reasons to be cautious.
It must be first said that Banker probably feels a lot better than he did a year ago when Beavers fans were doubting him, despite a distinguished track record of consistent success, both on the field and in terms of transforming under-the-radar recruits into NFL draft choices.
Yet after consecutive losing seasons in Corvallis, Banker and head coach Mike Riley were on the spot. The 2011 Beavers ranked seventh in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, surrendering 30.8 points per game, and they often were pushed around, yielding a conference-worst 196.8 yards rushing per game.
Few units in the Pac-12 improved as much as the Beavers' defense from 2011 to 2012. Last fall, the Beavers ranked second in the Pac-12 and 22nd in the nation, giving up just 20.6 points per game, a 10.2-point per game improvement. They also ranked third in run defense, holding foes to 129.5 yards per game in a conference with a lot of good running backs.
The difference? Better players, experience, staying healthy and a rejiggered defensive staff, says Banker.
As to what he sees for 2013, he said, "This group is more than capable."
He likes his defensive ends, Dylan Wynn and All-American candidate Scott Crichton. He's got two speedy, experienced outside linebackers in Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander. Three of four starters are back from a secondary that yielded just 14 touchdown passes last fall.
He's replacing his middle linebacker Feti Taumoepeau, as well as do-everything backup Rueben Robinson. All-American cornerback Jordan Poyer is now playing for Chip Kelly in Philly. And he's got 644 pounds missing in the middle of his defensive line with the departure of tackles Castro Masaniai and Andrew Seumalo.
Let's start with the optimism. Banker loves underrated free safety Ryan Murphy.
"He can really play -- he's got the greatest chance of being drafted in a high position," Banker said. "He'll be one of the, if not the best, safety we've ever had here as this thing plays out. I hope I don't jinx him."
Further, he feels like he's got a pretty good competition for replacing Poyer, with experienced senior Sean Martin and talented junior college transfer Steve Nelson in a tight battle for the starting job, with the No. 2 guy likely filling a nickel role.
Banker likes true sophomore Joel Skotte stepping into the middle linebacker spot. While Skotte, who saw significant special teams action last season, isn't yet there physically, he's a smart player, the kind of guy who won't make mental mistakes in the middle of the Beavers' defense.
Further, the position isn't as critical to the Beavers' defense as it was in the past, because eight conference teams run no-huddle spread offenses.
"The basis of what we have to have at that position, [Skotte] has," Banker said. "But at the same time, with so many different spread types of offenses, we're in our sub packages quite a bit."
Which means Doctor, who made great strides in 2012, moves into the middle.
Banker admits some frustration trying to get Alexander in the right place to maximize his athletic potential. There were plenty of feast or famine moments with the speedy rising junior in 2012. Great plays followed by mental errors.
"There were quite a few times last year we'd take him out to let him know, No. 1, it's not acceptable and, No. 2, so we could get him squared away in the mental aspect of the game," Banker said.
Then there are the voids at defensive tackle. You can almost feel Banker rubbing a rabbits foot through the phone line.
"We're not so much uncertain, but we're not satisfied with our defensive tackle play," Banker said.
Edwin Delva and Siale Hautau both participated in spring practices. Hautau, however, broke his hand and missed most of the action, and Delva has a ways to go.
"All three have significant work that they are doing in the classroom that they need to become eligible," he said.
The hope is that, of the tackles who do make it to camp, at least two will be Pac-12 ready. And maybe one or two others can adequately take up space.
"That's the biggest thing that I'm curious about: Where do they start? Where's the bottom? I hope they don't start down too low," Banker said.
Banker likes what he knows about his defense. And has his fingers crossed hopefully over what he's yet to find out.
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