CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Oregon State coach Mike Riley is standing beside a dry erase board in his office. He points to his flanker. That's James Rodgers. He caught 91 passes for 1,034 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Riley smiles.
He points to his tight end Joe Halahuni. He caught 35 passes and became an offensive weapon after the middle of the season. Riley points at his slot receiver, Jordan Bishop. The 6-foot-3 sophomore can high jump over seven feet. He points at his split end, where Darrell Catchings and Markus Wheaton are engaging one of the more spirited competitions this spring.
Then he points at Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed for 1,440 yards, caught 78 passes and scored 22 touchdowns a year after being the Pac-10's Offensive Player of the Year as a true freshman.
Riley agrees with a reporter that Jacquizz should be a top Heisman Trophy candidate.
The main point, however, is the Beavers offense has a lot of guys who can punish a defense.
"Athletically, it's as good as we've ever been," Riley said.
Then Riley circles his quarterback.
"It's our biggest question on offense," he said. "If we can bring our quarterback up to the rest of the offense, then it's going to be good."
That quarterback figures to be sophomore Ryan Katz, who's got a big arm but little experience. While Katz officially is competing with Virginia transfer Peter Lalich for the starting job, Katz started spring practices with the No. 1 offense and he's yet to yield that perch.
"What stands out about Ryan -- always has -- is he's got really good physical ability. A Great arm," Riley said. "It's one of those deals where you're kind of taken aback by the strength of his arm sometimes. He throws the ball so easily with a lot of velocity. He's got to learn a little bit more about taking something off it every once and a while. I tell him all the time, 'You don't always have to throw a 95 miles per hour ball.'"
The good news is Katz, Riley said, has consistently improved since arriving in Corvallis from Santa Monica (Calif.) High School. But there's a caveat hidden in that positive point, because every recent Oregon State quarterback has improved steadily during his career, from Derek Anderson, to Matt Moore, to Lyle Moevao, to Sean Canfield.
But each of those guys started his career slowly and, well, unimpressively. Anderson completed just 47 percent of his passes his first year as the Beavers starter under then-coach Dennis Erickson. Moore threw 19 interceptions. Moevao and Canfield combined for 21 interceptions in 2007.
The question is how steep Katz's learning curve will be.
"There is a process with us," Riley said.
By all accounts, Katz has embraced the No. 1 role, though he admits it goes against his type to be a vocal leader. As a personality, Katz is closer to the quieter Canfield than the effusive Moevao.
"More than vocal-wise, I tried to lead by example," Katz said.
The Beavers offense has evolved in recent years as Riley yielded control to coordinator Danny Langsdorf. The Beavers have increased the role of running backs and the flanker in the passing game. They added the fly sweep. Canfield's accuracy but lack of a strong arm had the offense looking West Coast-ish for a while in 2009.
Katz brings back the big arm of say an Anderson or Moore and adds some athleticism. Katz will move around in the pocket and there will be more designed bootlegs. And there's an increased emphasis of screen passes in order to build his confidence through the air.
And Katz needs to find his rhythm quickly. The opener is vs. TCU in Cowboys Stadium -- a top-10 team playing in a friendly stadium that is far bigger than its home field.
"When the time comes, it's definitely going to be eye-opening," Katz said. "But I'm just going to take it and run with it. I can't stand out there and be star struck."
After TCU, the Beavers play host to Louisville, then visit Boise State, a likely top-five team.
So there's no soft schedule that allows Katz to acclimate himself to the speed of the game. He's bound to make mistakes, which means criticism. Katz is aware that is an inescapable part of playing the position.
"That's definitely in the back of your mind, but if I just work day by day and get better that will play it self out," he said. "I know that comes with the job."
But he said he learned a lot from watching Canfield and Moevao weather the storm and come out strong on the back end.
But if Katz plays well from the start and minimized the growing pains, then Beavers should become a major player in the Pac-10 race.