- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Player series.
First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Oregon's Marcus Mariota is the Ducks' most important player.
And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too.
Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on their living up to expectations. Or their absence.
Oregon State: WR Brandin Cooks
2012 production: Caught 67 balls for 1,151 yards (one of only four Pac-12 receivers to break 1,000 yards) with five touchdowns.
Why Cooks is so important: My initial thought here was Michael Doctor -- an extremely underrated linebacker who always seems to be near the ball and is highly productive. One of the best plays from 2012 that sticks out in my mind is him chasing down Brett Hundley from behind. Very impressive.
Then I thought about Storm Woods -- an up-and-coming running back with just the right balance of humility and swagger. No doubt, both of these players will be key in 2013.
But speaking with someone close to the program, they convinced me to go with Cooks. Not only because he's one of the most explosive wide receivers in the country -- but simply because there isn't a ton of game experience behind him.
For Oregon State to continue building on the momentum of 2012, the Beavers need him to be great.
Here's the caveat with Cooks, however. He was one of the nation's greatest benefactors of being a No. 2 receiver. Defenses were split last season because of Markus Wheaton lining up on the opposite side. Double Wheaton? Cooks will burn you. Double Cooks? It's Wheaton for miles.
That's not going to be the case in 2013. Behind Cooks is talent, but also inexperience. Obum Gwacham (two catches, 12 yards, one touchdown) and Richard Mullaney (13-156-1) missed the spring with injuries, and Malik Gilmore (RS) and Kevin Cummings (18-208-1) round out the top of the corps behind Cooks. Each has their own talents -- Gwacham is a big target. Mullaney catches everything and is a move-the-chains kind of receiver. Cummings is a veteran and a good slot receiver, but only has four starts in his career. Gilmore is also a big target, but inexperienced.
Worth noting too that the Beavers will probably lean more on tight end Connor Hamlett (32, 403-3), who had a nice breakout year last season.
It's possible the Beavers might look at some freshmen coming in to immediately contribute. So while Cooks is one of the top receivers in the league, those behind him are mostly untested. Meaning Cooks is going to have to be better than he was last season and show that he can be a true No. 1 receiver.
I have little doubt he can. He's blazes and has Velcro fingers. Plus, if the offensive line is improved as advertised, that will also mean the quarterback-to-be will have more time to allow deeper routes to Cooks to develop.
Naturally, the outcome of the quarterback competition is of great interest. Cooks had success with both Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz. With Mannion, he caught 40 balls for 716 yards and four touchdowns. With Vaz, 27 balls for 435 yards and one touchdown. He had four 100-yard receiving games in 2012 -- two from Mannion and two from Vaz. So it bodes well that he can be productive with either guy throwing him the ball.
Coach Mike Riley has also stressed the greater need for balance. The running game showed solid progress in 2012, and with the improved line play and the continued maturation of Woods -- that should take some of the pressure off the receivers and allow the Beavers to get bang for their buck when they go down field. It will allow Cooks to show he's capable of being a bona fide No. 1.