John Garrett working to refine Oregon State's offense this spring
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Sometimes, John Garrett likes to pretend he's from Mars.
Yes, you read that right. When it feels appropriate, the new offensive coordinator for Oregon State's football team acts like an extraterrestrial. Let him explain.
"When we watch game film from last year, and we're watching full games and [video] cut-ups I say, 'OK, we're from Mars,'" said Garrett. "They just dropped us down here, we know no football and we have to ask ourselves, why? Why are the backs using this footwork on this basic route? Why is the left guard stepping with his left foot?"
Those answers, and plenty more questions, swirl around Garrett as he steps into a new role at Oregon State. Tasked with jumpstarting a run game that's been idling the last few seasons and improving an All-America quarterback candidate, Garrett, who replaces Danny Langsdorf, has his hands full this spring in Corvallis.
"He wanted a fresh set of eyes," Garrett said of Beavers head coach Mike Riley. "He said, 'This is what we do, make it better.' He has really been open to suggestions as we've kept this base foundation."
Now in his 13th season at Oregon State, Riley is often referred to as "the nicest guy in college football." But when asked if he's a control freak with the offense, Riley laughed before admitting "maybe." Continuity is crucial to Riley, and he thinks it's especially important for his players. "We have a senior quarterback, and we're not going to blow that all up," Riley said.
In a way, being nice can be intimidating in an unconventional sense: Who wants to be the staffer the nicest guy in college football doesn't like because he spoke up at a meeting? It's no secret that this is Riley's offense, and it's going to stay that way. (He will continue to call plays, for example.) But for as congenial as the guy in charge can be, Riley wanted a coordinator who would challenge him in coaches' meetings and make the Beavers' pro-style offense better, and maybe different.
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"One of my jobs is to hire people better than me," Riley said, "who are going to add to what we do."
He got that in Garrett, 49, a former NFL assistant whose detail-oriented approach allows him to break down every offensive position.
"My first impression was how smart he is, how much he knows about football," said quarterback Sean Mannion, who turned down third-round NFL draft projections to return for his senior season. "I like being coached and he coaches every single detail. He puts a big emphasis on footwork, but even the way we hand the ball off, our stance under center, every little detail about being a good quarterback, he's coaching it up."
Mannion was especially close with former offensive coordinator Langsdorf, now the quarterbacks coach with the New York Giants. But he sees the value in Garrett, who brings a wealth of NFL experience to Oregon State. After serving as the Dallas Cowboys tight ends coach and passing game coordinator from 2007-12, Garrett spent '13 as the receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Add to that a stint at Princeton (Garrett's alma mater) and a stop at Virginia (receivers coach) and Garrett is certainly well-rounded. He's familiar with Riley, too: In 1991, Garrett played receiver for Riley when the latter coached the San Antonio Riders, a team in the now-defunct World League of American Football. Langsdorf had a reputation for being intense on the field, but for being pretty mellow off it. Garrett, by comparison, "never needs a cup of coffee to wake up," according to Mannion. "He's energetic and passionate. Even in our morning meetings, you can tell he's excited."
Oregon State's 7-6 record from 2013 is a bit deceiving. The Beavers lost a clunker to FCS Eastern Washington in the season opener. Then they reeled off six straight wins as now-departed Brandin Cooks rose to become one of the best receivers in the country. Then they dropped six in a row to the better defenses in the Pac-12 before rallying for a Hawaii Bowl victory over a Chris Petersen-less Boise State team on Dec. 24.
The Beavers have plenty to replace with Cooks, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner, gone. Capable fill-ins include junior Richard Mullaney, a lanky 6-foot-3 split end with great hands, and speedy sophomore Victor Bolden, who is built similarly to Cooks and should work perfectly in Oregon State's fly sweep. At this point, though, Riley is tempering expectations. "I don't see anyone who's going to catch 128 balls," he said.
The running game has plenty of issues, too, most of which begin and end with a banged-up offensive line. That problem has continued this spring, as standout junior Isaac Seumalo -- who played mostly center last year but can fill in at any position -- recovers from a foot injury. Riley considers returning starter Storm Woods, a rising junior, running back 1A and backup Terron Ward, a rising senior, running back 1B. But they haven't produced top numbers, especially for a school that prides itself on a traditionally run-based offense. The Beavers couldn't even muster an average of 100 rushing yards per game last year (94.4), and almost 80 percent of their offense came through the air (4,844 passing yards of 6,071 yards of total offense).
Still, as Garrett searches for answers on the ground, it will help to have one of the best passers in college football back in the fold.
Mannion set a single-season Pac-12 record with 4,662 passing yards (and 37 touchdowns) last fall, but when Garrett watches film from 2013, he thinks the passer didn't reach his full potential. "It could have been 6,000," Garrett said. Mannion, a coach's son and football junkie, is happy to have a high bar.
While spread offenses continue to grow in popularity, Riley has stuck to his old-school ways and pro-style scheme. Part of it's the makeup of his team -- "We're not going to run a zone-read offense with Sean," Riley said, rolling his eyes -- and part of it's because Riley believes in his system, even if it's not in vogue throughout college football. That Garrett liked the Beavers' offense made him a good fit, too.
"The scheme works," Garrett said, opening his arms wide for emphasis. "I mean, 4,600 yards. I had to open up the media guide about five times because I kept wondering is that right, is that a typo? In 13 games, that's amazing. There's execution, there are great concepts, some tried and true plays that work at every level ... there's a lot to love about this offense."
Now it's just a matter of getting the Martians to understand it.