Oregon State’s most anticipated quarterback competition in recent memory officially opened Tuesday afternoon in Corvallis, where all eyes were on the intriguing three-man group chasing the starting job for the 2023 college football season.
All eyes, that is, except for two.
“I don’t know a lot about quarterbacks and stuff,” said Joshua Gray, the Beavers’ tackle veteran. “I’ve never played that position. I can’t really talk about it. I don’t even see what they’re doing most of the time because I’m looking the opposite way.”
Gray missed a pretty good show. The Beavers held their first of 15 spring practices at the Truax Indoor Center, and the quarterbacks took center stage, firing passes in drills and leading the OSU offense 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 during the roughly 90 minutes – Work out.
The must-see tour naturally focused on DJ Uiagalelei, the high-profile transfer from Clemson, who was doing his first practice in an Oregon State uniform. But there was also plenty of intrigue surrounding reigning starter Ben Gulbranson and esteemed real-life freshman quarterback Aidan Chiles. The trio alternated between 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work, scoring snaps in midfield with first-team (Gulbranson), second-team (Uiagalelei) and third-team (Chiles).
Quarterback fights are never won in a single practice — particularly the first practice of spring, when players wear helmets and no pads — but the three each had their moments on Tuesday.
Uiagalelei failed on his first try in the 7-on-7 game, bringing down an open receiver on the right touchline, but regrouped to connect on a flat pass and set a nice touchline-out pattern to receiver Rweha Munyagi Jr. to complete in his first series. Uiagalelei struggled more in 11v11 drills and tumbled a few deep balls, but he completed 6 of 10 passes in four series and finished with a nice back-and-shoulders connection to Jeremiah Noga on the left touchline.
“Great arm,” OSU offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren said of Uiagalelei. “We just have to get his eyes and feet right…some things that are schematic different from where he came from. The stuff will come.”
Gulbranson obviously has the edge, but it didn’t look like it on Tuesday. He completed just one of three passes in his first series and then threw interceptions in each of his next two series, prompting a few roars on the defensive side of the field. He completed 6 out of 10 passes, but the two interceptions overshadowed the good.
The biggest quarterback highlight actually came from Chiles, the four-star early adopter who was just about to prep for high school prom. The 17-year-old completed all three of his passes in his first series and ended the impressive debut by unleashing a beautiful 55-yard bomb at his newcomer Zachary Card, who hit two defenders with a post over the middle. Chiles completed 7 of 10 passes during his four series and effectively led the third-string unit.
“Live Arm and he’s just an energetic, fun guy,” Lindgren said of Chilies. “You can tell when he gets into a crowd, he just has a presence that these guys feed on.”
The rookie impressed the veteran.
“As a freshman, especially coming out of high school, he can spin it,” Gulbranson said of Chiles. “He tore a deep post today. That was a great ball from him. I think we have great chemistry and we work hard together to improve this space and contribute as much as we can.”
And it’s that chemistry, not the competition, that Gulbranson tried to showcase after first spring practice.
Thanks to the additions of Uiagalelei and Chiles, the Beavers’ quarterback room is as talented as it has been in recent memory, and Gulbranson said he welcomed the influx of skills with open arms. He mentioned several times Tuesday that “iron sharpens iron,” noting that the quarterbacks spent the offseason organizing group throwing sessions with receivers and picking the head for quality control analyst Jon Boyer on defensive philosophies and reporting. Along the way, Gulbranson eagerly answered questions from the newcomers about the intricacies of OSU’s offense.
The goal, Gulbranson said, is to “learn and grow together” rather than succeed separately.
“We have great quarterback room,” Gulbranson said. “We all understand that we are all hard workers. We want the best for the team. Competition makes everyone better. As quarterbacks, we all understand that you will earn your spot. At the end of the day we will help each other because we want what is best for the team. But we will also work our ass off and do our best in every game. At the end of the day that is all we can ask for.”
It helps that Uiagalelei Corvallis brought no shred of poise or ego from Clemson and quickly insinuated himself into the team.
Uiagalelei followed the Beavers and reached out to Smith and Lindgren as the team prepared to face the Florida Gators in the Las Vegas Bowl, and the teams hit it off immediately. Oregon State liked his big arm, big game experience, five-star pedigree and humble nature. Uiagalelei liked the Beavers’ pro-style system and Smith and Lindgren’s track record of developing quarterbacks.
In what felt like the blink of an eye — after just a few phone calls and no visit to Corvallis — Uiagalelei made a commitment to the state of Oregon.
“It all happened pretty quickly…” Lindgren said. “I was really just impressed by how humble he was considering how highly recruited he was and how much of a spotlight he was on the national scene with Clemson. Being interested in our spot and asking us questions about our thing and really praising what we did at Oregon State, I think that was really cool to see. Great boy… and fun to meet.”
And while it’s only natural to assume the five-star transfer is a ban on winning the starting job, the incumbent and rookie will have a thing or two to say about it before it’s all said and done. Tuesday was just the first step in a fight that won’t end until fall camp.
Just don’t ask Gray for a view of things along the way.
— Joe Freeman reported by Corvallis