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November 21, 2006

JUCO players fitting in perfectly at Oregon State

When it comes to recruiting junior college players, you never know what you are going to get. For every Chad Johnson, DeLawrence Grant, T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Keith Ellison, there's just as many D.J. Cootes, Brandon Lockharts, Deondre Alexanders or Aaron Millers.

The latter list of names represents a group of highly-touted junior college players who never panned out at Oregon State. That's why Mike Riley and his staff make sure they find the right players for their system.

"I think you got to look for guys who will contribute to your team," Riley explained. "You recruit a junior college player for a specific reason and you got to be right about it. Now you are not always right, but for the most part, that's really important, the evaluation process."

And so far it appears the OSU coaching staff hit it on the head, as Riley likes to say, when it comes to this year's junior college class. Joey LaRocque, Dorian Smith, Coye Francies, Gerard Lee and Clinton Polk have emerged to play key roles for the Beavers.

"We hit the evaluation right," Riley said. "When we recruit a junior college player, we give them an opportunity. We recruit them for a specific reason. We don't guarantee them anything but if they do the right thing, then they'll have an opportunity to play."

"These guys all knew that and took advantage of it and got ready and got better. Every one of them has grown as the season has gone on."

And each one of them has stepped up for Beavers when they needed it most, especially on defense. LaRocque, who had the daunting task of replacing Ellison, has rebounded from a slow start to rank second on the team with 67 tackles. His breakout game came against Arizona, in which he recorded nine tackles, a forced fumble and an interception.

"It's just fitting into the system and understanding the system," Riley said of LaRocque's rapid progress. "He's seeing the system live in real games. You can practice, practice, practice, but the games you got to start playing. He's using his abilities with confidence, and playing a lot faster."

Francies was pressed into starting duties earlier this season while Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis nursed injuries. He brought good speed and physical toughness to the cornerback position. Now he's a solid backup corner and is the team's best kick returner. Francies says he's motivated by the fact he has a limited time frame to prove what he can do.

"I feel that I have less time," Francies said. "I have to do what I got to do in a shorter amount of time."

That sense of urgency and drive to succeed is exactly why Riley likes to recruit junior college players. His favorite example of this is Keyshawn Johnson, whom he coached at Southern California. Riley says Johnson's determination to compete at the highest level fueled an outstanding work ethic.

"I like it because the right guys think of it as a second chance, like, 'this is my opportunity,' and they really take it to heart," explained Riley. "So if you get guys with that tremendous desire and are thankful for that next opportunity, then you have hit it right."

Luckily, Riley and Co. got it right too when it came to filling team needs with talented players. Such is the case with defensive end Dorain Smith and defensive tackle Gerard Lee. The pair has provided an instant boost to defensive line that struggled mightily in recent years. This season, OSU ranks second in the Pac-10 in sacks, thanks largely to Smith. He leads the team with five sacks.

"It feels good," Smith said. "I'm just going out there and trying to play every down and it looks like it has worked out for me."

And Riley wholeheartedly agrees with that statement.

"He's been huge for us." Riley said. "He's got a lot talent. It took him some time to find out how to use hit talent within our system. He's a fabulous guy and has really contributed a lot."

Fitting into a system is one of the many adjustments junior college players have to make once they arrive at a four-year school. Francies says the toughest thing for him is staying focused and disciplined. He can't get away with some of the things he did at the JUCO level because Pac-10 quarterbacks throw harder and more accurate. Meanwhile, Smith says being a backup is difficult at times because he's used to playing a lot. He, however, admits there are benefits to being second string.

"It helps being on sidelines watching what they are doing before we go in," Smith said. "But it's new for me because before I came here, I never came off the field. It's kind of give and take because I like being on the field but I learn a lot while I am off it."

Added Riley, "I think it's very important particularly on the defensive line that they stay fresh and get a chance to step back and look at what's going on. I think that's been really good for those guys."

Riley himself believes the toughest adjustment for junior college players is getting used to the structure required to balance school, living, practicing, etc. But he said one of the main reasons this year's transfers are fitting in so well is because they are very mature. All things considered, Riley ranks this class of junior college players the best he has ever recruited.

"I don't think it could be much better, said a smiling Riley. "I think we hit it right on the head. These are good people and players."

Who can argue with him? Slowly but surely, all five players are making an impact for the Beavers. And if their hard work and sheer determination hasn't sold you on their character by now, consider why players such as Francies are grateful to be in Corvallis and playing for the Beavers.

"The best thing about being here is waking up every morning and having something to look forward to," Francies said. "This is a beautiful stadium and the atmosphere here is wonderful. So I enjoy waking up every day."

It's attitudes like that will keep Riley going after junior college players even if there comes a day when he doesn't have to rely on the JUCO ranks to fill his squad. Riley is all about giving players a second chance. And more often than not, like this season, it pays off for the Beavers.

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