Cloudy and wet and a little gloomy. That was the setting for the Oregon State spring game on Saturday. It lived in direct contrast to the period the Beavers were wrapping up and the season they’re building toward, one where hope abounds and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about coach Jonathan Smith and his group.

The Beavers went 7-6 last season, finishing in a tie with Washington State for the second-best record in the Pac-12 North. They beat the eventual league winners in mid-October. They beat USC and Arizona State from the South and hung tough with Oregon in the November cold and finished with their most wins in a season since 2013.

As Smith enters into his fifth year at the helm of the program, Oregon State is hoping to continue building. Build its passing attack, its new defensive identity, its literal stadium after blowing up the west-side stands in January. The first phase for this group finished on Saturday with the annual spring game, a 60-minute scrimmage with a few different periods.

Here are some takeaways from the day:

Quarterback in flux

Chance Nolan, a starter for 12 of Oregon State’s 13 games last season, took the first-team reps at QB. Senior and 2020 starter Tristan Gebbia was next. Third-year redshirt freshman Ben Gulbranson was the No. 3 guy. Gulbranson appeared to have the best day, at least to my untrained eye.

He hit wideout Silas Bolden in the end zone on a deep corner route, dropping the ball right over the outside shoulder. Earlier in the session, Nolan missed wideout Tyjon Lindsey, with a significant step on his defender, in the end zone on a deep shot of his own. The ball was a touch too long. It was a pass you’d expect an incumbent starter to make with relative ease, and one Beaver coaches have specifically worked on with Nolan this spring.

Give some credit to the conditions. They weren’t the best from which to throw. Gulbranson also had the lone turnover from the quarterback group, a “strip sack” recovered by outside linebacker Ryan Franke, though Franke didn’t touch the quarterback; Gulbranson simply lost control of the football as he appeared to wind up to throw it.

Both of the top two guys missed throws. There were a few drops. Again, rainy weather doesn’t make for high-level passing, but Oregon State clearly wanted to see its quarterbacks try and move the ball through the air. The result was more mixed-bag than anything else.

Despite his experience last season, Nolan will exit the spring still stuck in a quarterback competition. He got the first-team reps during the spring, but Smith isn’t ready to name a starter.

Oregon State was in on Georgia transfer JT Daniels, but he ultimately decided to transfer to West Virginia. If the Beavers aren’t entirely sold yet on one quarterback in the room, this will become a situation to monitor through the summer months and into the start of fall camp.

A freshman back making noise

Throughout the spring period, Damien Martinez made noise. A mid-year enrollee from Texas, the freshman looks well-built already. He measures up to all of the 6-foot, 228 pounds he’s listed at. If a young guy can come in and quickly absorb the offense and find some comfort in the playbook, it’ll allow those physical gifts to shine through a little more; it seems that’s what Martinez has done.

Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgreen said recently that he feels Martinez will be “ready to roll this fall and compete for some meaningful playing time” in the backfield because of his physicality, per The Oregonian’s Nick Daschel.

Fittingly, Martinez capped off the period by finding the end zone.

If he can see the field come fall, it’ll be quite the story considering the Beavers appear to have some solid depth in their backfield. Deshaun Fenwick (78 carries, 448 yards, four scores in 2021) looks like a quick, strong back who can carry a leading role. A fifth-year junior, Trey Lowe provides some experience and some versatility to the group. He ran it 56 times last year for 359 yards. Redshirt freshman and Portland native Damir Collins has some wiggle to him. He’s a smaller guy but made the most of his snaps in the session on Saturday.

Oregon State has equity built up with its backfield. You can trust that you’re probably going to get a pretty high level of play. BJ Baylor led the Pac-12 in rushing last season, and though he’s gone, it seems Oregon State has a few capable options to try and pick up from where Baylor left off.

Defensive intensity

With Trent Bray entering into his first year as the full-time defensive coordinator, Oregon State’s style has changed to better reflect his vision. They’re going to get after it. Beaver corners were pressed up on outside receivers. The defensive front was pressuring Oregon State’s line and getting after it.

I really like sixth-year senior inside linebacker Jack Colletto. He was popping up all over the field. The Beavers will need a new leading man on defense with tackling machine Avery Roberts looking to make it in the NFL. Why not the man who has done just about everything else for the Beavers since arriving in Corvallis? He had eight rushing touchdowns and an interception in 2021. There’s a ton of versatility in his game and he’s clearly just a football guy.

An educated guess based on a limited viewing window: the defense seems ahead of the offense. If Bray can get the secondary playing better, the Beavers will be in good shape going into the year. For a group that ranked eighth last season in the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed and dead last in third-down percentage, coming out of spring ball feeling good about where you’re headed is a win.