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Canzano: Aidan Chiles is pushing the timeline at Oregon State
Quarterback battle really looks like a battle.
CORVALLIS — I recently asked a high school football coach who spent a few days observing Oregon State’s spring football practices how transfer quarterback DJ Uiagalelei looked.
He waved me off.
“The freshman,” the coach said, “is who you need to see.”
He was talking about Aidan Chiles. The 17-year-old dual-threat quarterback is set up to be the future of OSU football. On Saturday, after watching the Beavers’ spring game, I wondered how long the program can afford to wait.
Chiles looked dynamic, throwing, passing and running on Saturday. At one point, he scrambled to his right, avoided pressure, and threw a 35-yard dart that hit his receiver in the chest. Another time, he felt the pocket collapsing around him and spun away, sprinting upfield for a sizable gain as the crowd roared.
Late in the scrimmage, Chiles dropped back and lofted a rainbow spiral down the middle of the defense, splitting two defensive backs. The ball dropped over the fingertips of a defender, into a receiver’s hands at the back of the end zone — touchdown.
I happened to be standing beside former OSU team captain Jaydon Grant on the sideline at the time. Grant was just there observing. We saw the pass and looked at each other.
“You see that?” he asked.
“Special,” he said.
Uiagalelei made some nice plays, too. He’s physically imposing and poised. And returning starter Ben Gulbranson looked improved from last season. But two things became evident to anyone watching on Saturday: A) Oregon State is better and deeper at the QB position than maybe ever; and B) Chiles has a puncher’s chance to play next season.
Coach Jonathan Smith held court with media after the scrimmage and said he felt each of his quarterbacks did some good things. He’s right. They all did. But I pulled Smith aside after the media scrum and asked him whether Chiles might do the unthinkable and somehow beat Uiagalelei and Gulbranson out.
“Will you start the most talented player?” I asked.
Smith cut me off.
“Our starting quarterback,” Smith said, “will be the guy who gives the team the best chance to win games.”
OSU is good enough to win a pile of games with any of the three at quarterback. The Beavers run game is loaded again. They’ll pound the ball like always and the defense will try to suffocate opposing offenses. But if we’re talking about elevating the ceiling in Corvallis — a berth in the Pac-12 Conference title game — the conversation centers around how and when OSU eventually hands the keys to Chiles.
Or two seasons from now?
I was asked after the spring scrimmage to rank the Oregon State quarterbacks. I need a bigger sample size to do that, but here are three quick takeaways based on what I saw:
• Chiles is easily the best passer/runner combination. He’s only 17, though. I asked a few program sources if the freshman makes a bunch of mistakes we don’t see in practices. Turns out, he doesn’t. I’m told Chiles has been remarkably consistent, particularly for a young player. One OSU assistant offered, “That kid is a baller”
• Uiagalelei, the Clemson transfer, has the most big-game experience at the position. He looks like a middle linebacker playing quarterback. He could be lethal in short-yardage situations and run/pass options. I get the sense that the coaching staff is delighted he’s on campus. Starting him would set a precedent for future transfer QBs. That said, Uiagalelei needs to be more accurate as a passer. He rushed a couple of easy throws on Saturday. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, for now, because he’s learning a new playbook. I’d like to see how he looks in a couple of months.
• Among the quarterbacks, Gulbranson has the best command of the offense. On Saturday, he looked more confident as a passer than he did last season. He’s taken a solid step forward there, but the QB room around him is far more talented than it was last season. If Chiles matures in the coming months or Uiagalelei settles down, Gulbranson may struggle to get snaps. If they don’t, he is a low-risk option as the starter.
A lot can happen between now and the beginning of fall camp. Coaches like to tell media that nothing is settled. That it’s a wide-open competition. In Oregon State’s case, it really does feel more wide open than I expected.
The entire QB question centers around Chiles in my mind. He should still be in high school, planning his prom. Instead, the four-star high school recruit enrolled early in Corvallis and wowed the Reser Stadium crowd on Saturday.
Everyone saw it. We can all see how gifted the freshman is. Those who know his family tell me they’re grounded and he’s not in a hurry. Chiles still needs to put on a little weight and learn more of the offense. But the freshman is making the Oregon State’s staff think hard about advancing the timeline.
How long will they make us all wait?
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