All Ben Gulbranson has done at Oregon State is wait his turn at quarterback, then when given a chance won seven of eight games as a starter in leading the Beavers to one of its greatest seasons in school history.
Gulbranson is driven. He already has a bachelor’s degree. Gulbranson wraps up a master’s in public health this fall, less than four years after first enrolling at Oregon State.
Why are many among the Beavers’ fan base and those following college football ready to move on from Gulbranson?
Stop if you’ve heard this before. Gulbranson is a game manager. The OSU rising sophomore doesn’t have much of an arm. OSU won 10 games during the 2022 season because the team got it right at 21 of 22 positions, the exception being quarterback.
It’s not unusual for fans to want to see the next shiny object. In Oregon State’s case that’s Clemson transfer D.J. Uiagalelei or freshman phenom Aidan Chiles. It’s been said and written if Oregon State gets the quarterback position right in 2023, the Beavers could contend for a CFP playoff berth.
What if that quarterback is Gulbranson?
It’s not far-fetched. After 15 spring practices, there wasn’t noticeable separation between Gulbranson and Uiagalelei. OSU coach Jonathan Smith insists camp starts in August as an “open competition.” Former Beaver Jack Colletto, a former quarterback who spent the past three years with Gulbranson, said after the Las Vegas Bowl in December that “Ben is a great leader and he’s a fit for this program. We see the work he does day in and day out. I have my absolute full confidence that this guy can take the program and go the next step.”
It’s a heady endorsement for a so-called game manager. A term, incidentally, that doesn’t cause Gulbranson to recoil.
“I mean, shoot. I don’t think it’s unfair. I managed a team that was 7-1 as a starter. They can call me whatever they want,” Gulbranson said. “I don’t take it personally.”
That Oregon State added a high-profile transfer like Uiagalelei didn’t surprise Gulbranson. Smith told Gulbranson in early December that he planned to add quarterback competition to the roster.
Since then, Gulbranson has had two chances to jump in the transfer portal and find another opportunity. It wasn’t a serious consideration.
“I appreciate (Smith) being upfront and honest,” Gulbranson said. “College sports is a business. I understand they have to bring in some depth to the room. I welcome the competition, because iron sharpens iron.”
College sports is a business. But Gulbranson hasn’t lost sight that college is also a place to learn. Gulbranson saw his Oregon State scholarship as an opportunity in equal measure: to earn college degrees at no cost, to play college football at the highest level.
Gulbranson has career plans that stretch well beyond football. Like his father Scott, Gulbranson wants to be a doctor. While Gulbranson hopes Oregon State opens an NFL door, he’s equally driven to get into medical school.
Graduating early from Newbury Park High and enrolling at OSU in January 2020, Gulbranson took only 2½ years to get his bachelor’s degree. Gulbranson walked through graduation ceremonies before he started a football game at Oregon State.
In December, some six quarters later, Gulbranson expects to wrap up his master’s degree. Gulbranson credits his mother, Amy, a former electrical engineer who helped him plan a path toward racking up degrees.
“I just wanted to make sure I maximized my scholarship as much as possible,” said Gulbranson, whose twin sister Abby graduates at Cal Poly this spring.
Gulbranson has wanted to be a doctor, like dad, for as long as he can remember. Gulbranson has yet to decide the area of medicine in which he’ll specialize.
“I like science quite a bit,” he said. “My dad enjoys his professional life. Obviously it pays pretty well. My dad, he’s been my biggest role model throughout my life and it just seemed like the right profession for me.”
As for football, Gulbranson knows he must get better. Is it that much of a stretch to think he won’t? Gulbranson has only eight career starts. He spent the first month of the 2022 season signaling in plays for then-starter Chance Nolan.
In assessing his play last season, Gulbranson felt “I was able to learn and grow from the experiences. Ultimately, I was able to end the season with a lot of momentum.” Gulbranson said game video shows that he needs to get better at making plays outside the pocket. He’d like to cut down on turnovers by not trying to be a hero and simply hitting the checkdown receiver.
Gulbranson calls Uiagalelei and Chiles “cool guys to have in the quarterback room.” He says there’s a healthy respect amongst the threesome. Gulbranson insists increased competition is meant to improve everyone at the position.
Gulbranson said he didn’t go into spring thinking anyone wanting the starting quarterback job had to pry it from his right arm.
“As far as the whole quarterback job situation, it’s a year-to-year thing. I still have to go earn it. I look forward to earning it in camp,” Gulbranson said. “I’m not looking at it like, I’m protecting my job from last year. I’m coming with the mindset that I have to earn this in the offseason. It’s not just going to be a given.”
Which means there’s a chance Gulbranson returns his role as the backup. Then what?
“I’ll help out the quarterback room in any way I can, and do whatever I can get to get us on a roll and help us win as many ball games as possible,” Gulbranson said.
Gulbranson has some leverage since he’s a graduate. That allows Gulbranson to transfer to another school and become immediately eligible, even if it’s outside the NCAA transfer portal windows.
Asked if he would consider transferring should Uiagalelei – or Chiles – win the starting job, Gulbranson didn’t give a point-blank answer. But it sounded like a no.
“I’m going to help us win as many games as possible, in whatever role I’m in,” he said.
Gulbranson’s plan is three more years of college. As of now, that’s Oregon State. But as college athletics has evolved during the past five years, athletes have numerous options.
It’s not lost on Gulbranson.
“I think after every year you’ve got to evaluate your situation and make what decision is best for you,” he said.
–Nick Daschel | firstname.lastname@example.org | @nickdaschel