ASHLAND — Steve Helminiak is trying to bring "Raider pride" back to Southern Oregon University.

ASHLAND — Steve Helminiak is trying to bring "Raider pride" back to Southern Oregon University.

No, really.

And any Raider wondering just how serious SOU's second-year head coach is got his answer at the end of a recent practice. With the players gathered around, Helminiak explained why one of their teammates was booted off the squad earlier in the day. The unnamed player disobeyed a team rule, and the lapse in judgment cost him his season.

Later, in his office, Helminiak reiterated the message he delivered to his team, one that he's been trying to pound home since he first arrived at SOU in the spring of 2006.

"What I talked about out there was getting those guys to understand what Raider pride is all about, knowing why they're here," he said. "It's not just about football. It's also about academics and how they conduct themselves."

So, are the players buying into it?

"I think they are," he said. "Any time you add new bodies there's going to be some skepticism, but they have to learn to trust me."

The Raiders will put that trust to the test Saturday afternoon against 24th-ranked Montana Tech. The season opener for both teams is scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium.

The game is crucial for SOU from a confidence standpoint. Southern is coming off its third straight losing season; over that span, it has dropped 22 of 28 games, including a 2006 game against Menlo the Raiders originally won but later forfeited in an embarrassing ineligible-player gaffe.

In their first year under Helminiak, the Raiders struggled to find consistency in nearly every phase of the game. Perhaps most surprising was the team's flagging rushing attack, which more closely resembled a retreat.

Helminiak was the brain behind some of the most prolific rushing attacks in the nation at Rockford College (Ill.), but in Ashland his multiple offense averaged just 3.2 yards per rush. The result: the Raiders picked up just 128 first downs (their opponents had 172) and routinely lost the all-important time-of-possession battle.

"I felt good about the players we had (last season), but it takes longer to develop the offensive line than it does anybody else in terms of getting them game ready," Helminiak said.

With three of the five starters on the offensive line back and clearing the way for a backfield that could include a legitimate NFL prospect in Washington State transfer Derrell Hutsona, SOU's ground game has the potential to improve dramatically. Left tackle Jordan Myers (6-foot-4, 275 pounds), right tackle Jacob Purcell (6-5, 285) and center Adam Akau (6-2, 280) are the returners, along with left guard Trent Henson (6-4, 270), who worked his way into the rotation.

Running behind them will be Hutsona (5-10, 187) and Shane Van Zant (5-11, 210), who led the Raiders in 2006 with 489 rushing yards. Van Zant's backfield partner from a year ago, Patrick Preyer, is out with a shoulder injury, but if Hutsona clears his final eligibility hurdle as expected, SOU should be just fine.

Blessed with blazing speed rarely seen at the NAIA level — he's been clocked in the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds according to scout.com — Hutsona could be much more than just another key pickup for the Raiders.

After a spectacular senior season at Helix High in 2003, he was named the San Diego Union Tribune's male athlete of the year, beating out teammates Reggie Bush and Alex Smith. Helix finished 13-0 that year, and Smith and Bush both went on to star in college and get taken No. 1 (Smith) and No. 2 (Bush) in the NFL draft.

In an interview with the Tribune about two years after that perfect season, former Helix head coach Gordon Wood said that Hutsona was "just as fast as Reggie (Bush)."

Hutsona probably would have been a big part of WSU's offense as a senior, but when his academic eligibility fell through he went looking for a place to finish up. Now at SOU, he'll likely join another top-flight recruit in the Raider backfield, former UC Davis quarterback Bryan Lee-Lauduski (6-5, 200).

Though Hutsona and Lee-Lauduski both arrive at Southern via academic struggles, Helminiak said he wouldn't have let either of them join the program if they weren't "good kids."

"Both come from really good families," he said. "This is kind of their last shot to play college football, and they want to take advantage of it."

If Hutsona isn't cleared in time for Saturday's game, Van Zant will get the start, and if Lee-Lauduski is ineligible, then Casey Mitchell (6-0, 190) will again take over the reins at quarterback. Last season as the starter, Mitchell completed 48 percent of his passes (110 of 229) for nine touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

No matter who's leading the SOU offense, Van Zant is confident that the Raiders will play better as a team this year, having been well-schooled in Helminiak's system.

"On a scale of one to 10, we were a four last year, and this year we're a nine," he said. "We're looking a lot more crisp. We know our jobs a lot more. As a unit, we're on the same time scale, meaning we move as one."

SOU's wide receivers will be Kevin Holtzman (6-2, 190), Tim Greenidge (5-11, 186) and Ashland High alum Steve Jorgensen (5-10, 175). All received significant playing in 2006, with Greenidge leading the team in catches (25) and Holtzman in receiving touchdowns (four).

Playing tight end for the Raiders will be Jameson Whitehead (6-4, 250) and Brian Harding (6-5, 255), and Greg Stewart (5-10, 215) will probably get most of the playing time at fullback.

Overall, Helminiak loves the potential of an offense that he says has made huge strides since gaining an average of just 266 yards per game last season.

"I feel much better going into the season offensively than I did a year ago," he said. "Now, will that translate into success offensively? You know, you've got to play the games. But I feel good about our talent."

Defensively, the Raiders will be running mostly a 3-4, with Anthony Scolamieri (6-1, 240), Ben Baker (6-1, 240), Kyle Kling (6-4, 245), John Hoskins (6-0, 260), Dan Harvey (6-6, 280) and Will Watson (6-6, 260) working the line and Damario Watson (6-0, 230), James Williams (6-3, 215) and Austin Stack (6-0, 235) getting the bulk of the playing time at linebacker.

Harvey could be the key.

"I don't know if he'll ever be a Willis Cooley," said Helminiak, referring to the top Raider lineman on last year's team, "but (Harvey's) got to start moving in that direction."

Brandon Beatty (6-2, 200) and Jared Elarmo (6-2, 215) return as the starting safeties, and three junior college transfers — Ivy Jones (5-9, 175), Byron Sconiers (5-11, 175) and Akeem Jackson (6-3, 190) — will defend the corners.

"Athletically, I don't think there's going to be many people better than us," Helminiak said of the defense. "They run extremely well, they fly around, they're aggressive."

Corey O'Neill, a South Medford High alum who transferred from College of the Siskiyous, will be the kicker, which will allow Steve Palmer to concentrate on punting. The latter did both last season.

Helminiak didn't predict how many wins SOU might muster in his second year at the helm, but even a much-improved Raider squad will have to beat the odds in order to make any sort of postseason run. The schedule includes just three home games, and one of those is against NCAA Division III powerhouse Linfield. On the road, SOU will face Idaho State, Azusa Pacific and Western Oregon, among others.

Still, Helminiak and company insist that there's a major change in the atmosphere at SOU, both in the locker room and on the field. "The coaches, all of our seniors, everybody's just created that family-type feel, so we all have each other's back," Myers said.

Now, the question is whether or not that positive vibe will make a difference on the scoreboard.

"Last year, if we had a little adversity, they'd fold up the tents a little too early," Helminiak said. "As the season went on they got better and better at it, and the last game (a comeback win) against Dixie State, I thought, was kind of the mark of where we're going.

"I've got to see a continuation of that. If we do that, it will translate into wins. If we don't, I probably won't be here much longer."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or e-mail joe.zavala@dailytidings.com