ASHLAND — The steps this time around aren't as routine, but the process of moving forward has begun as it always does this time of year for the Southern Oregon University football team.
Spring practice started in earnest Monday with 80 Raiders in camp. The difference was obvious: Craig Howard, whose imprint on the team went far beyond the championship standard he set, was not around to oversee it for the first time since 2010. His successor, Charlie Hall, was named the new head coach on March 10 and has only been on the job officially since April 1.
With the first game-week of the 2017 season 20 weeks away, Hall's challenge is to provide a smooth transition while identifying and correcting the issues that caused the Raiders to stumble last fall to a 5-5 Frontier Conference record. He's working on constructing a leadership council consisting of players from every class and both sides of the ball to get a feel for what's at hand. And he's still making calls to incoming recruits, introducing himself to the families handing them over.
Leading up to the annual Red & Black Spring Game on May 5 at Raider Stadium, SOU will hold scrimmages open to the public each of the next three Fridays — April 14 at Ashland High's Walter A. Phillips Field, April 21 at Spiegelberg Stadium, and April 28 at Raider Stadium.
On display will be eight defensive players and seven offensive players who all started at least three games in 2016. Of the 60 players back from last year's roster, 41 have seen game action for the Raiders. The rest of the spring squad consists of 2016 redshirts and transfers who have already arrived and enrolled. They'll be ushered in by 19 seniors-to-be, nine of whom have been at SOU for the duration of their collegiate careers. Given what he observed while down the street at Ashland High, Hall believes there is no shortage of talent.
OFFENSIVE NOTES: Seventh-year offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht believes the Raiders could have been a playoff team last fall had they taken better care of the football — a remarkable (yet defensible) assertion given what they lost two weeks into the season. Senior quarterback Tanner Trosin, arguably the top dual-threat in the NAIA, missed the final nine games of the season with an injury. The resulting offense was still formidable — it averaged 482 yards per game, the 11th-most in the NAIA — but committed 31 turnovers, 13 more than its opponents. Trosin was granted a medical redshirt in December, however, and will have an opportunity to build on a 2015 all-conference campaign in which he passed for 2,841 yards at a 64-percent completion rate and set SOU quarterbacking records with 866 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs in his first year with the team.
The job, Fasnacht says, is again Trosin's to lose, but the Raiders added some insurance and a skilled thrower to push him in Sean Smith, a 6-foot-5 transfer from LA Pierce College. Despite the losses of receiver Matt Retzlaff and running back Sean Tow — who left with 80 career touchdowns between them — there are several players still around who emerged as difference-makers in the last year.
Bulky junior-to-be Rey Vega, for one, led the Raiders with 558 rushing yards last year and scored six TDs, while Louis Macklin will come into his senior season with 650 career rushing yards. Fasnacht expects Austin May, a 5-9 sophomore-to-be, to step into the No. 3 back spot.
Jason Shelley (34 catches, 505 yards) and Jordan Suell (20 catches, 326) became starting receivers on the outside as freshmen in 2016, and Bronsen Ader (30 catches, 457 yards) is expected to step into Retzlaff's role after appearing regularly as a sophomore. Matt Boudreaux and Chase Cole could also see their roles expand, and Fasnacht believes Ben Bachman (23 catches, 283 yards) could be one of the most impactful tight ends in the country as a senior. The adjustment made last year to get Bachman more involved will also benefit his competition, Wyatt Clement, a transfer from Shasta College.
Most of the competition is expected to be on the line, where the Raiders lost starters in Connor Astley, Tylor King, Jacob Proul and Jose Sanchez. Christmas Aumua, their All-Frontier center, will be back for his senior season, and Tyler Cox and Dane Skriloff are back to being healthy. John Kealiinohomoku will step in at tackle following a redshirt season, and two more transfers — Matthew Morris (6-4, 310) from Shasta College and James Hines (6-4, 305) of Sacramento City College — are expected to be immediate contributors.
DEFENSIVE NOTES: Entering his second season as SOU's defensive coordinator, James Gravelle hopes to use this spring to get the Raiders back to basics. With eight starters back, the goal of their focus on pre- and post-snap mechanics, alignments and assignments is to form a more cohesive unit than the one that generated 18 takeaways and was often marred by penalty flags. With respect to the team's turnover disparity, he's adopted a concise mantra for the defense: The ball is the program.
The defense's speed will ideally take care of the rest. It starts in the secondary, where Keegan Lawrence — who moved from tailback to safety last season and became a Frontier all-star with 68 tackles, two interceptions and eight deflections — will be back to lead as a senior. Oshay Dunmore is transitioning to the other safety position after contributing as a linebacker in 2015 and sitting out last year with an injury. AJ Cooper is an incumbent two-year starter at one cornerback, but there is ample competition for the other spot. In the mix areDrakkar Sweet and Zay Taylor, both transfers who came in and redshirted last season, and Dareion Bell, a newcomer from College of the Redwoods. Sophomores-to-be Michael Chisley Jr. and Clayton Jones and freshman-to-be William Brown will also be involved.
There are proven commodities at the linebacker spot in all-conference returnees Devvon Gage (100 tackles, 13 tackles for losses), a junior-to-be MLB, and Isiah Carter (80 tackles), a senior-to-be OLB. Tyson Cooper (74 tackles, 3 sacks) is back with starting experience, too, and Kevin Blueford is expected to emerge as a key contributor in his fifth year with the team. Joining that core this spring is Nick Mitchell, a 6-3, 215-pound transfer from Cerritos College. Mitchell started five games at quarterback for Oregon State in 2015 and was also a QB at Cerritos, where he completed 57 percent of his passes, but the Raider staff has moved him to outside linebacker where they believe they can get the most out of his athleticism and leadership qualities.
The Raiders have three starters back on the defensive line — senior tackle Sam Woods (42 tackles, 2 sacks), senior end Armando Gauger (38 tackles, 3 sacks) and junior end Sean Rogers (34 tackles, 3 sacks). They'll also return Josh Cline, an interior player who did not compete in 2016, and have high hopes for underclassmen August Forrest III and John Moestopo. The key newcomer to watch is end Noah Johnson, who, as a freshman last year at Lincoln University of Missouri (an NCAA Division II school), was an all-conference selection with 42 tackles and 4 sacks but transferred to move closer to his hometown of Carson, Calif.
SPECIAL TEAMS NOTES: A year ago, SOU had Marcus Montano penciled in to handle both punting and place-kicking responsibilities. Louis DesPrez, a senior-to-be, took care of that by surprising with an average of 42.5 yards per punt — the fourth-best clip in the NAIA. He's back, and Montano returns for his third season as the kicker, giving the Raiders a pair of all-conference selections to lead their special teams.