ASHLAND — Charlie Hall understands the huge expectations his Southern Oregon University Raiders have attached to their 2017 campaign.
Even before Hall was hired in March to replace the late Craig Howard, the Raiders had plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Nearly every key skill position player on offense returns to provide ample options for star senior quarterback Tanner Trosin, who missed most of last season with a foot injury after leading the team to the NAIA national championship game the previous year. On defense, eight starters are back, including four Frontier Conference all-stars.
Add to that the possibility that the Raiders’ disappointing fizzle at the end of last season, when they lost four of their last five games to finish 5-6, may have had more to do with turnovers and injuries than anything else, and it’s easy to see why the players expect a quick return to contender status.
But the cerebral, meticulous Hall, who’s coached every position at least once during stints at six universities and his last 11 years at Ashland High School, would rather the Raiders forget about the big picture for a while and instead focus only on what lies directly ahead: today’s season-opener against No. 7 Eastern Oregon.
“There are huge expectations because of the older players in our program — they’ve been to Daytona and there’s that national championship, return-to-the-beach mentality,” he said. “I’m more about the process. That is the goal of the program, but we need to accomplish milestones along the way and that’s been my focus. The first milestone is win the first game. That’s kind of how I’m going to go about it.”
That would be an impressive start to the Hall era for a number of reasons, including the fact that the game was recently relocated 280 miles north to Sherwood High School to escape the Rogue Valley’s smoky conditions. Also, Eastern Oregon, which advanced to the national semifinals last season, won both head-to-head matchups last season and was ranked second behind Montana Tech in the Frontier Conference’s preseason coaches’ poll (SOU was ranked third).
In other words, roughly five months after hiring a new head coach the 25th-ranked Raiders are looking to start their season with a big, signature upset in a rare neutral site showdown.
“First game of the year, there’s nothing bigger right now,” Hall said.
The Raiders had championship aspirations last year, but the momentum from back-to-back national championship game appearances dissipated as the injuries piled up. The big one happened in Week 2, when Trosin, a dual threat quarterback, broke his foot scrambling out of the pocket against UC Davis. Trosin was granted a medical redshirt and has been back running the show since last spring, when he completed 10 of 24 passes during a rusty performance in the Red and White Game.
Trosin improved steadily during the Raiders’ run to Daytona in 2015 and looked primed for a big year before breaking his foot, but he has very little experience with the current receiving corps. Hall says that chemistry appears to be coming along nicely in practice, but added that the significance of Trosin’s return goes far beyond timing routes and audibles.
“(Trosin’s) an incredible competitor — that’s his biggest attribute,” Hall said. “He’s driven to get back to that place where he once was as a junior, taking his team to the national championship. He’s very driven to do that for himself and for coach Howard. I think he was close to him and was inspired by that relationship. Those are real strong intangibles that make him the player that he is.”
Expected to ease Trosin’s transition back is the fact that SOU — which ranked second in the conference in scoring last season but turned the ball over a whopping 31 times — will continue to run the spread offense under seventh-year offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht and will roll out a stable of receivers that Fasnacht has labeled the “strength of the program.” It’s easy to see why. Three of the four receivers/tight ends who started SOU’s final game of 2016 are back, though not all of them are still in the starting lineup according to the team’s first two-deep roster, released Friday.
Receivers Jordan Suell and Jason Shelley and tight end Ben Bachman return, although Shelley, who ranked second on the team in receptions (34) and receiving yards (505) last season, will start the season as Matt Boudreaux’s backup. The 6-foot-6, 200-pound Suell, who had 20 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns last year, will have a big size advantage over most cornerbacks and may prove to be a formidable weapon on the red zone.
“You gotta take advantage of that,” Hall said of Suell, “but he’s more than just a jump-ball receiver. He runs good routes, he’s a great target, obviously, so I’d look for him to have a big year.”
Starting running back Rey Vega also returns after rushing for 558 yards and six touchdowns last season, and the Raiders are high on his backup, Michael Roots, a freshman transfer from San Jose State who’s been dubbed “Racecar” by his teammates.
The big question mark for the Raiders, at least offensively, is their offensive line, which returns starting center Christmas Aumua and guard Tyler Cox but will rely on less experienced players elsewhere. Consequently, injuries at a few key spots could prove more costly than usual. Left tackle James Hines (6-5, 310) is expected to dominate, and junior transfer Cory Foster has earned a starting nod at right guard, but both are backed up by freshmen.
“It’s a work in progress,” Hall said of the O-line. “We know that and we’re not going to be able to just give those kids the entire playbook. There are things that we’ll just need to get better at as we develop because if we keep it simple for the line and just really work on their technique then we have enough perimeter talent, led by (Trosin), to get the ball out to the players.”
Defensively, the Raiders, who will continue to run a 4-3, welcome back all-conference stalwarts all around the field — tackle Sam Woods, linebackers Isiah Carter and Devvon Gage, and safety Keegan Lawrence.
The other good news (sort of) is there’s a lot of room for improvement, considering only one team in the Frontier last season surrendered more points than SOU (31.8), which also happened to be the eighth-most penalized team in the NAIA (88.2 yards per game). A lot of the damage was done against the Raiders’ porous run defense, which allowed 170 yards per game on the ground.
Playing key roles in SOU’s effort to turn that around are Woods and freshman Tre Holmes, the only true freshman on either side of the ball to earn a spot in the starting lineup.
If the Raiders manage to force opponents into difficult down-and-distance situations, they may be able to put some pressure on opposing quarterbacks, something they weren’t able to do consistently last season (17 sacks). Here, optimism once again comes in the form of experience, as the Raiders return starters Armando Gauger and Sean Rogers at the ends as well as starting linebackers Devvon Gage, Isiah Carter and Tyson Cooper, a trio that ranked first, second and third on the team, respectively, in tackles. Gage also had a team-high 13 tackles-for-losses.
Will the front four be able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks without relying on blitzes that could leave the team vulnerable to big plays?
“We hope so,” Hall said. “I think that’s where there’s some improvement. …Our defense has given us all we can handle from a pressure standpoint this fall camp. It’s been kind of their strength because they can — because really in the back end they can play man coverage.”
That defensive backfield Hall is so high on includes two returning starters in Lawrence and cornerback AJ Cooper, who had three of SOU’s nine interceptions last season, as well as former Oregon Duck Oshay Dunmore, who’s been moved to safety from linebacker. CJ Jones or University of Idaho transfer Zay Taylor will start at the other corner.
Special teams appears to be a team strength, as Frontier all-stars Marcus Montano (kicker) and Louis DesPrez (punter) return, and Grants Pass native and Weber State transfer Jaxon Clark gives the Raiders depth. That depth will come in handy already tonight, as Clark has been listed as the starting punter.
After today, SOU’s schedule includes early-season clashes against No. 19 Montana Western (Sept. 16) and rival Carroll (Sept. 23), and later a rematch with Eastern Oregon (Oct. 14) and a potentially massive regular-season finale at sixth-ranked Montana Tech.
Not that Hall is looking that far ahead. Or even past today.
“There’s that standard and there’s that goal, but there’s going to be a milestone approach to try to create the momentum to get to that point, much like we did at Ashland,” he said. “Win your first game, then win back-to-back games and try to be consistent in what you’re doing in your approach to preparations. If we can win consecutive games we can build that momentum in that streak so we can have a chance to have a winning season, conference championship, and then get to the playoffs. And then we can reset things and go from there.”