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Daniken finds right time, place for Raiders

ASHLAND-- As a true freshman, Nick Daniken has quickly evolved into a big playmaker in the middle of Southern Oregon's vastly improved defense.

The former Crater High three-sport athlete has made big plays time after time in helping the Raiders open with a 3-1 record as a first-year NAIA independent program seeking national acclaim.

Daniken and the Raiders will look for their fourth win Saturday against Menlo College (2-1) at Atherton, Calif. The game will start at 1:30 p.m.

I've just been in the right place at the right time, says Daniken, referring to his big-play penchant. I've made some plays, but most of them couldn't have been made without the help of my teammates.

Daniken's modesty is notable. But the 5-foot-11, 195-pound former defensive end and running back for Crater has turned feisty -- and nasty -- as an undersized but tough outside linebacker and special teams player for Southern Oregon. With the plays Daniken has made, and the athletic ability he's displayed in doing it, he probably has a right to crow.

I just like being around this group of guys because we are a tight-knit group. Everyone plays hard on this defense every down, says Daniken.

I have a feeling this will end up being a special team before we are through.

The best part of the good feeling we have is winning, he says. I'd like to keep doing that, whether I make big plays or not.

The aggressive Daniken seems to have a penchant for finding the action, and the football, quickly when a play develops.

I like to get there fast, says Daniken.

He started making big plays in the Raiders' first game of the season against Eastern Oregon State. He made an interception to help the Raiders defeat the Mountaineers, 34-2. That game set the tone for SOU's defense in making plays.

Against Northwest small-college football rival Linfield College at McMinnville, Daniken picked up a loose football after a blocked punt and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown to ignite the Raiders to a 40-10 win over the Wildcats.

Even in SOU's only defeat, a 47-23 setback at Pacific Lutheran, Daniken was there to make a big play to ignite the Raiders to an early 9-0 lead. He blocked a PLU punt that led to a safety.

Last Saturday, Daniken made another big play in SOU's 38-24 win over Willamette. He fell on a Bearcat fumble in SOU's end zone, denying the Bearcats a touchdown.

What will Daniken do for the Raiders Saturday at Menlo? Nobody knows, but his teammates and coaches have come to expect a big play -- or two.

You can't keep him out of there (the SOU starting lineup), says SOU coach Jeff Olson. He has a habit of finding the ball and making plays. It's amazing.

Olson admits he wondered if Daniken would ever play football for the Raiders. After graduating from Crater in 1997, Daniken suffered a cracked vertebrae after being hit from the blind side in a high school all-star game in Australia.

The injury was so severe Daniken could not follow through on his commitment to play for SOU in 1998 as a freshman.

I was pretty disappointed that I couldn't play, says Daniken. I tried not to dwell on it because I was pretty down.

Last spring, Daniken's back started feeling better. At about the same time, he got the urge to play football again.

Nick came to me and told me he was ready to play, says Olson. I had recruited him out of high school, so I was happy about it. But I wasn't sure how he would do.

Daniken had no doubts.

I knew I would be able to play, he says. I had a lot of time to think about it and sort some things out in my life. I knew I wanted to play very badly.

He's proving it.

The Raiders, who are ranked No. 25 in the NAIA national poll, will face a pass-oriented offense directed by Menlo coach Ken Margerum, a former Stanford and NFL receiver, and former Dallas Cowboys tight end Doug Cosby.

They will flood the field with receivers and they might throw on any down, says Olson.

SOU will play its first game without senior nose guard R.J. Josephson, who is lost for the season after sustaining a knee injury against Willamette.

It's a major loss, but we have to go on, says Olson, who says Tony Adame will move into Josephson's vacated spot in the middle of SOU's defense.

The Raiders hope to unleash All-American and record-setting senior tailback Griff Yates against Menlo. Yates is zeroing in on two more records, needing three touchdowns to break the Northwest small-college record and 17 points to break the scoring mark.

He has 54 touchdowns in a four-year career and 324 points.