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SOU reels in line-heavy recruiting class

The Southern Oregon University football team was pushed around at times last season, particularly on the offensive line. Steve Helminiak is determined to change that.

The Raiders' new head coach and the rest of SOU's staff has gathered either verbal or written commitments from 55 to 60 recruits, including about 17 on the offensive line, Helminiak said.

The Raiders will also bring some big names, including former North Medford High quarterback Ben Running, a transfer from Eastern Oregon, and Shasta Junior College transfer running back Shane VanZant. But the offseason focus clearly has been on improving SOU's push up front.

The offensive line definitely is a priority, said Helminiak, hired in January to get the Raiders back on track following last season's 1-9 debacle.

SOU has only five offensive lineman returning after averaging just 3.2 yards per rush and 94.9 rushing yards per game in 2005.

— The cream of the SOU's latest OL crop could be 6-foot-2, 305 pound behemoth ron Cole, who earned first-team Pac-9 honors as a senior at Timberline High of Lacy, Wash. Helminiak described Cole as a solid run blocker and a finisher.

Other linemen planning to join the Raiders are former North Medford High first-team all-Southern Oregon Conference all-star Tim Endecott, Mesa JC transfer Brad Wilson, Eric Walther of Carson High (Nev.), Blaine Begay of Madras and Arkansas State transfer John Conavad.

Walther (6-2, 240), who started both ways his last two years, hopes to make an immediate impact.

Based on what they've seen on film, (the Raiders are) planning on me starting as a freshman, which is another reason why I chose there, the all-state lineman told the Nevada Appeal.

VanZant could wind up as the primary ball carrier in SOU's revamped rushing attack. The junior, who graduated from Dayton High (Nev.) in 2004, overcame testicular cancer to play at Shasta and is the prototypical back to run in Helminiak's offensive scheme.

We feel that he can be a difference-maker for us, said Helminiak, who coordinated a Rockford (Ill.) offense that averaged 196 rushing yards per game last season. He really fits into the running style that we'll bring in. I want a kid that's going to be physical enough to run between the tackles, yet still has that burst that he can go 20, 30 yards as well.

SOU's offensive recruits also include wide receivers A.J. Nichols of North Medford and Joey Shepherd of Phoenix, running back Dan Welcome of South Medford and tight end Ben Decuir of Phoenix. The Raiders will also add a new place kicker ' Reno High (Nev.) all-stater Tom Vikre, who could start in 2006.

(Vikre) could be an impact player for us right away, SOU assistant coach James Gravelle told Nevadaprep.com. With his caliber of leg, offenses will be starting deep in their own territory.

Defensively, the Raiders will add all-state defensive backs George Huntzicker of Southridge and Sam Higgins of Punahou High (Hawaii), as well as all-state linebackers Parker Paredes of Kamehameha High (Hawaii) and Alex Tkachuk of Southridge. SOU's top defensive transfers so far are defensive backs Anthony Edwards of Portland State and Jared Elarmo of Sacramento State, linemen Ben Baker of Shasta JC and Mason Powers of Redwoods JC and linebacker James McClintock of Redwoods JC.

SOU will also bring in two local linebackers: Tyler Chase of Eagle Point and Callan Hartzer of Crater.

The Raiders are already practicing for next season. Spring football kicked off Friday and will include 16 practices before the annual spring scrimmage, scheduled for May 6.

I've been really happy with our offseason program, Helminiak said. I think our kids have shown a major commitment in the weight room, and we implemented a 5:30 (a.m.) running program earlier in the year. Kids fought through it and did a great job and I thought as time went on they got stronger.

Helminiak will use the spring game to both teach and evaluate.

Instead of a practice situation, it's a game situation, he said, so you get to see which players respond under fire, who's going to step up and meet the challenges.

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456.