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Before taking over Southern Oregon, Steve Helminiak spent most of his coaching career teaching offensive linemen how to open up holes and protect quarterbacks. Before that, he got dirty in the trenches himself as an offensive and defensive lineman for Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

So it should come as no surprise that, given the considerable muscle the Raiders are expected to wield on the line of scrimmage this season, Helminiak gets a little twinkle in his eye when describing his latest team's strengths.

"From an offensive line coach standpoint, of course I'm excited about that," said Helminiak, entering his fourth year as SOU's head football coach. "When (former Raider head coach Jeff Olson) was having a great run and all that success we had (running back) Dusty McGrorty, but at the same time we had a really good offensive line back then and a cohesive unit that was here, guys that had played together for a number of years. It makes such a difference for your offense when you can protect the quarterback and you can open up some seams."

That's exactly what Helminiak is hoping the Raiders' seasoned offensive line will be doing early and often Saturday, when Southern Oregon opens its 2009 season against rival Eastern Oregon. The opening kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium, where SOU will play three of its nine regular season games.

While the Raider linemen are expected to hold up their end of the bargain this year, question marks abound at other positions, including a big one under center, where presumed starter and former North Medford High star Ben Running has been shelved. Running, who returned to school after a coaching stint at Crater High, practiced with the first unit throughout fall camp and impressed coaches with his leadership ability before being ruled academically ineligible on Thursday.

Taking over at quarterback will be redshirt sophomore Paul Sweeney, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound signal caller who did not throw a pass last season as SOU's third-stringer. According to Helminiak, Sweeney's fall camp was "up and down" until last week, when the two had a sit-down talk about expectations.

"He's really responded," Helminiak said. "He came back with a little more confidence and swagger in his game and when he's confident he's really good. When he starts to slouch and when you can see things getting to him he kind of starts to compound his errors."

Sweeney's transition into the starting lineup should be eased by an O-line that's been through its share of battles. All five starters return, including preseason all-independent selections Trent Henson, Jordan Myers and Buddy Tuamasaga. Henson is a three-year starter at center, Myers is a four-year starter at left tackle and Tuamasaga is a two-year starter at right tackle.

SOU's most dangerous weapon on offense could prove to be another all-independent pick, 5-10 wide receiver Vance Beach. The junior out of Mesa, Ariz., had 32 catches for 288 yards last season while also returning kickoffs.

In the backfield, all-independent fullback Brent Koontz, a sophomore, will be joined by sophomore transfer Brandon Baldwin, a 5-11, 195-pound speedster who set a Shasta College record by scoring 20 touchdowns last season.

Defensively, the Raiders look scary up front, inexperienced at linebacker and solid in the secondary.

All-independent defensive end Will Watson (6-6, 260) anchors a defensive line that also includes tackle Dan Harvey (6-6, 280) and end Courtney Robinson (6-2, 257), giving the Raiders a fearsome threesome that's expected to put loads of pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

"We've been known for an attacking defense; we always run a lot of blitzes," Watson said. "We really like to get after it on the defensive side of the ball. We're excited to get out there."

Behind that formidable line is perhaps SOU's biggest question mark, according to Helminiak: a linebacker corps led by all-independent pick Kevin Harrell.

"That's probably the area that we're most concerned with right now," Helminiak said. "We've got some guys that have been in the program — Kala Haasenritter, Bryce Humphries, Isaac Hernandez — and it's now time for them to step up and play. I think they've done some good things in camp, but until you see them on the game field you really don't know."

In the defensive backfield, SOU figures to have at least one "shutdown corner" in all-independent pick Akeem Jackson (6-3, 190) and another — junior transfer Randy Tyler (5-9, 175) — waiting in the wings.

Though Saturday's game is only the first of nine on SOU's schedule, the Raiders have plenty of reasons to be extra pumped. For one, it was an early-season loss to Humboldt State that Helminiak says derailed SOU's season a year ago. Secondly, Eastern Oregon was responsible for ushering the Raiders into the offseason by way of a 27-10 whipping in LaGrande that some of the Raiders still remember quite well.

"We're anxious just to get back out there and get back at Eastern," Watson said. "We had a big disappointment last year, the last game of the season left a real bitter taste in our mouth. As far as the returners, me being a returner myself, I just can't wait to get back out there and prove what we can do other than what we showed last year, that's for sure."

Helminiak added that SOU's motivation for Saturday's game has less to do with the Mountaineers and more to do with the way the 2008 Raiders fizzled out down the stretch.

This time, he said, things will be different.

"Last year we didn't come ready to play when we went out to LaGrande," he said, "and I think you're going to see a different story out of our kids this weekend."

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com