Coach Howard pleased with SOU spring
ASHLAND — The offense is right where it needs to be, the defense is a work in progress and the kicking game is a crowd-pleaser.
That's the lowdown from Southern Oregon University head coach Craig Howard, whose team completed its spring camp with an entertaining exhibition game Friday at Raider Stadium and now has about two months of offseason work to get through before reconvening for its summer conditioning program.
SOU's fall camp begins Aug. 4 and the Raiders' first game is Aug. 30 at Menlo.
Southern Oregon senior-to-be quarterback Austin Dodge led the White team to a 26-19 victory Friday, completing 21 of 31 passes for 301 yards and four touchdowns, including a 40-yard bomb to Teran Togia on the first possession of the third quarter.
Dodge, the two-time Frontier Conference offensive player of the year, was particularly effective in the second half, when he completed 13 of 15 passes.
"He's like a coach on the field now," Howard said of Dodge, who led the NAIA for the second year in a row last season in both passing yards per game (397.5) and touchdown passes (47). "He knows the offense from A to Z and really has a great field presence, the physical tools, and is ready for a great senior campaign. I know it's something that's not going to last forever so I'm going to enjoy every snap."
Based on what he saw during the month-long spring camp, Howard believes Dodge will be surrounded with his best supporting cast yet — the offensive line looked as sturdy as ever with four returning starters in the fold, and the receiving corps, says Howard, is the best SOU's had since he took over the team in 2011. The latter assessment is a major endorsement considering the Raiders had two 1,400-yard receivers in 2012.
"We have eight quality receivers right now, so there's great depth," Howard said.
Adding to that depth is Togia, a 6-foot-1 sophomore who missed most of last season with a knee injury. On Friday, Togia had seven catches for 105 yards and two TDs. Also stepping up in the spring game were Dylan Young (six catches, 130 yards), and brothers Ryan (seven catches, 79 yards, TD) and Matt Retzlaff (four catches, 55 yards, TD).
"Those guys (in 2012) did it, but I think the reason I say that is the depth,"
Howard said. "We never had backups for those guys. But we still gotta prove it on the field."
Though most of SOU's depth chart on offense is set, there are a few intriguing battles that will continue in the fall. At running back, Melvin Mason ranked first and Sean Tow second on the team in rushing yards per game in 2013 and both were solid in the spring before Mason pulled a groin muscle Friday and sat out most of the game.
"I don't know who the starter is there yet," Howard said.
In another competition that may come into play, redshirt freshman Kamerun Smith is the frontrunner to backup Dodge after completing 11 of 21 passes for 115 yards. The 6-foot-6 Smith, who hails from Marist and did not throw a pass in 2013, has a strong arm and has picked up the offense well. Howard says the Raiders will likely redshirt Jack Singler, a South Medford alum.
"We'll still wait until fall camp to make that decision, but we'll go into fall camp with three pretty darn good quarterbacks," Howard said.
If something happens to Dodge, Howard is confident that Smith will be able to step in and run the offense.
"He's got a real bright future," Howard said. "He's got incredible size, good mobility and he works hard. He would start a lot of years, but right now he's behind an All-American."
Defensively, the Raiders are excited about the return of former Oregon State lineman Michael Bibbee, who's playing linebacker for SOU. On Friday, he showed why. Bibbee led the Raiders with two tackles for losses and showed off the athleticism that sets him apart, while Laurence Calcagno had a team-high nine tackles.
Shining in the secondary were Jalen Dixon and Dustin Fretwell. Dixon had an interception and Fretwell broke up three passes.
Howard also praised the play of linebacker Heston Altenbach and lineman Daniel Breaux, but added that the SOU defense as a whole has some work to do.
"We'll be a little more athletic," he said, "but pretty soon you can't be young on defense after you've been saying you're young, so we expect (improvement)."
When asked to name some spring game highlights, Howard was quick to praise kicker Aldrick Rosas, who booted 47 touchbacks in 2013. Howard said Rosas' huge kickoffs drew oohs and aaahs from the crowd on Friday and believes that in Rosas the Raiders have the best kicker in the country.
"He was kind of the highlight of the spring game," Howard said.
"It was really the best spring we've had in four years," he added. "We didn't have too many injuries and the kids knew the system, there were no off-the-field problems. It was a really fun spring."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org