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Top-ranked Raiders look for sustainability heading into rematch with No. 4 Carroll

Don’t get Craig Howard wrong. He loved hoisting that NAIA national championship trophy in front of a live ESPNU audience last December. It was a special moment for both Howard and the Southern Oregon University football team, he says.

But that was last year, and even though Howard has already accomplished his main goal, the one he so boldly announced the day SOU hired him to right a lost ship four years ago, he has no intention of letting his program bask in the glory of that accomplishment.

On the contrary. Now, says Howard, comes phase two of his rebuilding effort: a repeat title.

“I came here to build a program and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t have sustainability in this program,” Howard said Wednesday, three days before his top-ranked Raiders were set to face No. 4 Carroll in today’s blockbuster season opener. “You don’t want to be a one-year wonder, you don’t want to go one time and say, hey, we did something and now we can go retire or go do something else. We want to go back-to-back, we want to win the Frontier Conference every year I coach.

“Right now our program is at the top, we are the reigning champion and we gotta see if this team that we have this year wants to stay there. Last year’s team earned it. This year’s team — the book hasn’t been written yet.”

Chapter one will be penned today in Helena, Mont., where two of the top teams in the nation will square off in a rematch of last November’s epic quarterfinal showdown that saw the Raiders stun the Saints in the snow after trailing by 17 points entering the fourth quarter. The NAIA Game of the Week is set to kickoff at noon Pacific at Nelson Stadium.

Southern Oregon will field a strong cast of returning starters on both sides of the ball, but record-shattering quarterback and NAIA Player of the Year Austin Dodge will not be one of them. Dodge set every major career and single-season NAIA passing record in four spectacular seasons at SOU, so his graduation leaves the Raiders with some gigantic shoes to fill. On Wednesday, Howard was still mulling the decision, but the frontrunners to replace Dodge appear to be rocket-armed sophomore Kamerun Smith, Dodge’s backup last season, and dual-threat junior transfer Tanner Trosin. Jack Singler from South Medford may also be in the mix.

The 6-foot-7, 210-pound Smith is a classic drop-back passer who completed 16 of 23 passes for 121 yards in limited action last year. Trosin (6-0, 180) is still learning the nuances of the Raiders’ spread, no-huddle attack, but has more college experience than Smith, having completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,268 yards and 20 touchdowns last season at American River College.

Howard says he’ll take as long as he needs to make the right choice, even if that means auditions stretch into Week 3.

“We’re still figuring it out,” he said. “It’s going to go right up, maybe into a couple games. We gotta find out who’s better under the lights. All three of them have really got their individual strengths and we’re looking for consistency, accuracy. We’ll see what he does when it’s real football.”

Whoever wins the job will have plenty of support. Southern Oregon returns three starters on the offensive line, its top three leading rushers and its starting slot receivers.

Guards Max Proudfit and Dylan Bratlie, and tackle Taylor King (6-6, 300) will anchor an O-line that surrendered 25 sacks in 608 pass attempts last season. They can run block, too. SOU rushed for 2,642 yards and 35 touchdowns last season, led by Melvin Mason’s 1,013 yards and 17 TDs. Sean Tow, Keegan Lawrence and Louis Macklin also figure to get plenty of carries this season.

“Gosh, we’ll play all of them,” Howard said. “We’ll see how it all shakes out but you’re always coaching toward balance. As long as I’ve been coaching I think balance is the key. I like it when at the end of the game we have just as many runs as passes.”

SOU lost its top two receivers, Ryan Retzlaff and Dylan Young, to graduation, but returns slots Matt Retzlaff and Jeremy Scottow, who combined for 84 catches, 1,217 yards and eight touchdowns last season. On the outside, Adonis Griffin (6-4, 225) takes over at the “Z” spot, while the “X” position will be manned by Lantz Worthington, D.J. Willingham or Zach Davis.

Howard is particularly excited about the defense, calling it the most athletic group he’s had at SOU. The crown jewel, in terms of athleticism, may be junior linebacker Oshay Dunmore (6-2, 225), who had 63 tackles and two interceptions last season for NCAA Division I-FCS Illinois State.

When a reporter from the Helena Independent Record asked Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest about Dunmore, Van Diest said, “(Dunmore’s) going to be the best player in the league by far.”

That D1-caliber upgrade combined with SOU’s veteran defensive line inspired defensive coordinator Berk Brown to transform the Raiders into a 4-3 this season after years in the 3-4 camp.

Senior linemen Joseph Lealofi, Trevor Jones, Grant Torgerson and David Weider figure to play prominent roles for the Raiders up front. At linebacker, Isiah Carter is back after a standout, 78-tackle freshman campaign, as is Mylz Blake. Freshman Tyson Cooper, junior Aaron Downes and redshirt-freshman Devvon Gage will also get their chance.

The Raiders are loaded in the defensive backfield, where five of their top seven from a year ago return. Safeties Jaylenn Hart and Julius Rucker combined for five interceptions in the championship-clinching win over Marian, and a pair of Portland State senior transfers — Karrington Jones and Tyler Rogers — will give the Raiders tremendous playmaking ability at the corners. Nathan Torres-Walker will also play safety.

"When you return two starting safeties from a championship team, that's huge because those guys are asked to be the main communicators to get us into our coverage," Brown said. "And we believe (Torres-Walker) knows the defense as well as any coach on the staff."

Southern Oregon can make a major statement by beating Carroll in Helena for the second time in a row today, but it won’t be easy. The Saints were picked ahead of SOU in the Frontier Conference preseason coaches’ poll based on their tremendous home-field advantage — they’ve won 59 of their last 62 games in Helena — and the return of quarterback Mac Roche, who completed 67 percent of his passes for 245 yards per game, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions last season.

The Saints also have a defensive tradition that’s second to none. Last season, not counting their games against the Raiders, the Saints surrendered only 9.6 points and 231 yards a game.

To continue SOU’s own tradition, Howard says, the Raiders will have to be at their best to start league play with a win.

“We can’t go in there like Little Red Riding Hood with jam on our face,” he said. “They’ll eat us up.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.