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Another thrill ride through the NAIA playoffs didn’t end with the second straight national championship the Southern Oregon University football team was hoping for last December.

Instead, the Marian Knights avenged their 2014 championship-game loss by beating the Raiders decisively, 31-14. Now, the question is: how will Southern Oregon, firmly established as a national powerhouse after winning eight playoff games in three years, respond to its most lopsided postseason loss of the Craig Howard era?

The Raiders’ first chance to deliver their answer is Saturday in La Grande against Eastern Oregon in a game that will be both the season opener and Frontier Conference opener for both teams.

“It’s always an interesting matchup,” SOU head coach Craig Howard said. “(Eastern Oregon’s) always fired up for the Raiders. It’s in La Grande. First game of the year. Just a lot of question marks. But I feel good about the product we’re putting on the field. Before it’s all said and done we’re going to be pretty good.”

Southern Oregon, which was picked as the Frontier Conference favorite in a preseason coaches’ poll and ranked No. 2 nationally, lost key players on both sides of the ball to graduation and injuries, but also returns three dynamic playmakers in quarterback Tanner Trosin, three-time all-conference receiver Matt Retzlaff and All-American free safety Julius Rucker. The Raiders also return all-conference left tackle Taylor King, all-conference defensive lineman Sam Woods and linebacker Devvon Gage, who led all SOU linebackers last season with 95 tackles.

Trosin (6-foot, 180 pounds), a junior college transfer who emerged as the winner in a three-man SOU quarterback battle last fall, set a program record for quarterback rushing yards (866) and rushing touchdowns (12) and had his three best passing games, in terms of yardage, in the playoffs. The Raiders’ leading rusher also completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,841 yards and 16 touchdowns.

One of the most dangerous dual-threat QBs in the country, Trosin leads a fast-paced offense — dubbed by Howard the “Ricky Bobby offense” — which ranked eighth nationally in total offense last season, and Howard says his signal-caller put in the necessary work in the offseason to take the offense to the next level.

“The system hasn’t changed but he has,” Howard said. “He’s more comfortable, he’s more confident. Gosh, he’s been working his heart out to be as great as he can possibly be. …They can do extra work when they watch film on their own, and he has logged in coaches hours watching film. He is studying the film and his knowledge of the plays and comfort in his relationship with the coaches, it’s just night and day.”

On the line, King (6-6, 300) and right guard Jose Sanchez (6-3, 300) are the lone returns and will team up with center Christmas Aumua (6-0, 280), right tackle Connor Astley (6-4, 255) and left guard Tyler Cox (6-4, 260). They’ll be opening up holes for running backs Louis Macklin (5-8, 180), Sean Tow (5-7, 165), Portland State transfer Rey Vega (5-10, 205) and Austin May (5-9, 195). Last year’s second-leading rusher, Melvin Mason, is academically ineligible.

Macklin, a speedburner who’s thrived in SOU’s inside zone blocking scheme, rushed for 414 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging 7.5 yards per rush, and the shifty Tow (5-7, 165) rushed for 260 yards and six TDs.

Howard is excited to see what Vega can do after his tremendous fall camp.

“(Vega’s) an explosive back that has good size and he’s gonna be good,” Howard said.

Retzlaff (5-10, 190), who had 15 catches for a team-high 768 yards and six touchdowns last season, will move back to his more natural position in the slot, making way on the outside for Zack Davis (6-0, 190) and Sean McShane (5-11, 185), who was injured all last season but showed his worth two seasons ago, contributing mightily to SOU’s 2014 championship run (McShane is expected to miss Saturday’s game with an injury suffered in fall camp). Also on the outside are DJ Willingham (6-2, 210) and Jordan Suell (6-6, 185), and the other slots are Chase Cole (5-7, 160), Bronsen Ader (5-11, 200) and Keegan Weiss. Cole and Ader combined for only seven catches last season.

The tight ends who should see the most playing time are junior Ben Bachman (6-2, 230) and transfer Harry Kolone (6-1, 240). Howard says they’ll occasionally line up simultaneously, something SOU didn’t do much last season.

“We’ll find a way to utilize those guys because they’re good players,” said Howard, adding that Kolone is probably the best blocking tight end he’s seen at SOU. “We haven’t emphasized that position for a couple years because we’ve been waiting to develop the quality of player that we’re looking for. So, now we’ll be utilizing those packages more and more and that’s just diversifies the offense and makes us even more difficult to defend.”

Rucker (6-2, 205), a first-team All-American who led the Raiders last season with 109 tackles, anchors a defense that Howard predicts will be the best since he took over SOU in 2011. Those high hopes stem from the fact that six starters and a host of key backups return, bolstering a unit that aged well last season, holding then-No. 2 Baker and then-No. 1 Morningside to season-low point totals in the playoffs.

Woods (5-11, 280), a junior, had 55 tackles and team-highs of 7 ½ sacks and three blocked kicks last season, and he’ll be joined up front in SOU’s 4-3 base defense by senior Jacob Proul (6-2, 285) and junior Kalan Hoedl (6-0, 240). Junior defensive end Armando Gauger (6-1, 245) started during SOU’s playoff run last season and finished with 38 tackles and 2 ½ sacks. He’ll start from the first whistle this season and will be joined by redshirt sophomore Sean Rogers (6-5, 230), senior Colin Davis (6-3, 235) and redshirt freshmen Sage Delong (6-5, 230) and August Forrest III (6-4, 230). Rogers, who had 24 tackles and four sacks last season, is a likely starter.

“(Woods) is really hard to run up inside on and really keeps those offensive linemen off the linebackers,” Howard said.

Gage (6-2, 210), a redshirt sophomore, and junior outside linebacker Isiah Carter (6-0, 210), a third-year starter, are the headliners in SOU’s linebacker corps. Mylz Blake (5-10, 200) and Tyson Cooper (5-11, 215) will also see plenty of action for a unit that will be trying to overcome the loss of Oshay Dunmore, last year’s high-profile transfer. Dunmore, whose previous stops include the University of Oregon and Illinois State, broke his right foot during fall camp and is likely out for the season.

Rucker and redshirt sophomore cornerback AJ Cooper (5-9, 160) are the most accomplished players in SOU’s secondary, but senior strong safety Nathan Torres-Walker has seen plenty of action as a backup the last three years, and junior Keegan Lawrence has proven athletic enough to transition to strong safety after rushing for 446 yards and five touchdowns last season.

“You always talk about how championships are won by the defense and offense puts people in the stands and makes it exciting,” Howard said. “We’ve been slowly, every year, recruiting kids that can play on this defense, always wanting speed on defense and aggressiveness on defense. And it starts off with the guy on the back end, Julius Rucker.”

Sophomore Marcus Montano will kick and punt for SOU a year after he ranked second nationally in scoring among kickers (102 points).

At first glance, the Raiders should relish an opportunity to open their season at Eastern Oregon — SOU has won five straight at Community Stadium and swept the season series last season. But Howard is quick to point out that the Mountaineers have made the in-state rivalry an exciting one, if not square (Howard’s Raiders have won seven of nine from Eastern).

Last season, Trosin came off the bench to lead the Raiders back from a 35-14 deficit in Ashland (they won 38-35), and in the regular-season finale SOU beat EOU 48-37, in La Grande.

The keys?

“They lost Byron Benson, who was really the best cover corner in the Frontier Conference,” Howard said, “so losing Benson and losing (running back) Jace Billingsly, it’s like losing Austin Dodge. So we’ll see who they put in those spots, and see our receivers go against their secondary and our linebacker corps against their run.”

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