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Howard era set to begin at Southern Oregon

From the first day he arrived in Ashland in February oozing positivity and touting the latest fad in college football, the spread no-huddle, Craig Howard knew that in the end his vision for Southern Oregon — "I want to "… win the NAIA national championship," he said after accepting the job, "and I think we can" — must be validated on the field of play.

Since that time, Howard has taken steps to "change the culture" at Southern Oregon. He talks about the "love on the football team," and the importance of teammates backing up one another, no matter what.

"Some coaches don't ever mention that word [love], but we talk about it quite a bit," he said.

He's also trying to reclaim the Rogue Valley for Southern Oregon University. The letters "RV" are printed on the back of every SOU jersey this season, Howard's subtle way of saying, hey, we're in this together.

Then there's his offense: four wide receivers on every play, mass substitutions to maintain fresh speed, nary a huddle in sight. Yes, you've seen it before, but Howard boasts that his last team, Columbia High School of Lake City, Fla., forced referees to call time-outs just to keep up.

So Howard is promising a change of pace and a new attitude. But after Tuesday's practice, he also acknowledged that it will take more than off-the-field changes, an exciting style of play and a positive vibe to turn around a program that's won only 15 of its last 47 games. It will take wins, starting today, when the Raiders begin the Howard era at Montana Tech.

"New coach, new uniforms, all that stuff is fine and dandy," Howard said, "but ultimately when you win the game they're singing in the locker room and if you lose the game they're crying in the locker room. Success breeds success, and these guys haven't had it for the last couple years down here. So it's important that we have some success on the field."

Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. local time, noon Pacific, at Butte, Mont.

Southern Oregon's offense will look plenty different, but two familiar faces may provide most of the firepower: quarterback Mike McDonald and running back Brandon Baldwin. Both seniors, the duo — SOU's only returning starters on the offensive side — led the Raiders to a 2-1 start last season before McDonald broke his leg in a home loss that was devastating in more ways than one. The injury cost McDonald his season and sent the Raiders into a tailspin from which former head coach Steve Helminiak could not recover — he was fired after the season, his fifth.

McDonald was presumed out for at least a year and probably more but, in a comeback that shocked even Howard, recovered in time to make preseason camp, where he eventually won the starting nod over Chris Kammel and A.J. Palazzolo, among others.

McDonald's knowledge of the offense, leadership and savvy were the difference, but Howard hasn't ruled out rotating quarterbacks to give opposing defenses a different look.

When McDonald drops back, which he will do a lot — "We're going to throw the football a bunch," Howard said — he'll have plenty of options, including Baldwin, who will play the "super back" position. That's Howard's unofficial label based on Baldwin's many responsibilities, which will include a heavy dose of running, receiving and blocking.

"He can't just be one dimensional," Howard said.

Can Baldwin, a 5-foot-11, 195 slasher, handle it?

"He's beautiful for it," Howard said.

McDonald looked equally well suited to a spread-type offense last season. A natural roll-out passer, he used his legs to get out of trouble and proved very accurate on the short to intermediate passes.

This season, many of those short passes could wind up in the hands of 5-8 junior Mike Olson, who Howard compares to New England Patriots' super slot Wes Welker.

"He runs great routes and he catches everything he touches," Howard said.

Shane Kirkpatrick (6-4, 190), Cole McKenzie (6-2, 185) and speedburner Patrick Donahue (5-11, 185) are the other starting wideouts, providing McDonald plenty of targets, and decisions to make. If he's worried about the responsibility of guiding a new, complicated offense at breakneck speed, he's doing a good job hiding it.

"I think come game time, it's all just going to click," McDonald said. "It's clicking out here against what we think (Montana Tech) is going to be running and it's just going to be another day at the office (Saturday). I'll get out on the field and start slinging that thing around to open receivers."

On defense, the Raiders will rely heavily on their four returners: converted running back now linebacker Mike Springer (5-11, 225), tackle Juwuan Brown (5-9, 282) and senior safeties Drew Nobles (5-11, 190) and Austin Cantrell (5-9, 185).

SOU's defense, says Howard, will be as aggressive as its offense.

Cantrell agreed.

"We're an extremely aggressive, fast defense," he said. "We're undersized at some places so we're making up for it with speed and aggressiveness. That's all you can do."

But could the pace of SOU's offense take its toll on the defense? Nobles doesn't think so.

After all, he said, the Raiders' defense has been forced to prepare at the same speed in practice, turning their preseason camp into one very long conditioning drill.

"No one is going to run as fast or as hard as our offense is running against us," Nobles said.

As for Montana Tech, Howard is staying away from making any predictions, especially heading into a mystery game. Montana Tech today will also be playing its first game under a new head coach, former University of South Dakota defensive coordinator Chuck Morrell.

"Until you unwrap the presents, you don't know," Howard said. "I haven't seen (Montana Tech) in a game, so it's hard to tell "… because you're going in blind."

Tidings sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com

Southern Oregon football coach Craig Howard watches as running back Brandon Baldwin run through traffic during practice on April 26. The Raiders face Montana Tech today.