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Raiders set to begin spring practice today

ASHLAND — With the historic 2012 season in the rearview mirror, the Southern Oregon football team turns its attention to the 2013 season beginning with today's first spring practice.

The coaching staff signed a recruiting class of more than 30 players in February to join the team in 2013 as the Raiders look to build on the success of one of the best seasons in program history. Southern Oregon established an NAIA record by averaging 642 yards per game last year en route to a Frontier Conference co-championship and a top-five final ranking in the NAIA poll.

But head coach Craig Howard and his staff are ready to move ahead.

"We've had a great offseason and the players have worked extremely hard," Howard said. "Everything we accomplished last year is in the record books. We led the nation in about 16 categories and broke about 30 school records, but none of those carry over into this year. So we're starting fresh and we're excited."

The Raiders will participate in three practices each week for the next four weeks leading up to the annual Red-Black Spring Game on May 3 at 6 p.m. at Raider Stadium.

Practice opens today at 3:30 p.m. at the SOU practice field.

Beginning next week, the Monday and Wednesday practices will be at Medford's U.S. Cellular Community Park, with the team practicing at SOU on Fridays. Practices will run from 4 to 6 p.m. each day.

Each week of practice will conclude with a scrimmage as the Raiders will travel around the Rogue Valley. The first scrimmage will be April 13 at 8:30 a.m. at Medford's Spiegelberg Stadium.

The following Saturday, SOU will be at Mel Ingram Stadium in Grants Pass. That scrimmage will begin at 6 p.m. with a free kids clinic taking place an hour before.

The final two scrimmages will be at SOU, with one at 10 a.m. on April 27 leading up to the spring game, which will be preceded by a kids clinic.

The big question for the Raiders going into the spring is the offensive skill positions. Southern Oregon loses all four starting wide receivers, including 2012 NAIA All-American Cole McKenzie and fellow record-breaking wideouts Patrick Donahue and Mike Olson.

Justin Otaguro is also gone, as is 1,300-yard rusher Manny Barragan.

"The competition will be key to replace those guys," Howard said.

Fortunately for the SOU offense, continuity will remain along the offensive line and under center. All-conference lineman Drew Gibson, a North Medford product, leads a core of five returning starters, and unanimous all-conference quarterback Austin Dodge returns for his junior year after shattering numerous SOU program records with 5,076 passing yards and 42 touchdowns last season.

The Raiders return eight starters on defense, including second-team all-conference defensive back Josh Leff. Leff led the team and ranked among the NAIA's top 10 last season with six interceptions and 17 total passes defended.

Three graduating seniors will be tough to replace, however, as Kalii Robinson and Mike Seifert were two of the top three tacklers on the team, and Juwuan Brown earned first-team all-conference recognition after picking up a team-best eight sacks on the defensive line.

"We hope to see a lot of improvement on defense," Howard said. "Our defense was young last year. And we're going to see a lot of competition to see who the starters are on both sides, offense and defense."

Southern Oregon will have a difficult time matching the offensive output of last season, when the Raiders' 7,704 total yards were the second most in NAIA history. But with 45 letterwinners returning from a team that fell an overtime possession short of the program's first double-digit win total and national semifinal berth, the Raiders believe they still have plenty of room for growth.

The 2013 Raiders will have a target on their backs after surprising the Frontier Conference with a championship in their first year as league members.

"There's a lot of pieces in place, but every spring is like a jigsaw puzzle where we've got to put a team together and find out who the guys are who will be the next edition of the Raiders," Howard said. "It should be exciting and fun."