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Raider offense set to fly again

ASHLAND — In a Frontier Conference that is as up-for-grabs as ever, the 20th-ranked Southern Oregon University football team’s ability to put points on the board is still a safe bet.

Even with an all new offensive line and a reconstructed running game that is unlikely to boast a featured back, ninth-year offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht and company have earned the benefit of the doubt.

Since their run in the Frontier Conference began in 2012, they’ve been first or second in conference scoring every year, they’ve ranked top-five on the NAIA leaderboard in passing offense five times, and they’ve never faltered with a multi-year starter at quarterback.

SOU has one of those again in junior Wyatt Hutchinson. His receiving targets, according to Fasnacht, should routinely stretch to eight deep. After seeing relatively pedestrian production for stretches during 2018 — the Raiders’ average of 403 yards was the team’s lowest in seven years, though they still had the 30th-best scoring average in the nation — the idea is to bring back the fireworks.

“In terms of where we are right now and what we did during the spring, offensively we look as good as we have in any year,” Fasnacht said. “We have enough vets in the right spots to stretch teams vertically again, and that’s who we’ve always been. When we’re good vertically, we can dictate tempo and have a chance to be special.”

QUARTERBACKS: Hutchinson, in his third year with the team and second atop the depth chart, is a breakout candidate if history is an indicator. As a sophomore he went for 224 yards per game on a 56-percent completion rate, threw 11 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions, and added a hair under 50 yards an outing with his legs.

However, his top performances were the last two of the season, when he totaled 662 passing yards with five TDs and a single pick on the heels of a four-game losing streak.

The precedent for major jumps from first- to second-year starters in Fasnacht’s system is especially encouraging. Hutchinson’s predecessor, Tanner Trosin, went from averaging 203 passing yards to 347 on his way to Frontier offensive player of the year status. Trosin’s predecessor, Austin Dodge, went from 244 to 423 as the eventual NAIA player of the year.

“Wyatt’s the key to the whole deal, really,” Fasnacht said. “He took some big steps last year. When we put more offense on his plate after the 4-0 start, he struggled a little bit but bounced right back. His athleticism, command of what we’re doing now and ability to throw accurately are pretty exciting.”

Chase Knutz, the sophomore backup, appeared in two games last season and completed 8 of 14 passes for 66 yards and a touchdown.

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: In 2018, SOU had 16 completions of 30 yards or more; a year earlier, they had 45. As much as chemistry with Hutchinson figures to be a reviving factor, so will 6-foot-6 senior Jordan Suell’s return to full strength.

After posting 863 yards and nine TDs as a sophomore, as well as a team-best 21 yards per catch, Suell missed all but the final four games of 2018 due to injury and was eased back into action.

Senior Jason Shelley, SOU’s other top outside target, will begin the season recovering from an injury of his own but will bring career totals of 1,375 yards and nine reception TDs upon his return.

In the meantime, the Raiders will introduce junior Khalil Hudson and freshman Bryce Goggin to the outside following redshirt seasons, while John Barnes III and Shane McLaughlin will have expanded roles after seeing the field sparingly as freshmen.

Replacing Bronsen Ader — SOU’s top receiver the previous two seasons — will be 6-2 senior Parker Randle (20 catches, 213 yards in 2018), who has moved to the inside, and sophomore Christian Graney (seven catches, 73 yards).

“It obviously makes a big difference having Suell back in the mix full time, and Shelley has had a great camp,” Fasnacht said. “They’ll have a lot of yards but eventually teams are gonna have to double off the other guys, and we feel really solid with all eight of those receivers. It’s a deep, talented group.”

At tight end, senior Addison Whitham, is back. He’ll start the season at No. 2 on the depth chart behind a converted quarterback, South Medford alum Craig Contreras Jr.

RUNNING BACKS: The Raiders lost Rey Vega to graduation, but senior speedster Quaderius Clemmons is back after averaging 5 yards per carry on 63 tries last year. He was to be the No. 1, but an injury in camp has kept him out.

Even before the injury, Fasnacht’s plan was to spread duties around. Fifth-year senior Austin May has been third among SOU tailbacks in carries two years in a row, compiling 386 yards in that span, and is back.

Trent Banner moved in out of necessity from quarterback following some untimely departures, and the 6-foot, 200-pound sophomore has been a quick study and pleasant surprise.

Hykeem Massey, a junior transfer from Mt. San Antonio CC (Calif.), is the biggest addition at a shifty 5-7. He picked up 6.4 yards per carry and over 50 per game during his first two collegiate seasons and was an all-conference performer as a sophomore.

“It’s going to be a true running back by committee situation,” Fasnacht said. “They all bring some different things to the table but our receivers can run it as much as the running backs, and we’ll be able to spread the ball around a little more that way.”

OFFENSIVE LINE: Out of all the linemen the Raiders will turn to, junior Joshua Middleton is the only one who topped a depth chart last year. Despite that fact, after Raider quarterbacks absorbed more sacks in 2018 (28) than any season in the last decade, Fasnacht says Hutchinson has “barely been touched” during camp.

“It’s all new, but it could be our biggest improvement,” he continued. “That group is pretty cohesive, and it’s deep enough that I feel really good about where we’re at right now.”

All five listed starters have at least been with the team for multiple seasons. Middleton (6-4, 285), a junior, will step into the left tackle spot with all-conference potential, and senior Isaiah Tharp (6-4, 295) is at the other tackle spot but capable of playing all five positions after getting a healthy load of snaps last year.

Sophomore Connor Maloney (6-1, 255) has moved to center, and junior Calvin Watwood (6-3, 275) and sophomore Tyler Coates (6-2, 280) have filled in at the guard spots.

Fasnacht believes that Arizona Western transfer Amu Auwae (6-5, 305) could be as talented as any tackle he’s coached at SOU, while juniors Dallas Hatter (6-1, 285) and Will Hutson (6-3, 295) and redshirt-freshman Ben Robbins (6-5, 260) are also listed as backups.

Southern Oregon University Redshirt Sophomore Wyatt Hutchinson winds up to throw downfield against Montana-Western at Raider Stadium on Saturday.(PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)