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Raiders begin preparations for new-look spring season

ASHLAND — Charlie Hall can, at long last, see the light at the end of the tunnel.

That means there is a season to plan for again after months of waiting and uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the Frontier Conference to postpone its fall slate of games. And it’s something that is quite welcome around the Southern Oregon University football offices at Raider Stadium.

Hall and the rest of the Raiders coaching staff and players found out last week just when their 2020-turned-2021 spring schedule starts: Feb. 27 against Rocky Mountain College (Mont.) in Ashland. It is the first game in a conference-only schedule that will run seven weeks.

“It just helps with planning, with preparation for our players, what type of strength and conditioning we need to put forward,” Hall said. “We just want to peak at the right time, and now with the shortened season at least now we know how much work we need to put in, how much recovery time we’re going to need and what we can do when we come back in the wintertime in regard to the preseason buildup in January.

“There’s a season. The kids are excited, we’re excited and we can have a football season and then we can worry about the next season that happens 90 or something days later.”

SOU, which finished 4-7 in 2019, now knows that football will in fact be taking place following a summer full of starts and stops that ultimately led to the Frontier Conference tabling the 2020 fall season until the spring of 2021.

Hall said there were discussions within the conference of playing all Week 1 games at a neutral site, namely a NCAA FCS school that has a dome. But, because no agreement could be reached, the conference now has some teams that will play four home games while others have three.

SOU has fallen in the group that has three home games.

After their season opener in Ashland, the Raiders head on the road to face rival Eastern Oregon and Montana State-Northern. SOU returns home for a March 20 matchup with Montana Western before another set of back-to-back road games against Montana Tech and College of Idaho.

SOU, which was 2-3 at home a season ago, finishes up the 2021 spring schedule against Carroll College (Mont.) at Raider Stadium.

“It’s great to have a home (game for the) opener,” Hall said. “Montana Western, another home game, is one of the tougher teams in the conference and Carroll is always going to be a tough team. Having those two teams at home is a plus for us. But us having four road games is tough.”

Hall said the toughest part of the season being delayed has been the discussions with seniors who would have certainly played in the fall and have now been forced to make a choice. He noted that some have decided not to play this spring — most notably linebacker Collin Crown, who was SOU’s leading tackler in 2019.

Most of the seniors who have elected not to return for the spring season are on defense, according to Hall, adding that starting quarterback Wyatt Hutchinson will be back for his senior season.

“They’re disappointed not to have that senior season in college like anybody would,” Hall said. “That’s the sad story of losing some of those kinds of players that have a lot of experience for us.”

While there are NAIA schools playing football this fall, the national playoffs will get underway April 17, with the national championship game scheduled for May 10 in Grambling, Louisiana.

“All of those steps, there will be challenges no doubt,” Hall said. “Obviously, there is going to be a temperature change as compared to when we come to preseason practice in August. There will be a light shortage and it will be a lot darker earlier, so we will have a few practices under the lights just to get our work done.”

Official practices in preparation for the 2021 spring season are set to begin Feb. 1. Before then, though, SOU and all other Frontier Conference teams will continue their respective offseason training programs.

For the Raiders, that’s an interesting proposition knowing what the current state-mandated COVID-19 protocols are for full-contact sports like football and basketball.

Hall joked that “It’s easier to say what we can’t do right now.” While other SOU sports teams like volleyball and soccer can do a lot of the drill work they’re used to, albeit with a twist due to the safety restrictions in place since they are low or mid-contact classifications, the same can’t be said for the football team.

Per the current rules, the Raiders can’t do any kind of scrimmaging, they can’t tackle another player in a drill and their linemen are not allowed to block in practice.

Essentially, every single member of the SOU football team is prohibited from any kind of contact whatsoever.

What does that mean they can do then?

The Raiders will continue their strength training program in small groups, as well as positional group work during practice. Hall noted that SOU will begin the process of getting his players back into pads this week, with subsequent 7-on-7 and situational work without the tackling — or any other kind of contact — in the future.

“So much of football is assignment oriented and not always about physicality, so even if we have 11 guys on the field we can line up in different formations or do something with a fast pace or let the defense align and make their call, snap the ball and just take your steps and go to the next situation,” Hall said. “You know, trying to play a real football game but without making the play because so much happens before the snap anyway.

“All those communication things, I don’t want to lose that just because we can’t have scrimmages.”

Regardless of the current restrictions of what they can do at practice, the Raiders’ eyes are now trained on late-February — which, after months of waiting, is a welcome change during a completely unpredictable calendar year.

“There’s a new routine, and they’ve done a pretty good job of that,” Hall said. “But, at the same time, we have little control once they leave the stadium, so we try to convince them to be vigilant and show respect for the process and if we really want to have a season, really want to be able to do things with everybody here, everybody is counting on each other.”

Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or dpenza@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.

Southern Oregon University quarterback Wyatt Hutchinson will return for his senior season, which has been pushed back to the spring of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mail Tribune file photo)
Southern Oregon University head coach Charlie Hall and the Raiders open the 2021 spring season on Feb. 27 against Rocky Mountain College. (Mail Tribune file photo)