After months of uncertainty, Raiders open preseason practice
ASHLAND — The Southern Oregon University football had looked forward to a time like 9:45 Thursday morning for nearly 16 months.
It was time to practice again.
It was time to prepare for a season again.
“For so long, we barely even knew if we were going to have this day,” SOU defensive lineman Phoenix Cooper said. “So many times things kept getting stopped and started, shut down and opened back up again, so we were just at a point where we didn’t know what was going to happen. As soon as we got the news we were going to officially have a season, this was the day. ‘August 5, August 5,’ that’s what we were doing.”
Thursday’s first practice was one that everybody had been anticipating, but ultimately was only a fraction of what the Raiders’ new-look coaching staff was hoping to accomplish due to the smoky conditions in Ashland.
SOU head coach Charlie Hall quipped that he’s used to those types of conditions by now as he begins his sixth season in charge.
Simply being out on the field — albeit through walkthrough-like drills since the players did most of their conditioning work inside Lithia Motors Pavilion — was more than Hall and the rest of the Raiders have been able to say for much of the pandemic.
“It’s a mixed blessing — the season is finally here, practice is finally here, but as you can see behind me there’s nobody on the practice field,” said Hall, whose team was picked to finish fifth in the Frontier Conference this season. “We don’t want to do a lot of cardio work with the smoke and air quality. We’re making the best of an always-challenging situation these days.”
On top of his head coaching duties, Hall has taken over as SOU’s play caller on offense this season, replacing longtime offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht. Thursday was also the chance for a pair of new coaches, defensive coordinator Jerome Souers — who was hired a month before the pandemic started after 21 seasons as Northern Arizona’s head coach — and offensive line coach Tim Davis, to get to work with the team.
“These are seasoned veteran guys who bring a lot to our players,” Hall said. “Just for them to get used to a new voice, a new way of doing things.”
Hall described his team as in a great place mentally despite all of the uncertainty they’ve been through over the last year and a half.
The return of football just seemed to have that effect on his team.
And it’s easy to understand why.
The Raiders have not played an official game in nearly two years since they faced Montana Western on Nov. 16, 2019. Since that day, it’s been starts and stops, hopes for a new season coming and going, with a 2020 campaign canceled and then SOU choosing to opt out of the Frontier Conference’s spring campaign back in mid-February.
But the return of another August — and, unfortunately, smoke from wildfires — greeted the Raiders Thursday morning as they stepped onto the Raider Stadium field with their sights firmly set on their 2021 season opener at Rocky Mountain College in Montana on Saturday, Aug. 28.
“We’ve been going through a lot the past year, year and a half,” quarterback Trent Banner said. “We lost a lot of brothers, we’ve welcomed new brothers in and they’re buying into the process. With all the smoke, all the COVID stuff, it’s just another obstacle that we have to get through. I wouldn’t want to go through it with any other people right now, though.”
As part as SOU’s campus-wide plan for students to return to classes this fall, all of the players — as well as the entire coaching staff — had to be fully vaccinated before reporting earlier this week.
During Thursday’s practice, a handful of players were wearing masks underneath their helmets, while most coaches had masks on when talking in close proximity with a player or another member of the staff.
“It’s a little bit anticlimactic to not kick (fall camp) off in the right way,” Hall said, “but we’re still hungry and we know this will change so we’ll be ready.”
According to Hall, Banner will begin training camp as the Raiders’ starting quarterback. After injuries forced him into duty as a running back in 2019, Banner is now back under center full time. He also saw time at quarterback two years ago, completing 18-of-41 passes for 304 yards.
Banner, who was originally recruited to SOU by the late Craig Howard, was one of six quarterbacks going through drills at Thursday’s practice.
“Trent is our QB1 — there’s no doubt about that,” Hall said. “I think just the time he’s spent here and the investment he’s made, he’s deserved that right. We’ll give the other guys their opportunities to make the plays they need to make and get on the bus at least for the first game and go from there.”
However, Hall did say that there’s a group of quarterbacks behind Banner that will be vying for playing time and the backup job during camp.
That list includes former Crater standout Matt Struck, who comes to SOU after stints at Idaho State and Missouri State. Kaeden Frazier also transferred in from the state of Idaho after playing a year at the University of Idaho, while Blake Asciutto was part of Hall’s recruiting class in the spring of 2020.
“Matt has had a great career in the higher levels of football — he was a starting quarterback at Idaho State in the Big Sky (Conference), was a grad transfer at Missouri State and played for them at the FBS level,” Hall said. “(Frazier’s) only a freshman, so has some good upside for his future. Blake Asciutto is a freshman quarterback that we recruited last year and had a really good spring.
“So that (quarterback) room will be really competitive and I’m excited about that because, I think, with that competition rises all of the other things in our offense right now.”
Competition might as well be the name of the game this fall as the Raiders prepare for their season opener in three weeks.
Hall said he’s had nearly 60 players leave the team since the last time the Raiders played a game. Some of them were seniors who were hoping to play last spring but didn’t want to extend their time in school any further, while others were freshmen who were recruited in 2020 and have since left the program.
All in all, it adds up to a lot of competition for spots in the depth chart no matter if it’s as a starter or a backup.
“Something we’ve been struggling with over the summer is our position depth, and now that’s not an issue,” Banner said. “Now it’s just competition and bringing the best out of everybody and inspiring others to be here on time and do the right thing every day.
“I think whoever works the hardest and whoever is in their playbook the most, the results are going to show on the field and it’s going to be there for the coaches to see.”
Above all else, just the appreciation to be on the field and preparing for a season is something that just about everyone at SOU can appreciate.
It’s been nearly two years, after all.
“Honestly, it means the world,” Cooper said. “So many seniors didn’t get the chance to play (last year), they didn’t get the chance to have that last dance and their last season. Just for everyone who got the chance to stick through it, it honestly felt like we were living the dream and a dream come true.
“The energy is definitely, definitely different. I can tell everybody kinda has a chip on their shoulder. We got our year taken away from us, and everybody is coming back like they have something to prove. The players, the coaches, everyone is coming out here like they’re locked in and ready to go.”
Reach Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @penztopaper.