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Hall calling plays for new-look Raiders

ASHLAND — Between the long layoff, shifts in approach from new coordinators and turnover on the roster since last playing 21 months ago, there are elements of today’s Southern Oregon University football team that can make Charlie Hall feel like he’s around a brand new program.

The talent on the field belies that feeling, as do the credentials of those coordinators. Hall, in his fifth season as head coach, is now one of them, taking over the offense and reprising the role that once made him the NCAA Division 1AA Offensive Coordinator of the Year during his time at Northern Arizona University.

“We’re probably not going to be as tempo-oriented as we were in the past,” he said of his new offense. “We’ll rely more on multiple formations and motions and things like that to try to give ourselves an advantage, and I tend to be more balanced in the running game as opposed to being pass-first to set up the run. I like to take what the defense gives you, but we’re still going to throw the ball down the field, and the bottom line is that the key in any offense is to get the ball to your playmakers.”

Of those, Hall believes the Raiders are sufficiently equipped to be successful in the Frontier Conference. Aside from returners like quarterback Trent Banner, receiver Christian Graney and running back Hykeem Massey, it’ll just take some time getting familiar with them.

“Across the board, you’re going to find players who are as talented as we’ve had here, and we’ve had some great ones,” Hall said. “Right now we’re just trying to figure how to put the best pieces together.”

QUARTERBACKS: Trent Banner has taken a dizzying path to the job of season-opening starter. He arrived at SOU as a quarterback in 2017, converted to running back by the end of ‘18, and was summoned back to QB as an emergency starter for a team depleted by injuries by the end of ‘19. The former Foothill High (Calif.) star threw for 304 yards and gained 85 on the ground filling in that day despite the imperfect circumstances, and trust in him has grown since then.

Hall now believes Banner, a junior, is capable of being one of the Frontier’s top signal callers, but he’s been competing in camp with someone whose ability Hall holds in the same regard: Matt Struck, the former Crater High star who has transferred from Missouri State. Struck, a 6-foot-4 senior, threw for 20 touchdowns over 11 starts as a junior in 2019 at Idaho State. He arrived as a graduate transfer at MSU and completed 62 percent of his attempts (49-of-79) in seven games last spring with the NCAA Division I FCS program, making four starts. Now he’s reunited with Hall, who was the offensive coordinator when Struck played for the South squad in Oregon’s Les Schwab Bowl all-star game as a senior.

“Matt has a super talented arm and has come in and really pushed everyone,” Hall said. “It’s been beneficial for our offense and defense, and just great competition, but the person who has probably benefitted the most is Trent Banner because he’s stayed with Matt and really competed. That position has been really good all through camp and right now they’re both going to play.”

Hall wouldn’t call it a two-quarterback system but said Banner and Struck would both get snaps early as part of a rotation that “lets them push each other,” adding: “How sustainable that is, time will tell.”

RECEIVERS: Atop of the depth chart at the receiver positions are four Raiders who have been around since 2018 or earlier, making this group their most seasoned on the offensive side. Christian Graney, a junior standing at 5-11 in the slot, is one of them after transforming into a top-tier Frontier target in 2019. His 59 receptions ranked second among all conference receivers and he had a pair of 100-yard games, averaging 59 yards per contest.

“He’s been one of our best playmakers for a while and has picked things up impressively as we’ve pivoted a little,” Hall said. “He’s really talented and a leader of our team.”

The others will take their first stabs at starring roles. After a redshirt year, Bryce Goggin was primed to make his debut in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury, but showed he was back at full strength as a conference champion hurdler for the Raider track and field team last spring. At 6-3, he’ll stretch the field on the outside. Ben Graziani can play inside and out, having likewise waited patiently for his shot since arriving in 2018. And another one of SOU’s top track sprinters, Shane McLaughlin, should get an expanded role three years after recording his first reception for the Raiders.

“We’re certainly formatted to have a strong passing game with the quarterbacks and receiving corps we have in place,” Hall said. “We’ll try to keep our top guys on the field a little more for now but we can go pretty deep.”

RUNNING BACKS: Hykeem Massey, a 5-7, 185-pound senior who transferred to SOU prior to the 2019 season, will get the bulk of the handoffs early on. He led the Raiders in carries as a junior, demonstrating breakout potential with a 120-yard game against Rocky Mountain, and will be looked to for more consistency and an improvement upon the 3.6 yards he averaged over 100 attempts. He also totaled 19 receptions.

“Hykeem was solid in 2019 but he’s been really determined to get better,” Hall said. “He has really good hands and can have a big day.”

Eventually, the Raiders will get a considerable boost from 6-1 junior Avery McCuaig, who arrived fully formed last year via Butte C.C. (Calif.). The Canadian was one of California’s best junior college backs in 2019 when he registered 89 rushing yards per game, and across two seasons at Butte he posted six yards per attempt. The Raiders have been without him, however, since an injury took him out of practice last spring.

“He’s a super talented kid and he’s worked so hard for us, you have to force him off the field sometimes,” Hall said. “I’m excited for him to get back, and when he does, we’ll consider some two-back concepts.”

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Considering its lack of time together and a couple of key absences to this point in camp, the line is considered a work in progress. On a positive note, it’s been entrusted to coach Tim Davis, an alumnus of 16 bowl games who joined the staff — along with for NAU head coach Jerome Souers, now the defensive coordinator — in a coup for Hall last year.

Senior Tyler Coates (6-2, 280), in his fifth season with the team, is the veteran of the line, its new starting center, and a leader of the offense, according to Hall. Third-year redshirt-freshmen Brock Duyck (6-2, 280), a guard, and Hunter Geissler (6-4, 245), a tackle, will get their first starts. Senior tackle Tayadi Bush (6-5, 260) is a returner to the rotation. And reinforcements have arrived in the form of four transfers: guards Jacob Beckler (6-2, 295) and Anthony Morales (6-2, 275), tackle Raul Aldana (6-3, 300), and backup center Gustavo Mendez (6-2, 285).

“That’s an area that needs to jell more for sure,” Hall said. “They’ll be tested early, too, because Rocky has some talented defensive linemen.”

TIGHT ENDS: Hall’s attempts at getting the most out of his roster have led to two players, former receiver Jackson Clemmer and former defensive end Gabe Thomas, being converted to tight end.

“That’s maybe our biggest attempt at evolution, trying to use the tight end more,” he said. “We’ve obviously used it here and there in the past, but we haven’t always had the personnel.”

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouthern Oregon University's first football practice at Raider Stadium in Ashland earlier this month.