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Raiders defense is out to prove itself

ASHLAND — For a unit as unproven as the Southern Oregon football team’s defense, maximizing prep time during preseason camp was even more essential than usual. Due to wildfire smoke that has smothered the Rogue Valley in recent weeks, that didn’t happen.

Jerome Souers could therefore be forgiven for a sense of uneasiness ahead of his first game as the Raiders’ defensive coordinator, but it isn’t there. Twenty-one seasons as head coach of Northern Arizona University and eight before that as defensive coordinator at University of Montana probably help: “I’ve had new defenses before,” he understated.

More than that, after enduring a family tragedy and seeing his team wait out a lost season last fall, his gratitude for the opportunity at hand seems to have won out.

“First of all, I’m absolutely thrilled to be part of this, and I’m sure of one thing: I’m going to have fun with it, and these are some really wonderful student-athletes who have stuck through a lot to still be around so I want to make sure they have fun with it too,” he said. “I feel honored to be here, and I don’t say that lightly, and these coaches and players have been awesome about supporting my transition into this deal. It’s been a tough year so this is just a great opportunity to reengage at a lot of levels.”

Souers and the Raiders will be provided a clean slate after they ranked near the bottom of the Frontier Conference in both yards and points allowed in 2019.

Nine of Saturday’s 11 projected starters saw at least some action that year, but most remained in the breaking-in phase when they last left off.

“Absent some prep time, we’d like to keep things as simple as possible for now and just execute,” Souers said. “These early games when you don’t really know your opponents — or even ourselves that well, yet — there’s going to be some sorting out that takes place and it could get a little dicey. Normally by now you’d have a lot more information to make decisions, so we’re still trying to put together a defensive personality that fits our guys, but the buy-in and process has been really fun and exciting.”

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: All-Frontier Conference defensive tackle Tre Holmes brings with him 12 1/2 career sacks and 17 tackles for losses into his senior season, and his time as a starter dates back to when the Raiders led the NAIA in turnover margin in 2017.

They hope to have another impact tackle in JoN’Mae Wafford, a junior transfer from Foothill C.C. (Calif.) who totaled 20 tackles for losses and 75 total in two seasons there. Redshirt-freshmen Braeden Yee and Ika Ngauamo are currently slotted in as the backups.

On the ends are three more players with starting experience for the Raiders: seniors Nick Kernaghan and Tua Laolagi and junior Alejandro Sanchez. Like Holmes, Kernaghan debuted for SOU four years ago. Taye Courtney joins the rotation as a sophomore after two successful seasons at Siskiyous C.C. (Calif.).

All told, the group is the defense’s most experienced and will be relied on to anchor a 4-3 base as it evolves over the course of the season.

“That’s the focal point, the tip of our spear,” Souers said. “We got a lot of guys there who have been around a long time and can hopefully settle us down, but that’s about the only position where that’s the case for now.”

LINEBACKERS: Jake Regino first earned the starting middle linebacker spot two years ago and provided stability by appearing in all 11 games as a sophomore, recording 66 tackles.

By the end of the year Marve Nyembo was starting alongside him as a freshman, and they’ll both resume their spots Saturday. Bryce Kasch, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior, is the other projected starter on the outside, having last appeared on the field for Yuba C.C. (Calif.) in 2018, when he averaged more than eight tackles per game and amassed 15 for losses in an all-star campaign.

Sophomore Murphy McDowell will back up Regino after playing a sizable role as a freshman and totaling 25 tackles with 4 1/2 for losses. On the outsides, redshirt-freshman Willie Te’o and junior transfer Tarik Moore are both set to make their Raider debuts in their second seasons with the program.

“Our inside seems pretty solid and I think our outside guys are really athletic linebackers but they don’t have a ton of playing experience,” Souers said. “They’re really fast, but they’re so fast they tend to over-pursue a bit at times and need to learn how to play hard with leverage. We just have to take that talent and make it functional.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Several of the Raiders’ young defensive backs were thrown into the fire out of necessity in 2019. By the final week, seven of the eight backs listed on the two-deep chart were underclassmen.

The bad news: they were often overmatched at that point. The good news: many are back, and they’ve done some growing up since then.

“I’m really pleased with how the secondary is coming along,” Souers said. “I think we’re really deep in talent. Sorting out everyone’s strengths and weaknesses is just going to be a process.”

On the corners, sophomore DeShawn Craig returns after recording his first collegiate interception and getting a taste of a starting job in 2019. He and junior Stokes Botelho will both take on larger roles, and another returner, sophomore Cente Borja, is in the mix as a backup.

Junior transfer Greg Thomas Jr. of Laney C.C. (Calif.) will give the Raiders a different profile at 6-4, and redshirt-freshman Dyllon Daniels has made a strong impression early.

Another key starter is back at safety in senior Devin Holden, who ranked fourth on the team in tackles (50) and had an interception in 2019. Sophomore Seth Miller, after tallying 17 tackles in six games as a true freshman, has earned the other starting job.

To open the season, they’ll be backed up by redshirt-freshmen Nolan Rinefort and Kehdon Fletcher.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouthern Oregon University head coach Charlie Hall talks with his team during a recent practice at Raider Stadium in Ashland.