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New coordinators lead SOU into spring game

ASHLAND — The belief around the Southern Oregon University football team is that the Raiders weren’t as far away from the top of the Frontier Conference as their 3-7 record indicated last fall. The fact that they dropped their last three games by nine points combined amid key injuries would seem to back that up.

Closing that gap has been all about the details, and sixth-year head coach Charlie Hall and the Raiders are exploring them with two new coordinators — newly-promoted Austin Brown on the offensive side, and longtime high school head coach and collegiate assistant Neil Fendall on defense. They’ll make their debuts as leaders of those units when the Raiders play their annual spring game Friday at Raider Stadium. The Raiders take the field at 6 p.m. and begin offense-versus-defense situational work at 6:40 p.m.

Hall doubled up with offensive coordinator duties in 2021, but had hired Brown — previously an offensive graduate assistant at Oregon State — prior to the season with the intention of eventually handing off responsibility. The transition began in earnest when Brown took over play-calling duties for the Raiders’ season finale at Eastern Oregon.

“I have to admit, I spent all my life as an offensive coordinator calling plays at the college level and as a high school head coach, but it was challenging making that transition at this level while trying to manage defensive personalities and overseeing the rest of the operation,” Hall said. “I feel much more at ease now with Austin, and the players have responded very well to him.”

Hall brought in Fendall to replace Jerome Souers, who accepted the head coach position at Montana State-Northern. Fendall arrived at SOU after serving as the head coach at Bend’s Caldera High School last year and at Sisters High from 2015-21. Prior to those stints, he was a secondary coach at Cal Poly for three years and at Linfield for six. He has Rogue Valley ties, too, having been an assistant coach at Grants Pass from 1999-2006.

“Schematically, coach Fendall’s approach is similar to what we’ve done, but he brings in a whole new package of ideas and terminology,” Hall said. “There’s always going to be that transition period, but we have a good foundation looking ahead to fall camp and have put the players in situations that I think have increased their football intelligence.”

Hall has approximately 70 players in spring practice, 10 sidelined with injury and another 30 set to join the team this fall. The Raiders lost just 12 seniors after a rebuilding season, which came on the heels of a 2020-21 campaign wiped out by Covid-19 and started under a cloud of wildfire smoke that kept them off the field for the majority of preseason camp.

“In terms of personnel, there are still a lot of unanswered questions because of some of the injuries and not having the whole team here that we’ll see in the fall,” Hall said. “But we’ve also really been able to develop our depth and get some reps for the younger guys who essentially missed out on a year of them.”

OFFENSIVE CHECK-IN: In his first months as OC, Brown has been operating without the Raiders’ incumbent starting quarterback, Matt Struck, who is recovering from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the last three games of 2021. The offensive line has also been light on healthy bodies, but there has been no shortage of forward progress.

“It’s definitely been a learning curve for me, figuring out different ways to approach these guys in more of a leadership role, but they’re starting to believe in what we’re doing and have had some really good moments,” Brown said. “It’s a really talented group and I’m happy with where we’re headed, we just need to get some guys healthy.”

Blake Asciutto, who started SOU’s last three games at quarterback as a freshman, has been working with a receivers group that remains largely intact. The Raiders return their top four in receptions: Christian Graney (54 receptions, 449 yards, 1 TD), Bryce Goggin (51 receptions, 802 yards, 8 TDs), Ben Graziani (27 receptions, 304 yards, 2 TDs) and Adrik Lamar (16 receptions, 241 yards, 1 TD).

Goggin, an All-Frontier performer, is away from the team during the spring as a conference champion hurdler for SOU’s track and field team (and has been dealing with injuries of his own). Brown noted that Graney, Graziani and center Anthony Morales have stepped up their leadership in his absence, along with Struck, who remains vocal on the sidelines.

“It’s fun seeing guys emerge like that, and their confidence and maturity kind of rubs off on everyone else,” Brown said. “This is a hungry group and they really want to get better.”

The offense tailed off over the second half of 2021, failing to break 20 points over the team’s last five games. Brown is confident that a return to normalcy will turn that around.

“The biggest thing was a lack of preparation and just not getting to be on the field; we lost the ability to prepare for situational football,” he said. “So many games came down to the last few minutes, so we’re stressing putting them in those situations and improving our situational awareness.”

DEFENSIVE CHECK-IN: Fendall has a pithy way of minimizing the natural concerns that come with coordinator changes: Football is football, he says, everyone just explains it a little different.

“Anytime it’s new, there’s a growing process, especially with communication,” he said. “But even over the last week we’ve started to get more comfortable and hone in on things we’re doing well, and we’re playing faster and faster as we get more familiar.”

Fendall is keeping it relatively simple this spring, getting the defense accustomed to its base, four-man-front package and keeping the focus on evaluating. On that front, he likes what he sees.

The Raiders bring back a disruptive defensive line, led on the ends by Alejandro Sanchez (13 TFL, 9 1/2 sacks) and Noah Turnbull (7 TFL, 2 sacks). Taye Courtney has moved inside, joining JoN’Mae Wafford (7 TFL, 2 1/2 sacks) and Ika Ngauamo (6 TFL, 4 sacks), who is recovering from a knee injury.

Depth and experience also stands out at linebacker, where Muprhy McDowell (23 tackles) and Tarik Moore (17 tackles) will look to build on stellar seasons and Jake Regino - the team’s second-leading tackler in 2019 with 59 — has made his return from injury after missing all of 2021. All-conference corner Stokes Botelho (52 tackles, 5 interceptions) is back along with starter DeShawn Craig (21 tackles), and Seth Miller (35 tackles, 2 interceptions) is a returning starter at safety.

“Our strength as a unit is they really enjoy playing together, and that was evident right away,” Fendall said. “We don’t have a single vocal leader or two. We’re trying to develop depth to be in it for the long haul through the whole season, not clamoring to be the only guy or fighting over who leads.

“Front to back, we’re pretty athletic and everybody plays with a great intensity. We’ve gotten done what we wanted to, so we’ll let the kids go play and enjoy themselves on Friday and then we can turn the attention to getting game-ready.”

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouthern Oregon’s football team, led by head coach Charlie Hall, will hold its spring game at 6 p.m. Friday.