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SOU set for annual spring football game

Despite finishing only a game out of first place in the Frontier Conference last fall, the Southern Oregon University football team is eager to turn the page starting with the annual Red and Black Spring Game at 6 p.m. tonight at Raider Stadium.

New challenges await the Raiders, whose 6-4 record — a season removed from their third national semifinal appearance in four years — was marred by a four-game midseason losing streak that dropped them from a No. 2 ranking to out of the NAIA Top 25. They finished with back-to-back wins, ending in a four-way tie for second place, but the end meant the departure of a large group of seniors that included nine of their 10 all-conference selections.

In total, 31 players are gone, but 68 from the same roster returned to take part in the last month of practices along with 12 incoming transfers.

“It seems like there are a lot of positions still up for grabs, especially compared to my first two springs, so it’s been fun to evaluate and see some new voices develop,” SOU head coach Charlie Hall said. “There are definitely some challenges, and we’ve had our share of injuries, but they’ve shown some signs and we feel good about how this group is coming along.”

The festivities will continue through Saturday, when the 10th annual Southern Oregon Football Alumni Club Golf Tournament will take place at Eagle Point Golf Club. Sponsored again by Oak Tree Northwest Bar and Grill, the 36-team, five-man scramble will get off to a shotgun start at 8 a.m., and check-in begins at 6:30 a.m.

Prior to the spring game, SOU Housing will host a free student tailgate on the Lithia Motors Pavilion side of the Raider Stadium grandstand. The tailgate will feature food, games and music for all SOU students in attendance.

Due to injuries and some positional shortages, the Raiders will ditch the split-squad format they’ve used in recent spring games. Instead, they’ll go offense versus defense, awarding points to the latter unit for stops, turnovers and sacks.

“I’m looking forward to it because sometimes you dilute the product when you split the teams up,” Hall said. “This will be a good chance to see a complete offense against a complete defense and give people a better idea of what we’ll look like in the fall.”

What to Watch —Offense

With a few of his top receiving options back, ninth-year offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht is ready to watch quarterback Wyatt Hutchinson build on the strong work he produced - particularly at the tail end of 2018. The junior-to-be, who was in a fight for the job at this time last year, ended his first season as a starter with his strongest outings, averaging 331 yards with five touchdowns and one interceptions in SOU’s last two games. Entering his third season with the program, Hutchinson — who totaled 224 passing and 48 rushing yards per game — has continued to improve his command of the offense.

“He’s done a nice job of really establishing his position and he can be a top quarterback in this offense, but he also has a really talented group of receivers,” Hall said.

That group includes a healthy Jordan Suell, the 6-foot-6 target entering his senior season. After a breakout sophomore campaign, in which he pulled in 863 yards worth of receptions and a team-high nine touchdowns, Suell missed the first six games of 2018 due to injury. He’s back alongside another one of the Frontier’s top wideouts, Jason Shelley, who has 1,375 career receiving yards to his name entering his senior season. Parker Randle is another senior the Raiders will rely on in the slot, while Christian Graney and Khalil Hudson have also impressed this spring.

SOU’s rushing attack — which produced 4.5 yards per carry — lost its top man in Rey Vega, who was responsible for 15 total touchdowns last season. But speedster Quaderius Clemmons — who averaged five yards per carry and netted 621 all-purpose yards — has taken over the feature role and has a reliable complementary piece in Austin May. The bigger concern is on the offense line, where the Raiders lost five starters. According to Hall, junior Joshua Middleton (6-4, 285) and senior Isaiah Tharp (6-4, 295) have established themselves as the top players in the group.

What to Watch —Defense

The losses of four All-Frontier performers on defense can be at least partially masked with an up-to-par season from a dominant rotation on the line that features August Forrest III, Tre Holmes, Noah Johnson, Nick Kernaghan and James Porter. All five were part of SOU’s 2017 conference champion and national semifinalist team, and over the last two years they’ve combined to log 34 sacks — leading the Raiders to the top of the NAIA leaderboard in sacks game in both campaigns.

“They have a lot of experience, a lot of athleticism, and they have to be great moving forward for us to be successful,” third-year defensive coordinator James Gravelle said. “I could care less about leading the country in sacks; it’s about those guys doing their jobs and get everyone going behind them, because they’re going to be the backbone of what we do.”

Behind them, the Raiders are tasked with replacing a pair of four-year starters at linebacker, Tyson Cooper and Devvon Gage, who departed as two of SOU’s all-time leading tacklers. Their lone returning starter at the position is junior Collin Crown, who has settled into his role as a leader after recording 58 tackles including a team-high 10 for losses in his first season as a starter. Kenny Haney and Jake Regino, both entering their sophomore seasons, are fighting to replace Gage in the middle, while Nate Kuratli and Stanford Toloke, who both saw limited action in 2018, are battling for Cooper’s spot.

In the secondary, Luke Goins (37 tackles) is an incumbent starter at safety and Michael Chisley Jr. brings three years of experience to the corner. Gravelle foresees both of them being impact players, while William Brown and Cente Borja are in the mix at corner and Devin Holden and Xavier Smith will see increased snaps at safety.

Southern Oregon University Redshirt Sophomore QB Wyatt Hutchinson scrambles away from Montana-Western Defender, with assistance from teammate Quaderius Clemmons, at Raider Stadium on Saturday.(PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)