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SOU defense to get tested right out of the gate

Its first three assignments: a Big Sky Conference opponent in Sacramento State, the Frontier’s top returning passer in Eastern Oregon junior Kai Quinn, and the preseason favorite to win the conference in College of Idaho. If nothing else, it won’t take long to find out where fourth-year coordinator James Gravelle’s latest bunch stands.

There is reason to believe that SOU can keep up the pressure that has translated to 103 sacks over the last two seasons, more than any other NAIA team during that span. It’s led to the Raiders holding 17 of their last 20 Frontier opponents under 30 points — the only exceptions having occurred during their fateful four-game slide last season, when they gave up an average of 36.

The superior team speed and athleticism hasn’t gone anywhere. The leadership void left by players like Devvon Gage and Tyson Cooper, both perennial all-stars and four-year starters at linebacker, is, for now, the more pressing issue.

“You can’t replace guys like that,” Gravelle said. “Obviously we needed to make some big strides since we came out last spring with the guys we’re plugging in, and I think they’ve show what they’re capable of. We’re just ready to see who’s going to step up when the lights are on.”

DEFENSIVE LINE: Also among the Raiders’ notable losses was Sean Rogers, a staple at defensive end. His departure isn’t less alarming because of talent — he graduated as an All-American and in the No. 2 spot on SOU’s all-time sacks list — but because of the depth they possessed alongside him. Four linemen who were regular starters during the Raiders’ run to the 2017 NAIA semifinals are still around: seniors August Forrest III and James Porter, and juniors Tre Holmes and Nick Kernaghan. Another senior, Noah Johnson, was a valuable third-down pass-rusher with that group and is back after missing most of 2018 due to injury.

“That line is our backbone,” Gravelle said. “The main thing they have to do now is help our young linebackers out in keeping guys off them come game day.”

Holmes (31 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, five sacks) and Porter (32 tackles, five TFL, four sacks) are the incumbent starters on the interior, and they’ll be backed up by returning senior Gerald Greene and freshman Alejandro Sanchez, a transfer from Portland State. Forrest (21 tackles, three TFL, three sacks) and Kernaghan (15 tackles, three TLF, two sacks) provide more stability on the ends with Johnson, junior Tua Laolagi and transfer Angel Maldonado also established as capable rotation pieces.

LINEBACKERS: Cooper and Gage weren’t the only Raider linebackers capable of putting up gaudy numbers. During his first season as a starter, Collin Crown ranked second on the team in both tackles (58) and tackles for losses (10) on the outside. Now in his fourth year in the program, the 6-foot, 210-pound junior will be depended upon for more.

“He’s not only learned our defense, he’s running it,” Gravelle said. “He’s our leader, our mainstay in that back end, and I’m excited for him to help those young guys out.”

Those young guys include two individuals who will share the middle spot: Jake Regino, who recorded 11 tackles and four sacks as a true freshman last year, and redshirt-sophomore Kenny Haney, who will get his first shot at regular playing time. At the other outside position, redshirt-junior Nate Kuratli will step into a starting role ahead of a true freshman, Marve Nyembo, coming off a standout prep career at Sunset High.

“We’re going to play the hot hand, whoever it is,” Gravelle said. “Those first two or three games, you’re going to see a lot of mixing and matching and we’ll go from there.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS: After serving primarily as a backup and getting a handful of starts at cornerback over two previous seasons on the field, Michael Chisley Jr. is set to take on the responsibility of matching up with opponents’ top receivers. He was at his best at the end of 2018, recording a career-high 10 tackles at Montana Tech and pocketing his first career interception the next week against Montana State-Northern. Both he and William Brown — a redshirt-junior who will also go from backup to starter — give the Raiders considerable length at 6-1, but they’ll be asked to take on large loads with no previous collegiate snaps between freshman backups Cente Borja, DeShawn Craig and Cade Weaver.

“Chisley is going to have to be our lockdown guy,” Gravelle said. “William Brown is on his way up, too, and we’re looking forward to him gaining more and more confidence.”

At free safety, Gravelle believes he has another emerging leader in junior Luke Goins, who will be a second-year starter after totaling 37 tackles in 2018. He split time last year with junior Xavier Smith (14 tackles, one interception), who will take over as the other starter. In his third year in the program, Devin Holden has earned the right to be the first man off the bench, and Sacramento product Seth Miller is in the mix as a true freshman.

“With a lot of these positions, we’re not dealing with a bunch of veterans,” Gravelle said. “We’re just going to focus on keeping things simple and playing fast.”

Southern Oregon University defensive team celebrates after a huge third quarter turnover by Montana State Northern at Raider Stadium on Saturday. (PHOTO BY: LARRY STAUTH JR)