'Keep it fresh, keep it fun'

The mind-boggling statistics are nice, as is the attention gained by a senior quarterback, Austin Dodge, who’s essentially rewriting the NAIA record book.

But all Southern Oregon University football coach Craig Howard really wants is for the Raiders to appreciate what they have. Which, he believes, may prove to be something special.

“We’re going to try to have as much fun as we can and enjoy every moment,” he said Thursday, two days before SOU is scheduled to kickoff its highly anticipated 2014 campaign at Menlo College. “Keep it fresh, keep it fun. This is a great group of guys. As long as we stay humble, hungry and healthy we’ll have a great year.”

The Raiders and Oaks, fresh off a season-opening loss to Eastern Oregon, square off at noon Saturday at Atherton, Calif.

For Southern Oregon, ranked third in the Frontier Conference preseason coaches’ poll and 22nd in the NAIA preseason Top 25, Saturday’s game represents its lone tune-up for next week’s showdown with defending league champion and perennial favorite Carroll College.

The Raiders’ expectations are sky high, and for good reason. The offense that averaged 590 yards and 47.5 points per game last season returns 10 of 11 starters, and the defense returns most of its key ingredients and added some potentially game-changing athleticism in the secondary.

Plus, Howard is quick to point out, for the first time since he arrived in Ashland in 2011 the Raiders will be fielding a roster that’s been completely hand-picked by the current regime.

“These,” he said, “are all my guys.”

While the Raiders are counting on the defense stepping up, there’s no question that it’s the team’s no-huddle, bombs-away offense that will get top billing when the team takes the field for the first time Saturday.

Dodge, with his 13,388 passing yards and 102 touchdown passes, is the headliner, but SOU also returns one of the top offensive lines in the country, the nation’s leading receiver (Ryan Retzlaff) and a running back in Melvin Mason who went off for 236 yards against Sacramento State.

If the 6-foot-3 Dodge stays healthy — a decent bet since the offensive line has surrendered less than one sack a game over the last two seasons — he’ll likely go down as the most prolific passer in NAIA history. The records within his reach include career passing yards, career touchdown passes, career completions, career passing attempts and total yards gained.

Add to that the fact that the Raiders will field a more complete receiving corps than the one they rolled out a year ago, and you have the makings of what could be an epic swan song for a QB who has attracted NFL scouts to the SOU practice field.

“We're at least two deep at every position now, so there are no excuses,” Dodge said. “The individual records are pretty cool, but it's all about whether or not we can all get a (championship) ring.”

Retzlaff, a senior from South Medford, led the nation in receptions last season and will share the ball with a host of talented teammates. The other starters are younger brother Matt Retzlaff, deep threat Dylan Young and the versatile slot Jeremy Scottow. The Raiders, who try to run as many plays as possible and substitute liberally, also will utilize receivers Sean McShane, Blakelyn Birks, Teran Togia, Adonis Griffin and 6-foot-6 Portland State transfer Victor Dean.

“They’ve worked hard in the offseason,” Howard said. “They didn’t sit back and rest. They’re better than they were last year, so the sky’s the limit.”

The offensive line, which Howard believes may be the strength of the team, will benefit from the return of center Ronald Rylance, who missed last season with a foot injury. His return means that Max Proudfit can return to his natural position at guard, fortifying a line that also includes North Medford alum and first-team all-conference selection Drew Gibson at left tackle.

Running behind that wall will be Mason, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior, sophomore Sean Tow and true freshman Keegan Lawrence, last year’s Oregon Gatorade High School Player of the Year from Sherwood.

“I think everybody on our offense has a lot of confidence, which is the way it should be going into a game,” said the 6-foot-6, 285-pound Gibson. “Everybody’s been playing with each other for a long time and everybody trusts each other, and we’ve been through this scheme for a long time so everybody has confidence. We’re not cocky going into the game, but we’re confident in ourselves.”

Defensively, the Raiders are led by senior defensive end Daniel Breaux, a four-year starter, senior linebackers Heston Altenbach and Laurence Calcagno, redshirt sophomore linebacker Mylz Blake and senior defensive back Dustin Fretwell.

Calcagno led the Raiders with 71 tackles to go with three sacks and an interception last season, while Breaux had 46 ½ tackles, including 11 for losses, and three sacks.

"(Breaux’s) the leader," SOU defensive coordinator Berk Brown said. "He's not only helped lead guys, he's really committed himself to getting ready for a big senior year and his play has improved dramatically."

The Raiders have made some intriguing upgrades to their defensive backfield, but it’s unclear how many will be available when SOU takes the field Saturday (Howard says may be dealing with eligibility checks until right before kickoff). Jaylenn Hart is back two years after appearing in eight games in 2012 then transferring away, and SOU has added a pair of Portland State transfers – Karrington Jones and Tyler Rogers.

With the added depth and increased athleticism, Brown is hopeful that the Raiders can do a better job than they did last season at keeping opposing offenses off the field. In 2013, SOU surrendered 440 yards and 31.7 points per game.

"We're way more athletic," Brown said. "A little bit greener, maybe not quite as experienced as a group, but we're way more athletic. I would say we got the right transfers; they're open to the way we do things, they're ready to contribute and they're a pleasure to coach."

Menlo will be coming off a 45-27 loss to Eastern Oregon, but Howard is quick to point out that the Oaks led 27-16 late in the third quarter before the Mountaineers stormed back to win going away.

Menlo features a quarterback, Wade Hawkins, who’s a dangerous with his feet as he is with his arm. Hawkins completed 19 of 34 passes for 235 yards and also scored on a 47-yard run against Eastern.

Howard isn’t worried, however. And like always, he’s more focused on the Raiders’ execution than he is with what this week’s opponent will bring to the table.

In short, Howard can’t wait to see what the Raiders can do on the field against somebody other than the SOU scout team. And he’s pretty sure the final product will be worth the wait.

“They’ve had the best fall camp that we’ve had since I’ve been coach,” he said. “All our guys know the system and they’ve worked really hard. They’re ready to play football.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.




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