A tough first line of defense

With just days remaining before Southern Oregon kicks off its 2009 campaign, a lack of experienced skill players on the offensive side of the ball remains no secret.

That's why the Raiders will lean on their defense — in particular, an experience-heavy front line — to take some of the pressure off a scoring attack that will likely take time to develop.

Southern Oregon opens the 2009 season Saturday at 1 p.m. when they host Eastern Oregon.

Senior Will Watson, a 2008 All-Independent Team selection, anchors a seasoned defensive line that returns five players in the starting lineup at one or another time last year. The 6-6, 260-pound defensive end recorded 39 tackles last year, including 3.5 for losses and two sacks.

"As good as I feel about our offensive line, our guys have an extremely tough time with Will in practice," head coach Steve Helminiak said. "He's an explosive guy that really gets off the ball and is one of the strongest guys on the team. They don't make a whole lot of guys like him at our level."

Defensive tackle Dan Harvey, now in his fifth year with the program, started every game a season ago while tallying 27 tackles. Joining him will be seniors Courtney Robinson and Sunni Ali, both part-time starters last year. Ali finished 2008 with 40 tackles and three sacks, and his 85-yard interception return highlighted Southern Oregon's second game against Sacramento State.

"You've got four guys on this unit who made some significant contributions last year, so we're really excited about them, but we're also expecting a lot," Helminiak said. "It's very similar to the offensive line situation."

Junior Jarrod Moroni, a redshirt in 2008 after playing two seasons for the Raiders, is also expected to contribute and add to an already experienced offensive line.

"This is a much more family-oriented group than we've had since I've been here," Moroni said. "Our focus this year has been to pick each other up and cut the selfishness out, and it's really changed the whole feeling here for the better."

Helminiak has also been impressed by true freshman Juwuan Brown, a 5-9 defensive tackle from national high school power Long Beach Poly (Calif.). Brown is expected to contribute right away rather than taking the typical redshirt year.

"Most of these guys are tall and lean, but Juwuan is a shorter, thicker dude," Helminiak said, "but man, he has great quickness and has gotten better every practice. Coming from Long Beach Poly to here is a big change for a kid, but you can see his play keep improving as he's gotten more comfortable."

Collectively, the line is looking forward to its first test this weekend, when Watson and company will finally be able to mash helmets with opponents rather than teammates.

"We feel like we set the tone up front, and our expectations have changed a lot," Watson said. "Come Saturday I think you'll see a big difference in this team, and we're really looking forward to showing it."

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