Coming into his own

Heston Altenbach was a great high school athlete and may have ended up crunching opposing ball carriers for the Southern Oregon University football team anyway, but it never hurts to have somebody on your side putting in a good word, singing your praises.

Especially if that guy happens to be SOU legend Griff Yates.

Altenbach was a three-sport star at Coquille, a small logging town of about 4,000 residents situated between North Bend and Bandon, about 70 miles west of Roseburg, but like many small-town standouts he received little interest from college scouts. That is, until Yates, another Coquille native, decided to step in. Yates is not just any Raider alum. He smashed every major rushing record at SOU between 1996 and 1999 — many of those record were later broken by Dusty McGrorty, but Yates' single season total and single season average-per-rush marks still stand — and has already been inducted into the Raider Hall of Fame.

Turns out, the Yates and Altenbachs are family friends, so in the spring of 2010, Altenbach's senior year at Coquille High School, Yates decided to call the SOU coaching staff to say, "Hey, we've got this kid who's a great athlete "¦ just give him a chance."

SOU defensive coordinator Berk Brown, who was on then head coach Steve Helminiak's staff, said sure.

"It's hard to say no to a recommendation from Griff Yates," Brown said.

Four years later, Yates has proven to be nearly as good at identifying talent as he was at pulverizing defenses.

Heading into his senior season, Altenbach has emerged as one of the most important players on a defense that Brown believes is the most talented he's coached at SOU. Altenbach has been moved around since arriving in Ashland, first playing free safety and later a little quarterback for the scout team. But he's settled in at outside linebacker, where he ranked fourth on the team in tackles in 2013 with an interception, a fumble recovery and three forced fumbles.

Equally important has been Altenbach's leadership, which is as crucial as ever on a team that is as green as it is skilled.

"He brings a couple things, first a sense of calmness and leadership," Brown said. "He's the type of guy that can always keep his cool when things get kind of hectic, and he's a source for the guys to look to and kind of regain their composure because he knows what's going on."

That didn't happen by accident. Altenbach did not limit himself to football in high school and usually manned a position that demanded respect — he was a first-team all conference basketball player, a second-team all conference pitcher in baseball, and yes, a quarterback as well as a first-team all league defensive back in football.

Once he arrived at SOU, however, Altenbach's first goal was to fit in.

"Coming to college, you kind of take a step back," he said. "I was the low man on the totem pole. But this year is going to be my fifth (season) here and we'd like almost everybody to fill that leadership role in a certain way. I always try to encourage people and lead by example, whether that be in the weight room or on the field, and always give 100 percent. That's been my main goal, to lead in that way."

To Brown, that subtle shift has made a big difference.

"He's been a guy who was an extremely quiet young man to begin with, but we saw glimpses in his ability to lead as an underclassmen," Brown said. "We wanted to foster him into somebody who wasn't always going to be that quiet guy, but a man that could hold a room and speak up because when he talks, everybody listens."

It probably doesn't hurt that Altenbach has, as Brown put it, "grown into" his position at outside linebacker. Once a skinny freshman with good closing speed, Altenbach through countless hours of weight training has transformed his body into a 6-foot-2, 215 pound bulldozer which, thanks in part to his QB and DB background, comes equipped with outstanding instincts against the pass.

That's the sort of skill set that's necessary for Altenbach because in SOU's defense outside linebackers are more or less hybrid defenders who must be able to do a little bit of everything, from blitzing quarterbacks to dropping back into coverage.

Currently, with more than a few new faces, that SOU defense is a work in progress, but Altenbach sees great potential.

"The motto for our defense is we're an attacking and swarming defense that makes plays, and as of now we are that," he said. "Our coaches are getting on us for effort and we're all running to the ball with intention, we're getting picks, working out holes in our coverage."

Altenbach expects the defense to continue to improve until the finished product is rolled out for the Raiders' season opener Aug. 30 at Menlo College. Coming off a 7-4 2013 campaign that did not live up to the team's sky-high expectations, Altenbach says that the Raiders — ranked 24th in the NAIA spring coaches' top 25 poll — are eager to prove that they're legitimate Frontier Conference and NAIA national title contenders.

Altenbach credits head coach Craig Howard with bringing in a can-do attitude when he was hired to replace Helminiak in 2011. At the time, the Raiders were nearly a decade removed from their last playoff appearance and were hardly a blip on the NAIA radar. But that didn't stop the charismatic, confident Howard from saying that his spread, no-huddle offense was going to run referees ragged and that the Raiders would contend for a national title. Less than two years later the Raiders won the Frontier Conference championship and advanced to the NAIA quarterfinals for the fourth time in program history.

Altenbach admits that initially he was thrown off by Howard's boldness. Now, however, he believes, which is part of the reason why he can't wait for his senior season to begin.

Another reason: the team bond, which Altenbach says is as strong as ever.

"Right now, everybody's truly a family," he said. "We're looking out for each other, we have each other's backs, and that's what builds a strong football team."

Strong enough to live up to Howard's expectations?

"Coming from a small school I never had an opportunity to win a state title, so when I first met (Howard) I was like, who is this crazy old guy coming in here saying these things," Altenbach said. "(Howard) said, 'I need all you guys with me; you need to jump into the pool with both feet.' After that, he was my favorite guy. I actually believed that we did have a chance (at a national title) and I still do.

"It's an exciting time for Raider football."

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or

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