The schedule is as tough as ever and there's a serious lack of experience at the quarterback position, but Southern Oregon head football coach Steve Helminiak feels pretty good about at least one aspect of the 2009 Raiders.
"What I really like is that I think that our seniors really understand their leadership role and what it means to be a cohesive team and that attitude is filtering down to the younger guys," Helminiak said following Tuesday morning's practice at the SOU practice field. "Instead of jumping on a kid when he does something wrong, instead of getting all over him, they're mentoring him along and trying to help them become better players. It's really helping out the overall attitude of the team."
Perpetually optimistic, Helminiak admitted he was concerned following last season, when the talented but "underachieving" Raiders, led mostly by a strong senior class, finished 3-7. This year's upperclassmen have some big shoes to fill. So far, they've been up to the challenge.
"We were very talented (last year) and they were good kids," said Helmiak, entering his fourth year at the helm, "but I really feel that this group understands the role that they're in really well. They understand the impact that they're having on their teammates."
The Raiders kicked off their grueling fall practice regimen Saturday. They'll practice twice a day through Aug. 21, hold an intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 22 and two days later will begin preparing in earnest for their Aug. 29 season opener against Eastern Oregon.
Saturday's practice, which included 100 players, was the first organized get-together for the team since early June and Helminiak was pleased to report Tuesday that most of the Raiders returned in great shape. Every Raider is put through a conditioning test upon their return, and Helminiak said that 93 percent of the returning players passed that test last week.
"That means to me that these guys were really doing what they needed to do," he said.
Things aren't getting any easier for the Raiders now that their offseason conditioning is officially over. It was 90 degrees in Ashland Tuesday as the team practiced in full pads, and while temperatures are expected to dip as the week goes on SOU players will basically be living and breathing football for the next two weeks.
That's fine by senior cornerback Akeem Jackson, who said the preseason grind, though taxing physically, ultimately brings the team together.
"This year, we have great chemistry as a team," he said. "Our focus is mainly sticking together as a team through hard times. Right now this is a grinding period so we're sore, we're tired, but we're pushing through it.
"This is a beautiful place, Ashland, Oregon," he added, "and we're all kind of scattered in dorms and houses then we all come out here on the field and strap it on and do what we love to do."
Besides ironing out responsibilities and learning the schemes, position battles are also a major part of preseason daily doubles. One crucial battle is at quarterback, where former North Medford signal caller Ben Running, who transferred to SOU from Eastern Oregon, is going head-to-head with Modesto Junior College transfer Chad Draper and freshman Paul Sweeney.
The man that wins that starting job should be in a position to do some damage, as the Raiders will return five starting offensive linemen plus standout receiver Vance Beach.
Though his team is only days into its 2009 campaign, Helminiak said a few Raiders have already stood out as potential impact players. That list includes three transfers: offensive lineman John Roy (Oregon State), running back Brandon Baldwin (Shasta College) and free safety Josh McOmber (Eastern Washington).
Helminiak hopes Baldwin, running behind an experienced offensive line, can bolster a running game that gained just 3.3 yards per rush and 111 yards per game in 2008.
"We're really excited about the things we're seeing right now (from Baldwin)," Helminiak said. "I feel very good about him."
Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or firstname.lastname@example.org