Howard starts to put his fingerprints on Raiders

As clichés go, spring is a time for renewal and change. Sometimes it's gradual, but for the Southern Oregon University football team, change isn't on the way. It is here.

New head coach Craig Howard has the Raiders up and running (and running, and running) as he attempts to make over a once proud program that has fallen into the depths of mediocrity over the last decade.

On the offensive side of the ball, the remake starts with the pace. Howard is implementing his up-tempo, no-huddle offense that helped him dominate the high school ranks in the state of Florida. And fans who watched the University of Oregon's magical run to the BCS Championship game a few months ago will notice the pressure a constantly attacking offense places on opposing defenses.

"We're looking to wear down other teams," Howard said. "We want our guys running to the ball, running at the other team, and getting them worn down. And when they're tired we're lining up again ready to go."

The key to implementing these changes starts with practice. And during the spring, everyone is running everywhere, coaches included.

"We want to practice the way we are going to play the game," Howard continued. "If we practice slow we play slow. Now we are getting into the habit of constantly going fast. We can take time to slow it down during meetings and film study."

And it appears to be working. Players look more vocal and excited for the change. Coaches are, too.

"Nobody is being given a starting job because they were here last year," said linebackers coach Berk Brown. "It's a fresh start for all of our players to really get out here and show us what they can do."

Holdouts from last season, Brown and running back coach Greg Stewart, can be seen sprinting through drills and challenging players to improve. Laughter breaks up the monotony of practice as Stewart sprints down field, telling his players they can rest when they catch him.

On defense the Raiders are moving away from a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, into a more Howard-esque mentality of attacking and swarming the football.

"The nature of our offense puts a lot of pressure on the defensive unit," said Brown. "So we have to do what it takes to get off the field as soon as possible. Guys are looking to take the ball away, looking for that big hit, and swarming all over the field."

Right now isn't the time to identify who is going to be "the man" at each position, the coaches say. It's really about introducing the players to the program's new philosophy.

And more than the X's and O's of the game are changing. For the first time in a long time, there is a palpable buzz surrounding the program.

Howard has that magical "it" factor, according to Brown — the charisma and personality that compels other people to gravitate toward him and buy into what he is selling.

"I can't explain what 'it' is," said Brown. "But it's very obvious from the get-go he loves these guys and really wants what is best for them. Not that it wasn't that way before, but it just compels people to want to play for him."

One of Howard's greatest challenges is re-branding Southern Oregon University.

"I keep saying this isn't Ashland University," he said. "This is Southern Oregon University."

That means reaching out on campus and across the Rogue Valley, from Grants Pass down to Ashland, and beyond the border down into Redding, Calif.

"We are focusing on our State of Jefferson," Brown said.

Howard's focus is on creating a program people from all over southern Oregon and northern California can call their own.

"We want people to be willing to drive a couple hours to come see their boys play," Howard added.

And the Raiders have hit the recruiting trail hard, adding talent from Los Angeles to Seattle and everywhere in between. They've even reached out west, to Hawaii, for the talent that may have been overlooked in recent years.

Starting this season the Raiders will wear "RV" decals on the back of their helmets, a nod to Fresno State's famous "V", as homage to the Rogue Valley that surrounds the campus.

This spring the Raiders are practicing Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4 p.m. at the SOU practice fields adjacent to Raider Stadium, with scrimmages every Saturday at 4 p.m.

In an effort to reach out to the broader Rogue Valley community, the Raiders will have a kids clinic and scrimmage at 4 p.m., April 23, at Grants Pass High School, and again at 6 p.m. April 29 at Spiegelberg Stadium in Medford.

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