Switch to D suits Springer

Southern Oregon University defender Mike Springer scans the field and makes his reads. It's an obvious passing situation, since Webber International is down by five with about 15 seconds to go and the clock ticking.

At the snap of the ball Springer drops back into coverage, delivers a stiff shove to Webber International receiver Jamal Rodman then turns and sprints. A split second later the ball is fired down the middle of the field in Springer's vicinity, and like a well-schooled receiver he makes a diving catch while simultaneously turning his body to cut off the ball from the ground.

It's a great play, a game-saving play, made by a guy who last season didn't have to tackle anybody unless his quarterback threw an interception. Five games into his senior season, Springer's shift from offense to defense — a rare move in college football — has proven to be a stroke of genius.

"We wanted a leader out there," says SOU head coach Craig Howard, whose team, at 2-3, can get back to .500 today with a win over No. 17 Eastern Oregon at Raider Stadium. "We wanted a sideline-to-sideline kind of guy, and he just plays the game. It's just fun watching him, and he's always played that way — whether it's offense or defense, it doesn't matter. He gives 110 percent every practice, every game."

As Southern Oregon's middle linebacker, Springer spends three hours every Saturday in a vortex of violence, bashing ball carriers, slamming against lineman assigned to remove him, bumping receivers on their way out for passes and, in general, throwing his body with maximum precision and speed toward that imaginary line that separates a successful play from a dud.

Sometimes, the difference between success and failure is 3 or 4 yards, and sometimes it's less than a foot. More often than not this season, Springer has been on the right side of that line, willing the Raiders toward key stops.

That has especially been the case over the last two weeks. Attempting to overcome a miserable 0-3 start to the Howard era, Southern Oregon has picked up two straight wins and will be going for its first three-game winning streak since the 2003 season against the Mountaineers (4-1).

As the injury-plagued offense continues to search for consistency, the Raider defense has emerged as the team's surprising strength. Surprising because it surrendered 50 points in a season-opening loss to Montana Tech and 32 two weeks later at Willamette.

Springer says the turnaround began at Salem. The Raiders didn't exactly shut down Willamette's fly offense in the 31-9 loss — the Bearcats gained 415 yards — but Springer says the final statistics were deceiving because SOU gave Willamette extra possessions by turning the ball over four times.

A closer look supports that theory. The Bearcats picked up only 13 first downs, four fewer than the Raiders, converted just 3 of 16 third downs and were stuffed at the SOU 2 on a muscle-versus-muscle play in the first quarter.

The following week, SOU held Webber International to 10 points and 210 yards, and last week the Raiders limited then-No. 24 Menlo to 17 points and 262 yards.

"As a unit, we kind of decided just to fly around and have fun, hold each other accountable," Springer says of the recent surge by the Raider D. "We didn't like the fact that we were the weak link in the first week so we strived to be the stronger link of the team."

Though his contributions go further than statistics — "He's our emotional leader," says Howard — Springer has been the catalyst. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound wrecking ball leads the team in tackles (46), tackles for a loss (10) and is tied for the team lead in sacks (2 1/2) and interceptions (one). Not bad for a guy who started at fullback last year, finishing third on the team with 134 rushing yards on 43 attempts.

But it turns out that playing offense may have been the real adjustment. Springer says he's always preferred the defensive side of the ball and its more stripped-down requirements: toughness, instinct, anticipation.

"I've always been a linebacker — high school, a little bit of junior college (at Sierra JC)," he says. "They liked my downhill running ability when I came in (to SOU), so they decided running back. I've kind of wanted to play linebacker since I've been here and they finally let me make the move and I just kind of proved to them in spring ball that I could be that guy on defense."

Now, he will lead the Raider defense into a matchup that may be one of its toughest and certainly is one of its most important of the season. The Mountaineers' offense is one of the best, and most balanced, in the nation. It ranks in the top 15 in seven categories, including first in third-down conversions (52 percent), 12th in passing offense (242 yards per game), and 14th in scoring offense (36.4 points per game).

Springer believes the Raiders are up to the challenge, but knows that it will require SOU's best. That, he says, is something SOU opponents have yet to see. When it happens, he promises, people will take notice.

"We've yet to play a whole game as a unit, offense and defense," Springer says. "We've had highs and lows on each side of the ball. We've slowly progressed when it comes to playing as a unit and when we finally do (play a whole game), it's going to be scary because there are not going to be too many teams that can actually beat us."

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

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