Without context, Craig Howard's description of Kalii Robinson earlier this season may easily have been interpreted as a backhanded compliment.
"He was the greatest scout team player I've ever seen," Howard said of the Glendale Community College transfer.
But to know Robinson's journey at Southern Oregon is to understand the sincerity of Howard's praise.
The senior linebacker transferred to SOU prior to his junior season, showed tremendous promise while racking up 48 tackles in 2010 — that was good enough to rank fourth on the team despite playing mostly as a reserve — then, as far as casual Raider fans could ascertain, promptly fell off the face of the earth during the entire 2011 season.
Was he hurt? Was there a character issue? Did he clash with Howard's new coaching staff?
None of the above. Instead, said Howard, Robinson simply wasn't holding up his end of the bargain in the classroom, a problem which had to be remedied before the 6-foot, 190-pound gamebreaker would be allowed back onto the field on game days.
Howard delivered the tough-love news to Robinson during a meeting prior to the 2011 season, Howard's first as SOU's head coach. It was an emotional talk. Tears were shed.
But in the end, Robinson decided to stay at SOU, hit the books and continue to practice in the hope of finishing strong in 2012.
Since then, he's done nothing but impress Howard.
"He never missed a day last year," Howard said. "A lot of guys would quit and go back to Los Angeles. Well, he never missed a practice. He was there every day, practiced every day as hard as any guy on the team — we just had to hold him out."
This year, Robinson is making up for lost time. Heading into Saturday's game against Dickinson State, he leads the Raiders (1-1) and is tied for second in the nation with an average of 12.5 tackles per game. Robinson also has two tackles for losses and a forced fumble as his play has been one of the few bright spots for a Raider defense that's surrendering 36.5 points and 559 yards per game.
Howard is pleased, but hardly surprised.
"I knew he was going to be good this year," Howard said. "He's a real thoroughbred — good enough to play inside and strong enough, but also fast enough to go out and cover receivers. You don't have to worry about him on passing downs, and he's also a good blitzer."
In other words, he's the kind of player that the Raiders could use more of this season, starting Saturday against Dickinson State (1-2). The opening kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Raider Stadium, where the Raiders will be making their 2012 Ashland debut after hosting Montana-Western three weeks ago at Medford's Spiegelberg Stadium.
The Raiders will be trying to right the ship following a disastrous performance by their defense two weeks ago at Rocky Mountain. Playing their first-ever Frontier Conference road game, the Raiders were burned to the tune of 52 points and a mind-boggling 676 yards. Rocky Mountain quarterback Bryce Baker did most of the damage, completing 41 of 51 passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns.
Howard doesn't expect the old-school Blue Hawks to be nearly as pass-happy on Saturday as the Battlin' Bears were on Sept. 8.
"Dickinson State will test us physically and will try and run the ball down our throat," Howard said. "They're kind of one of those throwback teams. I-formation, isolation plays, toss sweep. They have an 80 percent run-on-first-down ratio."
Myren Moore leads Dickinson State with 210 yards rushing, and Presley Straub has rushed for 135 yards. Dickinson State quarterback Dave Velasquez has completed 39 of 87 passes for 486 yards and four touchdowns.
The Raiders expect a heavy dose of Moore and Straub on Saturday, but Howard says SOU's focus over the past week and a half has primarily been its own play — specifically, the Raiders' ability to bring down ball carriers in one-on-one situations. Have they made any progress?
"I guess we'll find out," Howard said. "We've got to tackle well. One of the problems at Rocky Mountain was that we just did not tackle well, so we got back to practice and we went back to the fundamentals.
"When players come your way, you've got to tackle, because if you don't tackle teams are going to (score) no matter what you do "… I think we'll play better in all areas. They are not happy with the way they've played — I can tell, and the effort in practice reflected that. Now they have to prove that they have improved."