MEDFORD — Craig Howard gathered the Southern Oregon Raiders after practice Wednesday at U.S. Cellular Community Park and issued a challenge in the form of a question.
"What are we doing here, gentlemen?" he asked. "Are we a one-year wonder?"
The Raiders' head coach was referring to his team's surprising 2012 uprising, which included a Frontier Conference championship and a trip to the NAIA national quarterfinals. But the motivational speech could also be interpreted as a more specific directive, aimed at a position that could make or break SOU's 2013 campaign: wide receiver.
The Raiders obliterated every defense that got in their way last season while amassing 52.8 points and 642 yards per game, tops in the nation in both categories. Most of those yards — 449, or 122 more than anybody else — were gained through the air, as SOU quarterback Austin Dodge took full advantage of one of the best receiving corps in the country.
Now, most of those receivers are gone.
Southern Oregon's top four receivers from the 2012 season, including the nation's top two in terms of receiving yards (Cole McKenzie and Patrick Donahue), have graduated off the team along with running back Manny Barragan, who had 42 catches for 348 yards. In fact, sophomore-to-be tight end Clay Sierra is the only Raider with more than six catches — he had 24 for 329 yards and five touchdowns — to return. That significant loss of firepower begs the question: Can the Raiders duplicate last year's offensive explosion in 2013, or should fans expect a return to Earth?
"Well, time will tell," Howard said following Wednesday's practice. "It could be, you never know, because last year's team did the work and did the things necessary to do what they did. Will this team? They gotta do it. They gotta punch the clock."
So, who will be doing the punching? That's one of the questions that the Raiders are trying to answer during their ongoing spring season, which culminates with the Spring Game, May 3 at Raider Stadium.
Southern Oregon fans concerned about the Raiders' potential on offense would have enjoyed Wednesday's practice. During a full-pads scrimmage, Dodge showed off his laser beam accuracy and had no trouble finding open receivers all over the field. It's only April and SOU's season opener is more than four months away, but the impressive display of offensive precision seemed to highlight the versatility of the Raiders' spread no-huddle offense.
"It's always a challenge to get back to the same level we were at last year, but our coaches always preach to us every day, 2013 is a new year," said receiver Ryan Retzlaff, a former South Medford standout who is trying to earn a spot in the starting lineup for his junior season. "We can't worry about what happened in the past. We gotta focus on going forward."
"We don't replace them [McKenzie and Donahue]," added Sean McShane, who's in the running to take over Donahue's spot. "I mean, that's the thing that the coaches have put in our heads — we just gotta be ourselves out there. We all have our own abilities. We're not Pat Donahue and Cole McKenzie. We might not be able to run 50 yards down the field, jump up and catch it, but we all definitely have some skills that we'll be able to utilize out here for sure. And I think it first starts with everyone just playing together and being like a brotherhood."
Besides Retzlaff (5-11, 180), an outside receiver, and McShane (5-10, 160), Dodge will also be throwing to Sierra, sophomores-to-be Teran Togia (6-0, 180), Jeremy Scottow (5-9, 185) and Matt Retzlaff (5-11, 180), Ryan's younger brother.
Howard is excited about McShane's ability to fake-out defenders, and expects both Retzlaff brothers — Ryan on the outside and Matt on the inside — to develop into solid contributors.
Then there's Togia, who had only six catches for 60 yards last season but appears to be blossoming in the spring.
"He had a role on special teams and would go in there in the games when we were ahead, but he wasn't a primetime guy," Howard said of Togia. "Now that those other guys are gone, he's really stepping up. He's actually playing better now than he did last year, and he's the guy I recruited now. He didn't play as well when he was a backup, but now he's stepped into a starting role and he's making a lot of big plays, a lot of big blocks."
Ranked fifth in the Frontier Conference preseason poll, the Raiders came out of nowhere to set a new standard for bombs away offense last season. While SOU may have a hard time stretching the field vertically as much as it did last year, that doesn't necessarily mean less success when it comes to the bottom line: scoring points.
"You gotta give (last year's receivers) props, they put up high numbers," Matt Retzlaff said. "But you know what, we have the same quarterback and I feel like we have the same ability as those receivers. We just lack that experience, and we'll make up for it throughout summer camp, fall camp, and once this season hits we'll see how we do. But there's no doubt in my mind that we can go up another level from what they did last year."