The Southern Oregon University Raiders may have another two weeks to prepare for their season opener against Montana Tech, but when it comes to motivating his team, head coach Craig Howard appears to be in midseason form.
Howard didn't mince words when asked about the Raiders' place in both the national (14th) and Frontier Conference (third) coaches' polls last week, questioning a perceived lack of respect and pointing out sizable jumps made in the national polls by two of SOU's league rivals — Carroll College and Montana Tech.
"It's amazing," said Howard, who guided the Raiders to the national quarterfinals in 2012, his second season in Ashland. "It just shows that we're not respected and that people believe we're a one-year wonder and this program won't last. They believe that the reason we had success last year was because of Cole McKenzie and Patrick Donahue and Michael Olson, and those guys graduated and we're not going to be very good."
Howard felt the Raiders should have been ranked higher in the league poll since they return 14 starters — six on offense, seven on defense, plus kicker/punter Colin Amsler — off a team that tied Montana Tech for the league title. And he doesn't understand why SOU fell nine spots — the most significant drop in the nation — from its No. 5 spring ranking in the national poll.
"What happened from spring to summer to drop us nine spots?" he asked. "We didn't even play a game."
Eventually, Howard laughed off the snub, joked that SOU has won the Frontier Conference every year it has been eligible and finally acknowledged that, yes, Carroll earned the benefit of the doubt by winning six national titles between 2002 and 2010. One of Howard's goals is to help the Raiders acquire the same kind of respect.
"It doesn't matter where we're ranked in the preseason," he said. "It's where you're ranked postseason."
To that end, Howard and company are busy figuring out, among other things, who will replace the aforementioned receivers, a competition that's as important as any in SOU's fall camp. McKenzie, Donahue and Olson combined for 254 catches for 3,980 yards and 34 touchdowns during last year's record-shattering season, but all three graduated, meaning junior quarterback Austin Dodge must find a new set of targets.
So far, two players have stood out as strong candidates to bear at least some of that burden: Matt Retzlaff, a redshirt freshman out of South Medford High, and sophomore tight end Clay Sierra.
Retzlaff, whose older brother Ryan, a junior, is also vying for playing time, will likely open the season as SOU's starting "Y" receiver, the right slot position held by Olson last year. Retzlaff knows SOU's no-huddle spread offense well and has improved both his speed and strength in the offseason. "He really looks good," Howard said.
Sierra, SOU's sixth-leading receiver a year ago with 24 catches for 329 yards and five TDs, is expected to become a bigger part of the Raiders' offense this season after emerging as a deadly safety valve in 2012. At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Sierra provides a massive target with soft hands. He broke out with five catches for 118 yards, including an 85-yard catch-and-dash against Eastern Oregon, but didn't see a lot of balls thrown his way down the stretch. That will probably change because Howard believes Sierra is simply too dangerous a weapon to leave on the shelf.
"When you have a true tight end that has that kind of speed and size and the ability to catch the ball, you've got to use him," Howard said. "In a practice drill he caught a pass over the middle and nine guys bounced off him. So he's got the power to run over you and the speed to run away from you."
As for the other pass-catchers, Howard said the battles for playing time have been spirited and have yet to reveal definite starters. There are a few front-runners, however. Teran Togia, a 6-1 sophomore who was a backup last year, has been playing with the starters, while Ryan Retzlaff (6-0, 185) and Dylan Young, a 6-3 junior transfer out of Feather River College, are fighting for snaps at the "Z" receiver spot.
Battling to take over Donahue's "X" receiver duties are Blakelyn Birks (5-10, 200), a University of Hawaii transfer, and Donald Drisdom (5-10, 180) out of West Los Angeles Community College.
A few darkhorses may also work their way onto the field this season, including the smallest player on the team. Kermit Knight (5-6, 160), a redshirt freshman from Stockton, Calif., is having a great camp, and true freshman Austin Schaffer (6-0, 200), a converted quarterback now vying for time in the slot, has shown why he was the Gatorade prep player of the year for the state of Idaho.
"All the skill guys are going to be new," Howard said, "but there's good talent and good competition and right now I'm really pleased with them."
After roles are ironed out, the Raiders' receivers will look to sync up with Dodge, whose coming off one of the most productive seasons in NAIA history. Howard says that will be a work in progress.
"Well, it's developing," he said. "You don't just graduate those guys and it hits off again, but the chemistry right now with Clay Sierra and Matt Retzlaff is wonderful.
"The new guys, they're fitting in, they're learning. In fall camp, you just add about six plays a day and your mind's racing, your body's sore and tired, you're learning all this stuff and your confidence isn't there yet because you're still trying to say, 'OK, what is the play?' But pretty soon, you're going to know the play then execute the play."
Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-776-4469, or email firstname.lastname@example.org