On the first play of the intrasquad scrimmage that wraps up every Southern Oregon football spring practice Wednesday, a Raider quarterback fumbled the snap, leading to an eruption on SOU's defensive sideline.

On the first play of the intrasquad scrimmage that wraps up every Southern Oregon football spring practice Wednesday, a Raider quarterback fumbled the snap, leading to an eruption on SOU's defensive sideline.

The defense recovered the ball, and as they jumped around and traded high-fives a voice could be heard above all others, screaming, "That's our ball."

Yes, it's only April, and Southern Oregon's 2009 season opener is still months away, but apparently that's not a good enough reason for the Raiders to dial down the intensity. And that's fine by head coach Steve Helminiak.

"It really is (intense)," said Helminiak, who's entering his fourth year at the helm. "They haven't had their helmets on since November and we really control how much banging they're going to do, so when they get the opportunity for those kinds of situations they're going to be more excited."

And, Helminiak explains, there are plenty of reasons for the Raiders to be excited. For one, several top-tier players who have held down positions for multiple seasons will graduate in June. That will create some position battles that didn't really exist before, which in turn makes SOU's four-week spring practice, which began last week, that much more competitive.

The practices culminate with the Raiders' annual Spring Game, set for 7 p.m., on May 1 at Raider Stadium.

About 70 players are practicing with the team this spring, including those Helminiak calls "midyear" players — transfers who moved to Ashland in the winter or spring. Essentially, the spring practices are "about finding out which players who redshirted have developed and are putting themselves in position to be contributors," Helminiak said.

Also, he added, it's an opportunity to introduce transfers to the schemes they'll be expected to execute next fall.

"And the third thing is," Helminiak added, "you tinker with things, making adjustments offensively and defensively and special teams-wise, trying to improve what you do."

Perhaps requiring the least amount of tinkering is the Raider offensive line, which returns all five starters from a 2008 team that averaged 111 rushing yards per game. Who they'll be protecting, however, has yet to be determined.

Four quarterbacks are competing for the starting job, including former North Medford star Ben Running, who left SOU following his freshman season back in 2006.

"He's actually done some coaching at Crater High," Helminiak said of Running. "He learned a lot from those guys and I think that gave him a whole new perspective, so we're really excited that he's back."

Also aiming to be the Raiders' starting signal caller is redshirt freshman Paul Sweeney, junior Kiel Trudeau and junior Blake Sutten.

So far, nobody seems to have an edge.

"To be honest with you, it's up for grabs for all of them," Helminiak said. "It could be any one of those four, and right now they're all on equal reps."

A few Raiders are already showing signs of being big-time performers next season. Junior defensive end Jarrod Moroni, sophomore wide receiver Vance Beach, junior defensive end Will Watson and junior free safety Akeem Jackson have all impressed Helminiak, as has the entire offensive line.

Helminiak hopes a solid spring will help bring the team together after last season's 3-7 campaign. What he's seen so far makes him optimistic.

"I'll tell you what, I think we're going to be a little more blue-collar," he said. "I felt like we made some tremendous strides my first two years here and last year there were really high expectations and it was a disappointing year because we felt we were a really talented football team. But it's not always talent. Sometimes it's an attitude and a team camaraderie has to exist "¦ and I think we forgot that a little last year.

"Now they understand how important it is to stay positive, stay focused and stay together."

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com