Southern Oregon University football coach Craig Howard says the first day of football practice last Saturday was a lot like Christmas morning.

“You’re opening up your presents when you see who the new players are,” he said. “And you also see how the veterans have grown up and gotten better. So I always love to get started.”

In those terms, it’s safe to say Howard got everything he wanted this Christmas — a rocket-armed senior quarterback in Austin Dodge, who’s poised to shatter several national passing records; an experienced, deep offensive line and wide receiver corps; and a defense that returns play makers at several key positions.

In short, Howard has assembled the best, most complete team of his four-year tenure, one that he fully expects to contend for the NAIA national championship.

Not that there was any mention of that Saturday at the SOU practice field behind Raider Stadium, where 125 players gathered and began preparing in earnest for the Raiders’ season opener Aug. 30 at Menlo College.

And how did they look? Actually, a lot like a team that amassed 590 yards and 47.5 points per game last season — fast, aggressive, deadly.

There were the familiar wide-receiver screens. There were some stretch plays. And of course, there were some bombs. A lot of bombs.

Some worked, some didn’t. But the execution was a notch or two above where it was at this time last year, says Dodge, because SOU’s off-season commitment was off the charts. While many of their peers took a few months off or worked a summer job, Dodge, his backups, 14 receivers and a few running backs and defensive backs stayed in Ashland to work out the kinks and develop chemistry. In all, he estimates, 48 players sacrificed their summer for the good of the team, the most to make that commitment since Howard took over the program in 2011.

For Dodge, who’s on pace to become the NAIA’s all-time leading passer this season, that meant throwing five days a week, meeting with teammates in a classroom three days a week and running three days a week.

“So, it was a packed summer,” said Dodge, who’s passed for a mind-boggling 11,643 yards and 102 touchdowns in three seasons. “It was like going through spring ball again. There’s no time off. But, with this sport, if you want to be great you’ve got to put in the time, put in the effort.”

The reward, he said, is being ready to go on Day 1.

“For coming in for the first day, we’re in midseason form with a lot of the starting guys and that’s a great place to start your first day of camp,” he said.

Howard agreed.

“We weren’t installing plays today,” he said. “We’re running full speed, getting after it. And it’s because you’re a veteran team, because guys stayed over the summer and worked out. It’s not a typical first-day practice. It’s a lot of the experience showing and it’ll show up during the season, too.”

Overall, the Raiders return 10 of 11 starters on offense, including the entire offensive line and the top eight receivers. That’s key for an offense that throws the ball as much as the no-huddle, spread Raiders, who lined up in mostly four-wide receiver sets Saturday.

Dodge already ranks fourth all-time in NAIA passing yards, right behind Jon Kitna, who starred at Central Washington before starting a long career in the NFL that included a stint in Seattle. Dodge needs 1,746 yards passing to become the NAIA’s all-time leading passer, and 18 touchdown passes to top everybody in that category as well. At the rate he’s going — he’s averaged about 400 yards and four TDs a game over the last two seasons — Dodge will probably own both records by mid-October.

“He’s one of the most dedicated, committed guys you’ve ever seen,” Howard said of Dodge. “People don’t realize. He’s not just a gifted athlete, he really works. The great ones do.”

As the Raiders worked out Saturday, their voices were almost drowned out by the clatter of construction — dump trucks unloading huge piles of gravel and earth movers flattening it out at Raider Stadium, which is undergoing a major renovation that will include a new synthetic playing surface. It won’t be ready for the Raiders’ home opener, Sept. 6 against Carroll College, which was ranked No. 1 in the Frontier Conference preseason coaches’ poll. So the Raiders will instead play the Saints at Ashland High’s Walter A. Phillips Field.

The Raiders, who tied Rocky Mountain for second in the conference last season at 7-3, were picked third in the league’s preseason poll. If the Raiders felt slighted by the poll, they did a good job hiding it Saturday.

With three weeks to go before SOU’s season opener, senior linebacker Heston Altenbach said the only thing the Raiders are focused on is getting better.

“We don’t worry about (coaches’ polls) too much,” he said. “We know what we can do. We just have to be able to execute. Everybody always picks us low, but we just come back. We have to fight to be able to prove that we are better because right now we haven’t fired a shot.

“We believe we’re better, but we gotta go out there and show it this fall.”


Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or