ASHLAND—After leading the NAIA in sacks and turnovers forced in 2017, an encore performance from the SOU defense would be welcomed by those who follow the program.
But the players have set their sights higher, and trying to outdo last year’s accomplishments has been the talk of fall camp.
The safety unit loses the most production from last year to this, as two all-conference players in Oshay Dunmore and Keegan Lawrence graduated.
For senior Tyler Dean and sophomore Luke Goins, winning the position battle was the easy part, it’s filling the shoes of last year’s stars that’ll be much tougher.
"Oshay and Keegan were phenomenal players here, and Ty Dean and I are stepping into some big shoes,” Goins said. “I know we both have the ability to fill those shoes and make everything happen."
"The biggest thing I'm working on is just trying to fill the shoes of Keegan Lawrence and Oshay Dunmore and being a leader of the team,” Dean said. “Helping the team out, getting the young guys ready for after I go because it's bigger than just me. It's about all of us. At a point, they're going to be the ones here in these shoes so the biggest thing to me is being a leader and helping them develop and become the players I know they can be."
Safeties coach James Gravelle says he has speed and smarts in Goins and Dean.
He views Dean as an extension of a coach out on the field, and Goins someone who helps the Raiders meet their “fastest team in the country” standard.
The goal might not be to replace last year’s individual production, instead mesh their skillsets and allow the unit as a whole to shine.
"The main thing for those two guys is to complement each other,” Gravelle said. “I think we have that. I think every year since being here as the safeties coach, we've had that speed guy, we've had that finesse guy who can line up everybody on the back end. I think that'll carry over again for this year."
Position battles were minimal across the rest of the defense.
The defensive line should again be a unit of strength for SOU, as it returns All-American Sean Rogers and former North Medford star Tre Holmes, who shined as a freshman.
Coached by Bryan Sander, who made the move from corners to the line this offseason, the group's depth should scare opponents.
As Rogers explains, it allows the starters to be fresh late in games.
“You have to rotate guys, you're not going to be able to play every down,” he said. “I know I can't play every down in a game, it's so tiring, just because it's six seconds of pure power, explosion, speed, you need a break. Instead of sitting for three plays and going back in, I can come off and sit for a series and fully expect that the next, second D-line, third D-line is going to go in there and they're going to make plays.”
Working our way back, if it starts with the defensive line, it ends with the linebackers.
The most productive unit on the field last year returns two of its three-headed monster. Tyson Cooper and Devvon Gage are as good as you’re going to see anywhere in the country, and now they’re blessed with the perspective of being seniors.
"Every day I try to come out and remind the guys that any second could be their last. I want to make sure that everyone doesn't want to take this game for granted and remember our why," Cooper said.
"If Devvon is the leader of our team on defense of our unit, Tyson is by far our emotional leader of this defense. To have two first-team all-conference linebackers coming back is great," said linebackers coach Carlton Hall.
As for the third linebacking position, Isiah Carter is all out of eligibility and is now on staff as a coach.
Hall said he’s not even concerning himself with replacing him because the simple answer is he can't. But he believes in Collin Crown and Crown knows he’s been learning from the best.
"If I'm going to step into a spot of someone, I'm extremely grateful it was Isiah," he said.
Moving to the third level of the defense, the cornerbacks are led by star AJ Cooper.
Dareion Bell will start on the opposite side, and coached by former D1 defensive back Cravon Rogers, the unit is looking to get more physical this year.
“I want our corners to be playmakers, game changers,” Rogers said. “When coaches see our corners on film, I want them to be like, ‘Man, we're going to have more trouble throwing the ball than running the ball.'”
Last year’s approach led to 39 forced turnovers, but despite that production, Cooper thinks they can make even further strides in 2018.
“To get where we've never been, we have to do what we've never done,” he said. “To have the mindset to keep fighting and have it never be enough is a great mindset to have.”
The special teams unit is another group where SOU shouldn’t miss a beat.
Both placekicker Marcus Montano and punter Jaxon Clark are back for another year.
Poor air quality during much of fall camp limited their ability to kick outside, but the gym practices did allow them to focus on the finer details of technique and weight lifting.
"Being more technical, being more accurate, getting more power on the ball,” Montano said of his goals for the upcoming season. “I can go off what I did last year, but just make sure I'm more precise with it."
"In the offseason I just really hit the weight room pretty strong,” Clark said. “Just trying to bump up my average another three or four yards. We have some pretty big goals this year for the special teams. We're working on trying to lead the nation in the net punt."