ASHLAND—The task in front of first-year starting quarterback Wyatt Hutchinson is simple: Get the ball into the hands of the many playmakers at his disposal.
SOU returns legitimate firepower at running back, wide receiver and offensive line, which figures to help Hutchinson ease into the swing of things.
While graduation didn’t lead to an extreme amount of turnover on the offensive side of the ball, a transfer robbed the Raiders of a key playmaker.
Running back Michael Roots was shaping up to be a star, but now he’s at Central Washington after transferring in June.
It means a pair of upper classmen in Rey Vega and Austin May will be leading the charge out of the backfield.
“We complement each other well because he has speed, I have power, he can catch,” May said. “When Rey comes out and I go in it's not like we really lose anything."
“I expect at least two of us to get all-conference honors. I'm trying hard to get All-American honors," Vega said.
They’re understandably high hopes for Vega in his senior year.
He’s led SOU in rushing for the past two seasons and should be in line to make it a third straight in 2018.
May will be the biggest benefactor of the Roots departure in terms of carries, and along with Vega, they make up the power-speed, one-two punch in the SOU backfield.
"Guys want to be 30 touches a game but they're not going to do it here and I think they do that very well,” running backs coach Jack Singler said. “If they get tired, they come out, next guy up. You got Rey who's fast, the track guy, Austin who's power, who wants to put his head into everything. Those two mesh very well, they block for each other, they love each other and I think that's what it comes down to is the bond they have."
The Raiders have home run threats in the running game, but also in the passing game in the form of their experienced receiving corps.
They had 21 different players catch touchdown passes a season ago.
Although Jordan Suell is banged up, they have him back along with slot man Bronsen Ader and Jason Shelley, each of whom bring versatile skillsets.
“We take pride in ourselves being the catalysts, making all the big plays and getting everybody hyped with the deep balls,” Shelley said.
Wideout has long been a position of strength in Ashland, most recently with Matt Retzlaff, who graduated in 2016.
The reason for that continued pedigree is the shared knowledge from the veterans to the young guys. Receivers coach Nathan Chin said the veteran players who return this year will be vital.
“When you have four seniors in the group, for them to be able to show the young guys and to be leaders on the offense and in the program, it's going to be big for us,” he said.
The receivers were involved plenty in the offense last season but the tight ends weren’t.
Largely the result of an injury to starter Ben Bachman, the position group caught just one touchdown pass a season ago.
Expect that to change with transfer Addison Witham, an all-around athlete at the position.
“I'm really excited we have an athletic kid who can do some things,” offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht said. “Addison Whitham can line up as a 2 receiver and looks more like a slot and the athleticism doesn't drop much. I can put him in the box and kick him out as a fullback, then he can put his hand in the ground and go vertical and down block and reach block.”
“The tight end can almost be a secret in a way,” Witham said. “The defense will see the tight end coming in and they're not sure if it's going to be a run or if it's still going to be a pass. I'm able to block for the running back or I'm able to slip out and catch a ball and get some yards.”
A lot of the time, the tight end lines up as an extra offensive lineman.
Not that SOU will need that, as it returns four key players on the unit from last year, including left tackle James Hines.
The experience and tight-knit nature of the group helps them interact seamlessly to execute the up-tempo spread offense.
“Communication is always key with the offensive line, just being on the same page, especially when you're operating at tempo,” offensive line coach Kyle Otineru said.
“Inside the offensive line room is a special place,” senior Tyler Cox said. “It's a family atmosphere, very comfortable. Everybody's comfortable from the young guys to the big guys.”