Roseburg’s ascent in Class 6A football since the end of last year can be attributed to off-season work put in by several players.
The Indians — who moved up three spots to No. 5 in this week’s OregonLive.com 6A top 10 poll — are off to a 4-0 start and tied with North Medford atop the Southwest Conference at 2-0.
For every championship-caliber team — those capable of winning league titles and perhaps contending for state crowns — it starts in the trenches.
The Tribe’s offensive line, with three sophomore starters, took its lumps in the first half of the 2012 season. Roseburg lost five of its first seven games and appeared headed toward an early exit in the postseason.
But the Indians, keyed by better play up front, won four of their last five contests, including a 39-38 upset of Gresham in double overtime in the first round of the playoffs.
Roseburg head coach Thurman Bell called the offensive line the strength of the 2013 team a week into fall camp, and so far it’s played out that way.
Returning from last year’s line were junior center Shon Atterbury (6-foot-3, 290 pounds), junior left guard Isaiah Smith (6-0, 265), junior left tackle Zack Caddock (6-2, 226) and senior right tackle Tyler Kailiuli (6-0, 225). They’re joined by senior right guard Chris Morgan (6-2, 238), who played on the junior varsity team last year.
With those five paving the way inside and providing pass blocking, they’re allowing senior quarterback Cody Walker and tailback Levi Holden to display their talents. Holden (5-6, 171) has carried the ball 100 times for an SWC-leading 603 yards and eight touchdowns.
Roseburg’s offense is averaging 346 yards total offense — 244 on the ground — and 34.3 points a game. The triple-option attack has helped the Indians outrush their opponents, 977-461.
“They (line) picked up where they left off (last year),” said Bell, whose club could cap off a perfect month record-wise with a win over South Eugene (2-2, 0-2 SWC) on Friday night at Finlay Field. “I’m really pleased with that group. They’re a very cohesive unit, play well together and (assistant) Jason Baker has done a tremendous job with them.
“They really got initiated last year (to varsity ball) and toward the end of the year were starting to come around. Now those five are experienced. Can we improve? Yes, we can, but as a unit they’re very solid.”
“They committed themselves to doing a good job,” he said. “Our group went out for other sports, and really committed themselves to working hard in the weight room. They all came out this summer and busted their butts to get better. We don’t have any ego guys. It’s a group of guys who come to beat up each other in practice — in a good way.”
Atterbury, Smith, Caddock and Kailiuli certainly haven’t forgotten their first month as starters a year ago.
“We’re not intimidated like we were last year,” Smith said. “Anybody will tell you we (line) were the weakest part on the team, but we just came back strong this year. I feel like we’ve done pretty good, but there’s always room for improvement.”
“Our offensive line always got manhandled on the line of scrimmage and it was just really tough to get it going,” said Kailiuli, whose father Phil was an all-conference lineman on both sides of the ball for the Indians in 1993. “But halfway through the season it finally kicked in. Everyone likes that the line’s doing good. We push each other hard in practice and make sure we get better every day.”
“It’s definitely a big improvement,” added Atterbury. “We have more knowledge and more experience, and know what we’re doing. We’re a lot more aggressive coming off the ball.”
Caddock is the only one of the five who also starts on the defensive line.
“We’ve come a long way,” Caddock said. “Last year we all learned how to get more physical and learn more technique. We worked hard in the off-season through circuits and other sports to get stronger and faster. We all have room to get better and I think we have a good chance to go pretty far in the postseason.”
Morgan has stepped up in his first year as a varsity starter.
“I think (the line) had something to prove (coming in),” he said. “We’ve really improved. We need to keep working and keep getting better, so we can keep up with the other teams and keep improving.”
Holden is happy to have those guys blocking for him.
“This year, you can tell they want it a lot more,” Holden said. “I feel there’s a strong connection. All of them got bigger and stronger … they kind of figured out what they needed to do and did a lot of work in the off-season.”
Holden is among the other seniors who benefitted from the circuits. Holden averages over six yards per carry.
“I’m not doing much, just running right behind them,” Holden said. “There’s big enough holes for me to run through.”
Walker, and fullbacks River Sigrest and Will Reddekopp also have made some big plays running behind the line.
“Whatever we can do to get him (Holden) down the field, we’ll do it,” Morgan said. “We’ll make those holes for him.”
“It’s a big thing with him getting all those yards,” Atterbury said. “We protect each other. We’re family, we’re brothers. We want the best for our quarterbacks and running backs, so we’re going to block our hearts out.”
Holden was asked if he’s considering taking the line out to dinner for their efforts in giving him room to rumble.
“Rumor has it they like doughnuts,” Holden said with a grin.
Chris Miller is back as South Eugene’s head coach after having guided the Axemen from 2002-06.
South dropped its first two SWC games against Sheldon and South Medford.
HEAD COACHES: South Eugene, Chris Miller, sixth year (second stint); Roseburg, Thurman Bell, 43rd year, 325-136-1.
LAST YEAR: The Axemen finished eighth in the Southwest Conference with an 0-7 record and went 0-10 overall.
THIS YEAR: South Eugene defeated Churchill 35-14, def. Willamette 14-9, lost to Sheldon 49-0 and lost to South Medford 32-7. Roseburg defeated South Salem 47-21, def. Sprague 35-23, def. Crater 27-7 and def. Thurston 28-14.
SERIES HISTORY: South Eugene leads 20-17, but the Indians have won the past nine meetings. Roseburg whipped the Axemen 45-6 in Eugene last year.
• You can reach Sports Editor Tom Eggers at 541-957-4220 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org