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BY STEVE BRANDON/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/But the most-depth ever gives Vikings plenty of seasoning as they eye SEC trip, a winning record -- and maybe the playoffs

COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - BARNUMThere's always something new going on with Portland State football.

What's new this year is the earliest start ever— Wednesday was Day One — for PSU spring camp.

Also new:

• An emphasis on adding speed, especially on defense.

• A focus on getting more pass catchers involved on offense, especially the inside/slot receivers.

• A highly regarded recruiting class of 25 that includes the biggest player in PSU history, an offensive lineman out of Riverside (Calif.) Community College who's 410 pounds but light on his feet, John Krahn.

• A dual-threat transfer quarterback from Rutgers, 6-0, 185-pound Jalen Chatman who prepped at Narbonne High in Inglewood, California.

• Not one, not two, but three live scrimmages, the first set for Friday (the third day of practice). The last one will be the March 16 spring game at Stott Community Field.

• And the season-opening trip to SEC country to face Arkansas on Aug. 31 at Fayetteville. It'll be the first football game ever between Portland State and an SEC team.

But there's also a lot of the familiar with the Vikings this year:

• Nineteen players (nine on offense, eight on defense, two on special teams) who can be considered starters return from the 4-7 (3-5 Big Sky) 2018 squad.

• Some 50 letter winners, including juniors Davis Alexander and Jalani Eason at quarterback.

• All-American Charlie Taumoepeau at tight end for his senior campaign.

• And a lot of depth — coach Bruce Barnum, who is entering his fifth season as the head man and 10th with the program, says this is the most he's seen at Portland State. Even more than in 2015, when the Viks caught lightning in a bottle and went 9-2 in the regular season to reach the FCS playoffs. The list includes 21 players who redshirted last season.

"We've got a club now. It's kind of cool," Barnum said Wednesday. "We know who we are. We know what we have."

In the relatively new category is Portland State's third game of 2019, which is Sept. 14 at Boise State. PSU hasn't played the Broncos since 2005.

This year's two "money games" (Arkansas and Boise State) will garner just under $1 million for Vikings football.

Not that Barnum doesn't have his eyes on an upset, but if those trips saddle PSU with two losses, so be it.

"We have to play those games. That's my budget," Barnum said.

The Vikings are planning to fly to Arkansas, after looking into what would it take to do a real road trip — the 2,012 miles by bus. "It was too expensive," Barnum said, noting it would cost $9,000 a day for three buses each rented for five days. "I could buy a bus for that," he added. "I'm saving money by flying."

No one from the Big Sky has beaten an SEC team in football, though when Barnum was an Idaho State assistant coach, the Bengals came close at Kentucky, leading with five minutes to go before losing 41-29 in 2005.

"But that's not why we're going," he said of trying to knock off the Razorbacks (2-10, 0-8 SEC in 2018). "I want our guys to see the pageantry of college football, of the SEC."

The Vikings also will play two lower-level teams in 2019. Adding to the newness theme, they'll welcome NCAA Division II Simon Fraser to Hillsboro Stadium on Sept. 7 for the home opener — and the first football meeting between those schools since 1982. The Vikings also will take on NAIA Eastern Oregon on Sept. 21.

The truest tests for Portland State will come in its eight Big Sky games, the first coming on the road against Idaho State on Sept. 28.

Again this year, the schedule looks like it will be toughest in November, with PSU at home against both Montana (Nov. 2) and UC Davis (Nov. 9) and, after a bye, going to Cheney, Washington, to battle Eastern Washington.

Last year, Eastern Washington, UC Davis and Weber State tied for first in the Big Sky, all 7-1. Eastern Washington went on to make the FCS finals, losing 38-24 to North Dakota State, which has won seven of the last eight titles.

Weber State and UC Davis got to the quarterfinals (UC Davis losing to Eastern Washington 34-29).

Montana State and Idaho State tied for third in the Big Sky last year, both 5-3. Montana State, which is not on PSU's 2019 schedule, won an NCAA playoff game before it was eliminated by North Dakota State in the second round.

What would make for a very successful 2019 for Portland State football?

"We're going to be above .500," Barnum said. "And, if we get on a roll, to go to the playoffs."

The early, early start to spring ball (April has been the norm) will enable the Vikings to work out and lift weights nonstop from mid-March till fall camp.

"We need to get bigger, strong, faster, all that," Barnum said.

The live scrimmages are because "with this group, a little more aged and seasoned, I don't need to see them catch in a drill, I need to see them get open and catch like in game time. Those (Big Sky) playoff teams got experience that we don't have. I'm catching up to them this spring."

Among the changes on offense for Portland State: Antwone "Turbo" Williams, 5-8, 170, has moved from running back to slot receiver. Davis Koetter may get some work as a slot, too, as well as on the outside. And redshirt freshman Jerad Toman, from Scappoose, has switched from QB to slot.

Fifteen of PSU's 25 signees in the offseason are defensive players. The list includes a candidate to fill the hole at middle linebacker, 6-1, 240 sophomore Moses Finau. He transferred from Humboldt State, which has dropped football. He had 82 tackles and was second-team all-Great Northwest Athletic Conference there as a freshman.

The new defensive system last year under coordinator Payat Saadat showed some promise but needed some better working (faster) parts.

"The games we lost big, we were a half-step behind," Barnum said.

This year, the questions for the defense, in his mind, are, "Can we tackle? Can we make plays? Can we get to the quarterback?" Barnum said. "I didn't see enough sacks last year. I didn't see enough pressure. The quarterbacks last year were sitting back there, picking us apart, in man coverage. The only way that happens is when you don't have enough pressure."

What will it take for the Vikings to win more games in the Big Sky?

"First, you have to have talent, and we have talent now; we have our numbers where they need to be," Barnum said. "Then the talent has to come together — them, in the locker room, without the coaches. Run a good scheme and throw them out there. They have to play together. Anybody can catch, it's about the kids, the Jimmies and the Joes."

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