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Rocky's Jacob Bakken and Mason Melby

Rocky Mountain College quarterback Jacob Bakken fakes a hand-off to Mason Melby during a game last season. Bakken and the rest of the Battlin' Bears have started spring practice. The annual spring game is April 21.

Jason Petrino saw the difference as soon as the players hit the field.

“We’re so much further along than last year,” said Petrino, entering his second season as the head coach for the Rocky Mountain College football program.

Petrino said the Battlin’ Bears had approximately 80 players open spring drills last Saturday.

The team will have 15 practices, scheduled Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on Saturday mornings.

The first spring scrimmage is Saturday, April 8 at 11 a.m. at Herb Klindt Field. The annual spring game will close spring drills on Friday evening, April 21. A game time has not been announced.

So far, the weather has cooperated.

“As long as there is no wind or snow, I’m fine. Tuesday was a little chilly. Being in a dome four years must have softened me up,” said Petrino, who was previously the defensive coordinator at the University of South Dakota before taking the Rocky job in January of 2016.

Rocky is trying to continue its progress from last year’s 4-7 season. The Battlin’ Bears were 4-6 in the Frontier Conferenced, tied for fifth place.

“Last year, because we got hired late, we had to spend most of January and the whole month of February recruiting,” Petrino said. “With the recruiting done, we have more time for teaching.”

Petrino sees a different level of understanding from the returning players from a year ago.

“Now, first and foremost, the players know us and we know them,” he said. “We are further along both offensively and defensively. Everybody came back from the offseason bigger and stronger. We are able to play faster.”

Along with finding a quarterback to replace two-year starter Chase White, Rocky will have to replenish its defensive line which was hit hard by graduation.

Along with White, the Battlin’ Bears lost their leading rusher (Kodee Varner), leading pass catcher (Tyrell McGee) and second-leading tackler (Cole Jelinek) from last season.

Jacob Bakken, Brady Pickering and Gage Seekins are taking snaps at quarterback during spring drills. Only Bakken, who started the last four games in 2016, has thrown a collegiate pass. Bakken was 76 of 146 passing for 657 yards and one touchdown. He was intercepted six times. Bakken was also the Battlin’ Bears second-leading rusher last season with 264 yards and two touchdowns.

“We have to develop some playmakers on the perimeter,” said Petrino of his offense. “And defensively, we have a lot to replace on the defensive line. We also need to develop some speed on the perimeter to attack better.”

The defense returns leading tackler Chase Bertleson (90 total tackles), along with Ryder Rice, who had nine tackles for loss. Also back is kicker Griff Amies, who made 24 of 25 PAT attempts and was 8 of 12 for field goals with a long of 49 yards.

A handful of players are expected to provide immediate help, joining the program at semester. The signees include defensive backs Paris Wilcox (Tennessee State) and Kirk Durtsche (Chadron State), along with offensive linemen John Boogaard (Western State) and Jake Tuivaive (Mount San Antonio College). Jace Billy, a 5-11, 245-pound defensive end from Havre, is transferring from Montana State.

“We recruited hard our positions of need,” said Petrino. “It’s a matter commitment. We have to get better.

“We still have a ways to go to catch the top teams in the league. We just have to keep chopping wood."

SOU hires Hall

Charlie Hall has been hired as the new head football coach at Southern Oregon University.

School officials made the announcement earlier in the month.

Hall had been the coach at Ashland High School (Oregon) since 2005, where he was 94-44 with four conference titles. His teams appeared in the state quarterfinals six times, the state semifinals twice and the championship game once.

Hall replaces Craig Howard, who died on Jan. 20. Howard had led SOU to back-to-back NAIA title game appearances in 2014 and 2015 with the Red Raiders winning the national championship in 2014.

Prior to Ashland, Hall was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona, 2001-05. The SOU alum previously was the offensive coordinator for his alma mater, 1996-97.

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High School Sports, Rodeo Reporter

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette.