Coming off of arguably the best season in program history, how can the T-birds build off their 2017 campaign?
CEDAR CITY, Utah — After exceeding expectations by snagging a share of the Big Sky title in 2017, Southern Utah University was projected by coaches to place sixth in the conference this year. Last year’s team was exceptional, reaching the FCS playoff before being knocked off by Weber State University in the second round. A large part of last year’s success was All-Conference quarterback, Patrick Tyler, who was lost to graduation and left a gaping hole under center. The Thunderbirds’ success will largely depend on the effectiveness of Tyler’s successor.
That assignment has yet to be given by head coach Demario Warren. In fall camp two gunslingers emerged as forerunners in what ended up being a good old fashioned quarterback competition. Contender one is junior former Hawaii-transfer Aaron Zwahlen. Zwahlen has a big arm, is a former 4-star recruit, and is the only QB on the roster to have thrown a pass against Division I competition within the last year (Zwahlen struggled in relief of an injured Tyler against Sacramento State, throwing three interceptions and one touchdown).
Contender two is 6’ 4” JUCO transfer Chris Helbig. Helbig is entering his junior year and coming off a very successful season at Butler Junior College. Helbig originally walked on at Colorado University, but decided to transfer after Colorado asked him to switch to safety. Helbig started the last scrimmage of fall camp with the ones and has taken the majority of the snaps this last week, but Zwahlen has had a strong camp as well. Warren is yet to announce who will start the home opener this Saturday vs. North Alabama, and he has a tough decision to make.
Luckily for either Zwahlen or Helbig, almost the rest of the offense returns including a punishing offensive line led by 2017 All-Big Sky center Zach Larsen. Starting running-backs James Felila and Jay Green Jr. both return and are set for big years. If the O-Line and RBs combine to establish a consistent run-game, that will open up the field wonderfully for Zwahlen/Helbig to connect with wideouts Alex Croyle, Ty Rutledge, LJ Davis, and Landen Measom.
The defense is young and has the task of replacing five starters including Minnesota Vikings linebacker Mike Needham. Warren will rely on a strong secondary led by Freshman All-American Jalen Russell. Kyle Hanneman and Elijah Holt both return for their senior years at the safety position and will be tasked with anchoring the defense and covering for the relatively inexperienced front seven. Hanneman is returning from a season-ending injury in 2017, and will be looking to leave his mark in his last year at SUU.
Chinedu Ahanonu will be the star of the defense if healthy. Taylor Nelson was a very important contributor last year and should be even more effective this year. Alex Sims will add production after transitioning from safety to linebacker this offseason.
SUU has a shot at the playoff if the defense can improve on their 80th-place FCS performance from last year, especially if Ahanonu and Hanneman can stay healthy. They will also need either Zwahlen or Helbig to emerge early and give rhythm to the offense as the clear number one. The schedule is tough this year with the Big Sky having improved significantly in recent years as well as tough non-conference battles against Oregon State, and a Heisman favorite led Arizona team.
The can’t miss game of the season is definitely the potential FCS-playoff berth against the hated Weber State Wildcats on November 10th.
Sept. 1 • North Alabama, 6 p.m.
Sept. 8 • at Oregon State, 6 p.m.
Sept. 15 • at Arizona, 9 p.m.
Sept. 22 • at Northern Arizona, 5 p.m.
Oct. 6 • at Eastern Washington, 1 p.m.
Oct. 13 • Sacramento State, 6 p.m.
Oct. 20 • at Idaho, 3 p.m.
Oct. 27 • Northern Colorado, 6 p.m.
Nov. 3 • Montana, 1 p.m.
Nov. 10 • Weber State, 5 p.m.
Nov. 17 • at Cal Poly, 5 p.m.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: SUU Athletics Strategic Communication