SUU did not have the greatest football season. In fact, it was their worst season since joining the Big Sky Conference in 2012, and their worst since an 0-11 year in 2007.
Head coach Demarrio Warren is not to blame however. This was a very young team where a lot of guys did not have significant playing time on 2017’s Big Sky championship team. Next year should be full of better days for T-Bird fans. Here is a look at what 2019 could bring.
This may be the most comfortable position fans have. Chris Helbig showed up in his first year as a T-Bird before forcing to sit due to injury.
Helbig threw for over 1,000 yards in just four games, averaging 252 yards per game, and throwing for over 300 yards twice. He passed for five touchdowns and only two interceptions.
The Butler Junior College transfer also rushed for five touchdowns, proving to be a threat with both his arm and his legs. Helbig is the quarterback of the future for SUU.
If Helbig does end up being injury prone, depth should comfort SUU fans. Aaron Zwahlen and Tyler Skidmore provided much needed sparks to the Thunderbird offense this season, even if they did not produce any wins.
Zwahlen continues to be a threat with his arm and can set up the run game with just a couple of deep throws. Skidmore avoided would-be sacks in almost every game he played in this season.
Austin Ewing also provided a spark in as the Wildcat QB, but should be able to move back to receiver with three healthy quarterbacks.
Halfback is another spot that SUU fans can be confident in. SUU deepened their depth this year with the emergence of Karris Davis in addition to Jay Green Jr. and James Felila. Green ran for over 800 yards and eight touchdowns this year.
Felila ran for 260 yards and one touchdown in only four games, while Davis ran for six touchdowns in the final seven games of the year. All these players will be coming back with Green and Felila as seniors and Davis as a sophomore.
Terrance Beasley, who only played four games this year, will also be a force out of the backfield, capable of running or catching the ball for large amounts of yards. With a top 45 rushing offense at 188 ypg, the Thunderbird rushing attack should be a force to reckon with next year.
The T-Birds will lose Logan Parker, McCoy Hill, Ty Rutledge and Alex Croyle, who have been some of the most productive threats for the Thunderbirds the last two years.
Isaiah Diego-Williams should be back to give the quarterbacks a deep ball threat, while Judd Crockett and Landon Measom will provide possession targets as receivers.
SUU will need to provide a starting level tight end, however, as Jason Dallas will be a senior but has received very minimal playing time. Other SUU tight ends will be either sophomores or redshirt freshmen.
The offensive line for the Thunderbirds was one of the best in the nation. Out of 124 possible teams, SUU ranked 33rd in sacks allowed with 17.
The T-Birds will only lose two players on the line, Marquez Tucker and Austin Mikkelson, meaning that next year’s line should be just as good, if not better.
Zach Larsen will lead the way at center, while PJ Nu’usa and Jacob Painter provide much needed support. Next year’s group will be key in helping the starting quarterback stay healthy.
The rushing defense for the T-Birds this year was not up to par. They allowed almost 3,000 yards, which was second worst in the FCS. The defensive line is the largely responsible for stopping the run, and will need to step up.
Mark Kruger should be back and will try to leave a legacy at SUU much like his brothers did at the University of Utah. Lehi Afatasi will also look to improve on his 26 tackles year.
Watson Asi and Dymund Richardson will also need to play big roles for the T-Birds defensive line. It will be another young group, but the playing time earned in 2018 should help out a lot.
SUU will take a huge hit to the core of the defense with the graduation of Chinedu Ahanonu, who finished his SUU career ranked fourth in career tackles. Taylor Nelson will also be graduating, leaving some very big shoes for younger players to fill.
Devin Guidry II will be the oldest player in the linebacker core. The group will rely on youngsters such as Quaid Murray, Patrick Baker and Tate Nelson. Many players saw playing time this year in blowouts, and all will play big roles to help this defense get back to prominence.
The passing defense is what put SUU out of reach in many games this year. Out of the 124 FCS teams, the T-Birds ranked 112 in passing defense, allowing an average of 271 yards per game.
Taelin Webb will be graduating and will leave a huge hole to fill not only in skill, but as a leader on the team. Jalen Russell will be filling in as the leader of the secondary. He will be tasked to lead players such as Akili Gray, Mike Sims and CJ Scott back to a defense that punished teams in the 2017 year.
Rashaan Miller is graduating, which means that punter Jacob Johnson should start.
Manny Berz should continue to be the only kicker on the roster. This season, Berz went 8/12 on field goals, with a season long 42-yarder against Eastern Washington, and went 27/32 on extra points.
Berz will be a big part of SUU’s quest to get back to a Big Sky championship, while Johnson should be a key factor in setting up the defenses success by pinning opponents deep in their own territory on punts and kickoffs.
So far SUU has nine games scheduled for 2019, including a game against the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. In fact, the last time these two teams faced each other, SUU beat the Rebels in Las Vegas 41-16 in 2011. With the Rebels struggles the last ten years, SUU may be able to get a win to start off the season.
SUU will then get a shot at the University of Northern Iowa, who the T-Birds beat in 2017 in Cedar City, and Stephen F. Austin, who they beat on the road in 2017. These games will be a good test for SUU, with UNI constantly ranked in the top 25 and the Austin offense being pass happy.
The Big Sky Conference schedule has been fully determined, but we know do not know who SUU will play for their final two or three games. However, we do know SUU will play rival Weber State, Montana State and UC Davis. All three teams made the FCS playoffs this year, making next year’s schedule for SUU even tougher.
SUU will be a better team than last year. Chris Helbig looks like he is going to do special things for the T-Birds. The three-headed monster run game should be lethal. SUU may not win the Big Sky, but they should make it interesting. Do not be surprised if SUU gets a 6-5 or 7-4 record through 11 games.
Story by: Kurt Meacham
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication