Southern Utah University’s football team has won conference championships, sent players to the NFL and hosted FCS playoff games.
The one thing they haven’t found is consistency.
Since joining the Big Sky in 2012, SUU football has won two conference championships. They’ve had .500 seasons and some with just three wins. Last season they only won one game.
2018 was rock bottom. Just one year after winning the Big Sky Championship, the 1-10 Thunderbirds finished second to last in the FCS in total defense, last in the Big Sky in scoring defense and first in the country in injuries. SUU lost their starting quarterback, their best power back and a slew of others for most of 2018.
Luckily for the Thunderbirds, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Brandon Fisher arrived in the offseason as the new defensive coordinator and should greatly improve a unit with a lot of upside. Just two seasons ago SUU hosted an FCS playoff game, largely due to their strong defensive play. Head coach Demario Warren has installed the infrastructure needed to succeed, now it’s a matter of talent and execution.
Warren added 33 freshman to the roster and the learning curve will be steep. There are only 10 seniors on the roster so there is plenty of room for new leadership to step up and establish a new way of approaching the game. Warren pointed to the team’s lack of discipline throughout 2018.
The media pinned SUU to finish 11th and the Big Sky coaches picked them to finish 12th in the conference. Outside of Cedar City no one believes in this team, a position the Thunderbirds are familiar with.
Zach Larsen is the best center in the FCS. He was named a STATS Preseason All-American, Phil Steele Preseason All-American and Preseason All-Big Sky. He was a Phil Steele first team All-American last year and made the All-Big Sky first team. He’s the anchor of the team.
Larsen will play an important role in revamping the offensive line after Marquez Tucker and Austin Mikkelson graduated. Quarterbacks Chris Helbig, Austin Ewing and Tyler Skidmore all missed time due to injury last season. The line has to keep the QB on his feet.
Braxton Jones will likely replace Tucker at left tackle. Jones filled in on the line in eight games last season and has the size needed to protect the blindside. He has a lot of protection to replace as Tucker pursues a career in the NFL with the Chicago Bears.
PJ Nu’usa will have a bigger role on the interior after playing in seven games last season. Artese Gregory and Josh Madsen will likely start, with Mitchell Halverson and Canaan Yarro seeing some time off the bench.
SUU had the third best offensive line in the Big Sky last season. They need to recreate that production with some new faces this season.
Helbig’s return from a shoulder injury is great news for offensive coordinator Justin Walterscheid. Helbig played well against FCS competition and held his own against Arizona and Oregon State. He threw for 1011 yards and five touchdowns in three and a half games before going down.
Helbig is more versatile than Austin Ewing and Aaron Zwahlen were last season. He is comfortable in the pocket and can deliver the ball with accuracy on short and middle routes. He’s also overcome a lot of adversity and has had almost two years to adjust to Walterscheid’s offense. If he can stay healthy he’ll be a massive upgrade at the game’s most important position.
SUU was solid on third and fourth downs (5th and 2nd in BS) and Helbig will only make the offense more efficient. Most importantly he should provide some stability.
Jay Green Jr. returns after leading the team in rushing last season. James Felila returns from injury and will use his strength between the tackles. Carris
The secondary struggled last season, but Jalen Russell should return to his freshman All-American form after a disappointing sophomore season. Mike Sims and AJ Stanley return at safety after solid redshirt freshmen seasons. Fisher was a defensive backs coach in the NFL and the secondary should see an uptick in production.
Fisher is unproven, but fiery. He’s coming into his first defensive coordinator role and may be able to scheme out some of the defenses shortcomings. Brandon is also the son of former Rams coach Jeff Fisher. He’s been around the block.
The Up in the Air
Fisher’s first priority needs to be generating more of a pass rush. SUU was the conference’s worst defense in nearly every statistical category. Their QB pressure was almost non-existent. Generating pressure with four rushers is the most valuable defensive asset in football. Pressure creates bad decisions. Bad decisions lead to turnovers.
Lehi Afatasi is the most experienced member of the D-Line. He picked up 2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFL. He’ll likely start at defensive tackle to try and disrupt the interior.
Bishop Jones’ return injury will help generate pressure on the edge. Jones made 12 tackles as a freshman but sat out in for the entirety of 2018. Utah State transfer Gasetoto Schuster will see the field often in his senior year.
Watson Asi returns for his senior year after making 24 tackles and 2.5 sacks last season. Freshman Remedy Akoteu was the gem of the recruiting class and will be an impact player on the edge. The T-Birds need to get to the quarterback.
Wide receiver is the most open position on the team. Landen Measom and Lance Lawson are the only receivers on the team that saw consistent time last season (Lawson is listed as an RB, but plays in the slot). Alex Croyle and Ty Rutledge leave big holes on the outside.
Carlos Baker and Isaiah Diego-Williams are in the best position to fill those holes. Diego-Williams lost 2018 to injury, but caught 22 passes as a sophomore in 2017. Baker transferred from Dupage Junior College and played in four games last season. He’s a 6’5” target that Helbig can trust with jump balls.
Elijah Givens, John Mitchell, Zach Nelson and Dallin Brown will also catch passes this season. The receiver group is very inexperienced, but has enough talent to stretch the defense.
Tight end is another position of concern. Nick Colson is the team’s most experienced option, but he only caught seven passes last season. Gavin Eyre and Kelton Bertagnini will compete for play time as well.
Linebacker may be the toughest position to replace this season. Four-year starters Taylor Nelson and Chinedu Ahanonu are gone and there aren’t clear replacements. Alex Sims, Quaid Murray, Jayden Clark, Jordan Walker and Jedadiah Lulu all played significant snaps last season, and the competition for snaps will continue.
Fresno State transfer Nela Okutolo is ready to contribute after sitting out last season. Freshmen Billy Davis and Drew Carter could contribute as well. Linebacker is a deep position for the T-Birds, but no one has established themselves as the star of the defense.
Overall, SUU brings in a lot of new talent to pair with some reserves who have been waiting for their chance to perform. Last seasons four game road trip after week one took a heavy toll on the team. There are no Pac-12 schools on this season’s schedule.
Non-conference road trips to UNLV, Northern Iowa and South Dakota State will test SUU early. The T-Birds play 12 games this season. Stephen F. Austin comes to Eccles Coliseum on Saturday, Sept. 14. UC Davis, Weber State and Northern Arizona are this season’s toughest conference opponents according to the Coach’s Poll.
“I’m just excited because I love proving people wrong all the time, so the lower the better,” SUU head coach Demario Warren said. “It’s going to be a great story for everybody when we do what we expect to do this season. Our guys have been fired up for a long time from the disappointment of last season, and this just gives us another opportunity to add to our story.”
SUU has a lot to prove. Since joining the Big Sky in 2012 SUU football is 15-30 in even numbered years. They’re 25-12 in odd numbered years.
Maybe it’s a good omen.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication