Southern Utah University kicks off football season against an FBS opponent and fellow I-15 dweller, UNLV.
The T-Birds beat UNLV 41-16 when they last met in 2011. Other than a win against Southern Alabama in 2013, SUU hasn’t defeated an FBS opponent in 11 tries since. UNLV is 5-2 against FCS competition since the T-Birds blew them out in 2011, but they lost to FCS Howard in 2017.
UNLV is an FBS opponent with 85 available scholarships, but they aren’t a football powerhouse. Demario Warren’s squad faces a high level test in their first contest and Warren will come away knowing a lot about his team.
Brandon Fisher is making his debut as defensive coordinator. He takes over the Big Sky’s worst defense in 2018. There is a lot of room for improvement, and Fisher will be able to test new schemes against a quality opponent.
Chris Helbig is likely to make his first start since a shoulder injury cost him his season in 2018. Helbig looked solid to start the season and racked up 1,011 yards and five touchdowns in just four games.
Jay Green Jr. returns for his senior season after leading the T-Birds in rushing with 829 yards. James Felila will play for the first time since Week 4 of last season due to injury.
Landen Measom is the Thunderbirds most targeted receiver returning from 2018. Measom had 589 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Carlos Baker, Isaiah Diego-Williams and Lance Lawson will receive the majority of the targets this season.
All-American Zach Larsen and 6’7” left tackle Braxton Jones will be charged with protecting Helbig.
SUU will have a lot of new faces on the defensive side of the ball. Jalen Russell, AJ Stanley and Mike Sims return in the secondary. Lehi Afatasi and Bishop Jones will anchor the defensive line. Nearly every other position on the field is there to be won, and a good performance against the Rebels could solidify some of the open positions.
UNLV brings back eight starters on offense and four on defense. They finished 4-8 last season, but lost their quarterback, Armani Rogers, for much of the season with a foot injury.
Rogers was a highly touted recruit for the Rebels and the versatile QB is the center of the team’s offensive strategy. He rushed for 488 rush yards in his first four starts, and head coach Tony Sanchez designs runs for the dual threat junior.
Charles Williams and Chad Magyar will share the bulk of the carries for the Rebels. Williams rushed for 332 yards in relief of Lexington Thomas, who graduated after last season.
UNLV’s defense was not impressive last season. They allowed 454 yards per game and 37.3 PPG in 2018 and lost six starters coming into 2019. SUU’s offense will have chances to move the ball.
SUU is 2-8 in their last 10 season openers. They’ve opened the season against FBS schools six times in that span. UNLV will prove to be a very tough opponent, but not an unbeatable one.
Last season’s heartbreaking opener against North Alabama set a dreary tone for the rest of the year. Warren has had the entire offseason to plan for this game, and a win against UNLV would give SUU momentum looking ahead to conference play.
SUU’s defense also has a lot to prove. Fisher will give fans an idea of what to expect from the defense heading into 2019. What kind of system will they run? Will SUU lean toward blitzing to create pressure or can they trust in their front four? How will they disguise coverages? Who will step up as the leader of the defense?
The greatest variable on offense is the weapons that will surround Helbig. Beyond Green and Measom, no skill position player has significant experience. There are JUCO players and former reserves ready to step in, but they haven’t proven themselves in big games yet.
The months of drills, meetings and walkthroughs have all led up to this moment. The anticipation of the new season and its potential hang in the air. The 1-10 season is finally over.
Football is back and SUU has everything to prove.
The game will be broadcast on www.UNLVRebels.com Saturday at 8 p.m. MT.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication