Exit Interview: What Went Right and Wrong for SUU Football

SUU Football

SUU Football

We should have seen this one coming.

If I were playing one of the old EA Sports NCAA football games and been able to see numerical rankings assigned to every player on SUU’s football team this season, I probably would have projected a 3-9 or 4-8 finish given the talent on this roster.

It’s no disrespect to the team, there are plenty of great players on SUU’s football team, but the amount of professional talent on the Big Sky Conference Championship teams of 2015 and 2017 was pretty outstanding.

Former SUU safety Miles Killebrew was a standout on the 2015 team and is now a special teams ace for the Detroit Lions.

LeShaun Sims was a cornerback and partner in crime with Killebrew in the 2015 secondary. The Tennessee Titans selected Sims in the fifth round and have started him at cornerback since Week 9 of the 2019 season.

James Cowser graduated as the all-time sack leader in FCS history and spent two and a half years as an active part of the Raiders’ roster. Cowser also played on that 2015 team.

The list of players who got NFL chances goes on. Mike Needham. Josh Thornton. Raysean Pringle.

2017 champion QB Patrick Tyler reportedly had NFL scouts talking to him before the 2018 draft, but had gotten all he needed out of football and retired upon graduating.

It’s no wonder they were so good.

That’s not much of a resume for the University of Alabama, but for a traditionally mediocre football school like SUU, it was a golden generation of talent that left a colossal void behind. Head coach Demario Warren got the best he could out of that group, and they became the best team in school history.

A lot of the standout youngsters on the conference championship teams have been the most important players on the teams that have had losing seasons. Most of them will not reach the NFL. SUU Football

That means there hasn’t been enough talent on the last two teams to win the conference or even break even. Marquez Tucker, Chinedu Ahanonu, Taelin Webb and Taylor Nelson were the most productive players from 2018’s team, and none of them are on NFL rosters.

The last true contributors to the 2017 champions were Jalen Russell and Zach Larsen, but Russell was out for the entire 2019 season due to injury. Larsen anchored a much-improved offensive line and is the best prospect the team has had since winning the Big Sky in 2017.

Larsen was the last major contributor of the group of youngsters who saw success in an environment with NFL talent around them. The rest of them struggled to shoulder the burden those professionals left behind.

That’s the hard part of finding great success. The expectations around SUU football will forever be higher because they’ve proven that they can win before.

Some fans got used to seeing NFL-caliber play and couldn’t bear to watch their replacements, which has lead to sparse attendance. There was barely room to stand in the student section in 2017, but in SUU’s win over Northern Arizona on Nov. 16, you could have put out a futon up at the 25-yard line.

So, with former conference champions gone and interest in the team dwindling, how did they do better this season (3-9 in 2019) than last (1-10 in 2018)?

There is no need to beat around the bush here: SUU football is in trouble, but at least they improved this season. Nearly every statistical category saw an uptick in production in 2019, so there’s some sign of progression. But, the truth is that the team that won two Big Sky championships from 2015-2017 is only 4-19 since.

Their starting quarterback, Chris Helbig, has already entered the transfer portal.

There’s a lot to sort out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start by looking at the positive side of things.

The Good:

Southern Utah’s defense improved from allowing 41.5 PPG in 2018 to 37.6 in 2019. The improvement was marginal, but the defense kept the team in their games against Cal Poly, UC Davis and North Dakota.

They finished seventh in yards allowed, but struggled to keep opponents out of the endzone.

The schedule this season was very tough. SUU faced five opponents that made the FCS playoffs this season and were outscored 114-60 against those teams. The blowouts skew their statistics, but against non-playoff FCS opponents, SUU actually outscored their opponents 212-211 in 2019.

That points to a .500 type of performance, but the T-Birds finished 3-9. They lost on a last-second missed field goal to Cal Poly, couldn’t complete the comeback against UC Davis, eventually losing by six, and went blow-for-blow with No. 3 Weber St. in Ogden.

They lost games they were expected to lose. They were +20-point underdogs in three of their first four games; did anyone really expect them to hang with South Dakota State or UNLV? Those were money games, and the T-Birds have to play them either way, but as of now, those games are nearly unwinnable and put mounds of stress on the players’ bodies that can lead to severe injury (see: Jalen Russell vs. UNLV).

It’s hard to blame them for losing those games, and great programs can win against top teams on the road, but when the team is just average, those games are a wash.

The T-Birds were unlucky all season. They missed a ton of field goals, picked up penalties during crucial moments, and had a lot of calls that didn’t go their way (the roughing the punter no-call against Northern Iowa comes to mind).

Stephen F. Austin got a lucky pick-six off a deflection and used the momentum to force the T-Birds into overtime.  They’ve had weird special teams mistakes plague them all season.

You make your own luck, but the T-Birds could hardly catch a break this season. It seemed like another essential player was lost each week to injury. The T-Birds didn’t have a bye until Week 10, and the lack of rest took its toll.

The offense looked solid at home, finishing sixth in total offense in the conference. The attack was hardly balanced, but they ran the ball well in the red zone. Helbig threw for 2952 yards, but only 15 touchdowns, partly because they picked up 19 rushing touchdowns as a team.

There are several underclassmen that Warren can mortgage his future on. Carlton Johnson made the Big Sky’s Third Team Defense as a redshirt freshman and is a fascinating prospect. Left tackle Braxton Jones made Second Team Offense as a redshirt sophomore, AJ Stanley made Honorable Mention as a redshirt sophomore, and Lance Lawson was a Big Sky Honorable Mention honoree as a true sophomore.

If those players can develop into the next group of NFL talent, then Warren will have the quality of talent needed to rebuild the program. The team already appears to be on the right track, and even though they only recorded three wins, they were better in 2019 than they were in 2018, and that’s all anyone can really ask for.

The Bad:

SUU didn’t have a running back finish in the top-20 of rushing yards per game in the Big Sky this season. The team finished 102 out of 124 FCS teams by rushing for just 115.9 YPG. Thomas Duckett emerged as the feature back as the season wore on, but only finished with 420 yards gained on the ground, good for first on the team.

The ground game’s lack of punch put a lot of stress on Helbig and the passing attack. They often faced long third-down tries, and defenses could drop back in coverage on obvious passing downs.

That left Helbig in a position where he couldn’t find a consistent rhythm. He threw 12 interceptions compared to 15 touchdowns, and never really took games over beyond the blowout win against Idaho State.

So if Helbig, who reportedly has received interest from FBS schools since announcing the transfer, couldn’t cover the run game’s shortcomings, then how will Tyler Skidmore, Justin Miller or whoever ends up being the starter next year handle it?

A big part of why the T-Birds limped to one win last season was because Helbig was lost for the year in the fourth game due to injury.

Helbig played in all 12 games this season and the team only won two more games. There is room for improvement in quarterback play, but none of that will matter if they don’t address the rest of the team’s weaknesses.

Sometimes it felt like SUU’s only way of making big plays was via the use of trickery. The T-Birds ran the Philly Special, reverse passes and all manner of razzle-dazzle, but at times it felt like it was born out of desperation. SUU Football

Many of the T-Birds’ deep shots downfield came as part of a trick play. Helbig threw a lot of short passes and check-downs, which is fine, but beyond a few deep balls to Landen Measom and Carlos Baker, opposing defenses weren’t stretched vertically very often.

The T-Birds also struggled to put pressure on the opposing backfield, which allowed opponents to run with ease against the T-Birds this season. They allowed 216 YPG on the ground, No. 101 in FCS.

While the pass defense allowed the second-fewest yards in the conference, that statistic has to be taken with a grain of salt. SUU faced 350 passing plays this season, against 519 rushing plays. Teams didn’t pass against them because they knew they could get easy yards on the ground instead.

Opponents took the ball out of the offense’s hands often, which left the T-Birds to watch long drives drain the clock, along with the defense’s energy. This leads to the team’s most significant obstacle: the defensive line isn’t nearly disruptive enough, and they haven’t been since Cowser left back in 2015.

There’s a reason why top-flight pass rushers always are taken highly in the NFL Draft. Outside of quarterback, pass rusher is the most important position in football.

I understand the difficulties of recruiting at SUU, and I fully comprehend that replacing the NCAA’s all-time leader in sacks is a massive undertaking, but until the defensive line can plug up running lanes and start getting quarterbacks out of their comfort zone, not much can change.

These are hard issues to have to confront, but if Warren and his staff are serious about making the FCS playoff again soon, they’ll have to be good enough to beat playoff-caliber teams, and in the last two seasons they haven’t even been close to that. The closest they have come to beating a playoff team was a 13-point loss to Weber St. last season.

There’s a lot of ground to cover.

How to Fix It:

1. Change the Approach to the Defensive Line

I’m not going to pretend that I’m a “Serious Football Man” with the secret answers needed to fix SUU’s defensive issues, but I know that finishing 116 of 124 FCS teams in sacks is a huge obstacle.

Warren and defensive coordinator Brandon Fisher are much more well-equipped in figuring out what specifically needs to happen for the defensive line to impact games, but something needs to change.

Whether that change comes from adding another hand-down lineman, crafting new blitzes, investing more time in practice to teach better technique, targeting recruiting on the defensive front or pulling in transfers, the T-Birds can’t expect to be much better than they were this season if they don’t upgrade the D-Line first.

Aaron Romero led the team with 4.5 sacks as a true sophomore, and he’ll need to develop into even more of a menace. Canadian Francis Bemiy finished fourth on the team in tackles for loss with five and picked up two sacks in his sophomore season.

They seem like a good place for Warren to start, and ideally, their progression would set the tone for the unit going forward.

Remedy Akoteu was the prize of last season’s recruiting class, and hopefully, he can step up after redshirting this season.

Every unit needs to produce at its best for this team to win. Unless four-star recruits start streaming in, the coaching staff’s ability to develop talent will continue to be essential.

2. Replace Helbig, and Replace the Culture

I can’t speak about much of what happened behind closed doors, but senior running back Jay Green Jr. being ejected for pouring water on an opponent who careened on to his sideline was not a good look.

It’s especially not a good look given that Green wasn’t even playing in the game, and it’s especially especially not a good look given that Green blew kisses to the fans and his team on his way out of the stadium.

I’m a fan of bravado and trash talk as much as the next person, but I don’t think those kinds of actions are what Warren is preaching in his practices.

The T-Birds finished No. 98 in penalties per game. Some calls didn’t go their way, but the amount of needless personal fouls and false starts speaks to a lack of discipline, in my eyes.

Culture is kind of a cliche in today’s world of sports, but the T-Birds do need a group of players that will completely buy-in and stay focused. I really don’t care too much about personal fouls, as long as you’re good enough to make up for the penalty yards.

I love over-the-top celebrations and manifestations of swagger, but you have to earn that. If you’re giving 15 free yards in a game where you’re down 20 at home, I have a hard time excusing those flags.

With Helbig transferring, that opens up the most important leadership position on the team. Whoever steps into it needs to set the tone for the program and coax the team into buying in.

Skidmore showed some flashes last season, and Miller looked excellent in a 7-8, 57 yards, 2 TD performance against Montana State in garbage time.

I don’t know who will win the starting job at this point, but they need to win over the locker room so that those useless penalties and lapses in concentration can be cut down to a minimum.

To me, this team lacked a sense of responsibility. They got punched in the mouth by teams that were better than them on paper and wilted. I don’t doubt their ability, but with more senior leaders like Zach Larsen and Bishop Jones moving on, someone needs to get this team pushing in the right direction.

3. Remember Your Roots

This team made the FCS playoff two years ago. I don’t think the SUU Athletic Department needs to panic because the team has been hugely successful in recent history.

If I could gather this entire team in one room and talk to them, I’d just want them to know that winning at SUU is possible, and the football program is a shining example of that.

I don’t think the 2015 and 2017 seasons were flukes. Winning consistently is difficult in any sport at any level because it takes an inordinate amount of work and passion to make that happen.

I wouldn’t point any of these things out if I didn’t think the football team could ascend higher. I genuinely believe that a couple of seasons from now SUU will be back in the FCS playoffs.

This season was the first step toward that incremental improvement, but no one can feel content with this. I’m sure Coach Warren and Athletic Director Debbie Corum feel the same way.

At this point, it’s just about renewing commitment. On the recruiting trail, in meetings, during practice and inside the locker room, everyone has to commit to maintaining this trajectory of improvement.

Look at this picture. Are you telling me that you don’t want to experience this again?

SUU Football

Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by: Mitchell Quartz and SUU Athletics