In this precarious time of transition, Southern Utah University’s football team needed to find some semblance of hope, and the 2020 recruiting class might be just what head coach Demario Warren ordered.
This offseason has proven tumultuous. Long time offensive coordinator Justin Walterschied was dismissed, Brandon Fisher moved on from his position as defensive coordinator and the team’s starting quarterback, Chris Helbig, announced his decision to grad transfer despite possessing two more years of eligibility.
The Thunderbirds landed 27 players on National Signing Day, and the incoming batch of players will carry the burden of turning around a program that has gone 4-19 since winning a share of the Big Sky conference championship in 2017.
“We are excited about adding these young men to our program,” head coach Demario Warren said in a written statement. “Our coaches did a fantastic job of researching and building relationships with our recruits. We continue to focus on building our football program with young men that have high values.”
Many players from the 2020 class could contend for immediate playing time, but all will factor into Warren’s attempt to rebuild the program.
Here’s a look at the key signings from the class and how they’ll fit into the rebuild.
Filling Important Holes Offensively
Queen Creek, Ariz. native Rand Jensen was the first player to announce his commitment to SUU, and the 5-foot-11 quarterback could contend for the starting job in the fall.
Jensen threw for 3,216 yards and 36 touchdowns his senior year at American Leadership Academy. He was named the 3A Offensive Player of the year, and led his team to the state championship.
New offensive coordinator Matt Wade should feel ecstatic to bring in an arm like Jensen’s to run the offense. Jensen shows an aptitude for navigating the pocket and making precise throws on the move in his highlights.
Returning quarterbacks Tyler Skidmore and Justin Miller will likely remain the favorites to man the offense come September, but Jensen seems like the type of prospect that could be worth going all in on.
SUU finished No. 101 out of 124 FCS teams in rushing yards per game last season. Bolstering the running game will prove key heading into 2020, and SUU landed six offensive linemen and an enticing trio of running backs to address that issue.
Colorado Springs native David Moore III finished his high school career with 7,627 rushing yards, the third most in Colorado history. His senior year he found paydirt an absurd 36 times. Warren and Wade will look to get him on the field as early as he’s ready.
Moore will be joined by Kina Taufa, an all-region power back from Desert Hills High School in Saint George, and Jordan Jefferson, a 5-8 spark plug from Rancho Verde High School.
Dakota Dixon (Skyridge HS), Kaleb Ostler (American Fork HS), Adam Pond (Skyridge HS), Jose Rodriguez (East LA College), Tylor Stubbs (Timpview HS) and Adrian Tena (Orange Lutheran HS), will contribute to the depth of the offensive line.
With NFL hopeful Zach Larsen having finished his time at SUU, the T-Birds will be looking for their next anchor in the trenches from this group.
There will also be a revamped core of receivers including Region 9 MVP wideout Izaiah Moten from Pine View High School and Chase Merrell, a 6-foot-5 tight end who holds every relevant receiving record at Star Valley High School in Wyoming.
Retooling the Defense and Special Teams Upgrades
SUU landed four defensive backs, three defensive linemen and two linebackers for 2020.
The T-Birds had the stingiest passing defense in the Big Sky last season, but lost key contributors Nathaniel Vaughn and Kyle Hanneman to graduation.
JUCO transfer Jake Narayan (Contra Costa CC) and Duce Anderson (Mountain View HS) will compete for time alongside Carlton Johnson, Jalen Russell and AJ Stanley.
While the passing defense was solid, opponents capitalized on the ground against SUU’s front seven. Warren will hope to plug up those holes with Herriman High School standout Mana Kula Jr.
Kula Jr. finished his senior year with 77 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks.
Izayah Fawson (Jordan HS) and Trent Whalen (Arbor View HS, Las Vegas) join a reeling linebacking core. Alex Sims, the team’s leading tackler in 2019, entered his name into the transfer portal, and starter Nela Otukolo graduated after last season.
Two kickers rounded out the 2020 class, a much needed upgrade after missing 12 of 18 field goals as a team in 2019. AJ McCarroll (Pine View HS) and Easton Jones (Arbor View HS) will compete alongside Manny Berz and Kekoa Sasoaka for the starting spot in the fall.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz