It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 put the sports world on pause. Slowly but surely, all of the athletic teams at Southern Utah University have returned to play amid the pandemic. All of them, that is, except one.
SUU football will begin their season Saturday, Feb. 27, at 1 p.m. against Northern Arizona University at the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome. 462 days will have passed since the T-Birds last took the field against North Dakota University on Nov. 23, 2019, and they’ll have the Grand Canyon Rivalry trophy to play for in their first game back.
“It’s just been a long journey,” head coach Demario Warren said. “Our guys have been staying focused, staying ready. I’m so proud of the group, the coaching staff, the players. They’ve been working hard for a long time.”
Warren’s team continued to practice in the fall though games were not being played, and he has been easing the players back into shape after they took a month-long break after Christmas. For the first time ever, SUU’s players braved the harsh Cedar City winds as they prepped for the season earlier in the month, though they were lucky to avoid practicing in the snow.
The T-Birds finished 3-9 overall and 2-6 in conference play last season. SUU struggled early on after a brutal nonconference schedule, but won two out of their final four games — including a 31-30 win over NAU in the final home game of the season. All three of SUU’s wins came at home in 2019.
SUU faces a spring six-game slate over 42 days with one bye week installed halfway through.
“There’s no time to waste,” Warren said. “It’s just like every other season. You take it one game at a time and prepare for that game as best you can. With COVID going on and everything else, you’re just trying to make sure you have enough people out there to get going.”
One of the biggest questions coming into the season surrounds new offensive coordinator Matt Wade, who came from Division II Pacific University to replace longtime coordinator Justin Walterscheid.
Warren said that Wade’s offense is founded on “precision” and that it will be “concept driven.” That means that instead of using long cryptic names or a numbering system to call out plays, the plays are organized by “concepts” that are visualized often by a single word.
Receivers memorize all the routes associated with each concept, which means the plays can be adapted from week to week to keep defenses guessing.
“[Wade] wants to make sure that everything is calculated,” Warren said. “He wants to make sure that we are executing at a high level… He wants to make sure [the players] have a Ph. D. level [of knowledge] in offense.”
With the season now just days away, here’s a look at how the offense will fare in 2021. Be sure to check out our preview for the defensive side of the ball as well.
The T-Birds ended up near the bottom of the Big Sky Conference in just about every offensive statistical category last season, finishing 11th in scoring offense, 12th in total offense, 12th in rushing yards per game and ninth in first downs per game.
Last season’s offensive successes came almost entirely in the passing game as SUU finished sixth in pass offense with 272.6 yards per game. Now Wade and his team will have the task of replacing 2019 starting quarterback Chris Helbig, who transferred to Eastern Michigan University at the end of last season.
Snow College transfer Justin Miller appears to have won the year-long battle for the starting job over Tyler Skidmore, Rand Jensen and Zach Hymas. Miller played well in two relief appearances last season, completing 7-of-8 passes for 57 yards and one touchdown.
Miller threw for 1,859 yards with a 56% completion rate during his lone season at Snow. He racked up 17 touchdown passes but also tossed 10 interceptions while leading the Badgers to a 6-4 record.
The good news for Miller is that almost all of SUU’s best skill players from last season are returning. Thomas Duckett is back after rushing for 420 yards and five TDs last season. Duckett is also gifted as a receiver coming out of the backfield — he tied for the team lead in receiving TDs last season with three.
Lance Lawson returns after finishing fourth in the Big Sky in catches last year while former freshman All-American Landen Measom will stretch the defense after missing five games last season due to injury.
Warren said that sophomore Brandon Schenks, who saw the field mostly as a punter last season, “has really stepped up and turned himself into a really good receiver.”
The success of the offense will likely come down to the performance of the offensive line.
“We’ve got to dominate the line of scrimmage,” Warren said. “We feel like our offensive line is the strength of our team… We need to dominate up front. If we can do that, we’ll have success. If we can’t, it’s going to be a tough season.”
That group is anchored by 6-foot-7 left tackle Braxton Jones, who was named to the All-Big Sky third team last season. Warren said that Jones “shuts down that side of the defensive line,” and named Jones one of the team captains ahead of the season.
Collin Parrish will start at right tackle after making the switch from defensive line last season. Artese Gregory returns after starting all eleven games last season at left guard as a redshirt freshman.
The line will have to replace the production of three-time first team All-Big Sky performer Zach Larsen, who graduated at the end of last season. Warren said that redshirt freshman Canaan Yarro has “been awesome” at center in spring practice.
Redshirt freshman Lyle Santos and redshirt sophomore Christy Nkanu are battling for the final spot at right guard, and Warren said he’d be comfortable with starting either at that position.
The New Pieces
Frank Harris III looked like a potential game-changer during limited action in 2018, but suffered a serious knee injury that kept him out of the 2019 season.
Harris is an All-American high jumper for SUU’s track and field team, and his ability to win jump balls could prove very useful for Miller in taking the top off of the defense.
University of Mary transfer Brandon McFarlane will make the jump from Division II and should have a good chance of starting among a group of relatively inexperienced tight ends.
The T-Birds struggled to convert in the redzone last season, and McFarlane, who stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs 265 pounds, should be a potential outlet for Miller near the goal line after snagging a pair of TDs last season at U of Mary.
Freshman running back David Moore III could have an immediate impact in the backfield after finishing third in the history of Colorado high school football in rushing yards during his time at Pine Creek High School.
Moore is a can’t-miss talent who can break off big runs seemingly out of nowhere. He needs to be involved this season.
If worst comes to worst and Miller misses time due to injury or poor performance, Hymas and Jensen may get a chance to prove themselves as the backup alongside Skidmore.
Hymas originally committed to Weber State University before walking on for a year at the University of Utah. He was a highly-touted recruit that hasn’t had the chance to see consistent playing time at any of his stops so far, but perhaps that will come at SUU.
Jensen is an exciting prospect. He 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. If the going gets rough this season, it might be worth seeing what he’s got given his potential.
Warren emphasized that during this unusual season, every single player on the roster could have their number called at some point. His message to the team during the break was, “Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” On Saturday, after the longest offseason in program history, the T-Birds will have a chance to prove how ready they are.
“We’ve wanted to prepare like we had a game every Saturday,” Warren said. “I thought if we did that, we’d be the opportunity to be the best we can be when we finally do have a game. It’s been a long time, but our guys have stayed mentally in it.”
Kickoff against NAU is scheduled for 1 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on PlutoTV.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by: Mitchell Quartz