The defense of Southern Utah University’s football team left plenty to be desired last season.
The T-Birds allowed an average of 37.6 points per game in 2019. While the secondary allowed the least amount of yards per catch last season, the middle of the field was easily accessible by opposing running backs — opponents ran for over 200 yards per game.
In the Big Sky, they ranked No. 11 in interceptions (8), No. 12 in sacks (14), No. 13 in opponent 3rd down conversions (79) and No. 12 in red zone defense with only six red zone stops on the entire year.
In addition to the problems faced last season, SUU also lost many of their top defensive talents. As a result, the six game season the T-Birds will play this spring is going to force them into making many hard and fast decisions on the defensive side of the ball.
Here’s what SUU fans can expect to see on defense coming into the 2021 season.
(For an in depth look into SUU’s upcoming football schedule, as well as a detailed look into this season’s offensive arsenal, check out Connor Sanders’ breakdown here.)
The loss of linebacker Alex Sims looms large over the future of the SUU defense. Sims was arguably the best player on that side of the ball last season with 81 total tackles. He entered the transfer portal after the 2019 season, and officially transferred to Kent State in the summer of 2020.
With Sims leaving, the vacancy at linebacker grew even greater, given that Nela Otukolo graduated .
Hometown hero Quaid Murray will see an increased role in the linebacker position as he enters into his junior year. As a sophomore, Murray was third on the team in total tackles with 65, and even forced a fumble against the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the first game of the 2019 season.
Aubrey Nellems could also have a greater impact as he enters into his sophomore season. As a freshman, Nellems recorded 23 solo tackles and an interception, but was limited to just nine contests due to injury.
Head coach Demario Warren also has plenty of bodies to choose from to plug into the rotation in the middle of the defense.
La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, Fabian Marble, Somtochukwu Achebo and Jordan Walker are all suitable juniors to fill those gaps, but Walker is particularly interesting, given that he had five tackles within the first two games of last season before suffering a season-ending injury.
Believe it or not, the middle of the defense seems to be the most stable area in this year’s SUU defense.
The T-Bird secondary boasted the best passing defense in the Big Sky last season, allowing teams to gain just 222.8 yards through the air per game.
Carlton Johnson led the way with three intercepts and four break-ups to go along with his 32 total tackles, but with him no longer being listed on the roster, and Khalid Taylor moving over to the safety position, both corner positions stand vacant.
Former Freshman All-American Jalen Russell will likely fill the hole Johnson is leaving. Russell had a solid first two seasons with the T-Birds, recording a combined 64 tackles, and three interceptions before suffering a season-ending injury in the season opener against UNLV.
L.J. Davis is also coming off his best season as a T-Bird, where he appeared in 10 games and totaled 8 tackles. Jake Narayan, transfer from Contra Costa College, has a fair amount of games played under his belt at the JUCO level, and could offer the secondary some much needed experience.
Don’t be surprised to see a freshman or two line-up for a few snaps this season either. Warren’s cornerback roster is home to two redshirt and two true freshmen.
SUU also lost safeties Nate Vaughn (graduation), Mike Sims (transfer) and Alan Holsten (not with the team).
AJ Stanley is also looking to build off his Big Sky All-Conference Honorable Mention season where he finished second on the team in tackles with 71.
Roderick Ward looks poised to continue his solid collegiate career in the safety spot, and should see a bigger role now that he doesn’t have to fight Vaughn, Sims and Holsten for minutes. Last season, Ward recorded 22 tackles and recovered one fumble while appearing in every game..
Stanley, Ward and Taylor provide the secondary with much needed experience and, according to Warren, they prompt a good amount of accountability as well.
“I think our secondary having a big veteran presence has really stepped up,” Warren said. “[They’ve] taken some ownership.”
SUU’s strength in the trenches, however, is the biggest question mark coming into the season for the T-Birds.
“On the defensive line, we’ve just had guys in and out,” Warren said. “We think that will be a strength, we just haven’t been able to see them all together yet.”
Francis Bemiy comes into his junior season as the most prominent figure on the defensive front. In his sophomore campaign, he was fifth on the team in total tackles with 51, while forcing one fumble, two tackles for losses and three quarterback hurries.
As long as he can stay healthy, Bishop Jones causes quite a bit of stress for opposing offensive lines. In 2019, Jones recorded 30 total tackles, eight of which were tackles for losses. Three of those TFL’s were sacks.
Jones has, however, battled injury throughout his career here at SUU. The 2019 season for him was his best to date, but he remains one of the guys who is, according to Warren, “in and out.”
Mark Kruger, Aaron Romero, and Mykeal White are three other returners that will need to step up this season. Kruger finished last season with 18 tackles in 11 games while Romero followed right behind with 18 tackles in 10 games. White played in all but two games last season, recording 16 total tackles.
Other big names of note along the line are Kotoni Sekona, a junior who appeared in 11 contests last season, and Napa Nu’usa, an East High product who is still looking to record his first tackle as a T-Bird.
While both sides of the ball have many questions to answer this season, the SUU defense could feature plenty of different names throughout the first few games as Warren and new defensive coordinator Robert Bala work through various rotations.
The T-Birds season begins Saturday against Northern Arizona University on Saturday at 1 p.m.. The game can be viewed on PlutoTV.
Story by: Kelton Jacobsen
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletic Department Strategic Communication