Thunderbird draftees and NFL history

Southern Utah University’s Braxton Jones has the opportunity to be the third Thunderbird drafted into the NFL in the last six years. The T-Birds’ offensive tackle played basketball and football as a two-star athlete for Murray High School in his hometown of Murray, Utah.

After being recruited to SUU in 2017 as an offensive linemen, Jones played just one game in his first year as a redshirt freshman. Over the course of his college career, Jones earned one All-Big Sky Third Team, one Associated Press FCS First Team All-American selection and two All-Big Sky First Team selections among many others. 

A great performance at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine, including a 4.97 40-yard dash, bolstered Jones’ value to NFL teams that projected him to be a sixth-seventh round pick. 

“To see Braxton potentially get drafted makes me feel super proud of him,” SUU offensive linemen Lyle Santo stated. “It really motivates a lot of guys in our program, especially our offensive line. No matter the school you’re at, if you put the time and effort in, you can make it. He’s a prime example for that.”

Championship pedigree

Fresh off of a Big Sky Championship in 2015, two T-Birds were picked in the 2016 NFL draft. Miles Killebrew was the first T-Bird off the board, being drafted by the Detroit Lions with the 111th pick in the fifth round to play strong safety.

Killebrew was a two-sport athlete, playing football and basketball for Foothill High School in his hometown of Henderson, Nevada. After redshirting his freshman year, the T-Bird safety/ linebacker had a great career as a three-year starter, recording 365 tackles, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, three interceptions and three blocked kicks. 

After spending four seasons with the Detroit Lions from 2016-21, Killebrew was signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers to a one-year contract as a special teams player. On March 11, 2022, Killebrew signed a two year contract that will bring him back to the Steelers. 

Cornerback LeShaun Sims was the second T-Bird to make it to the NFL in 2016, being drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the 157th pick in the fifth round. Sims is from Las Vegas where he played high school football for Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. 

Sims also had a great college career for the T-Birds, recording 220 tackles, eight interceptions, 27 passes defended, one forced fumble, five fumble recoveries and four tackles for a loss. After spending four years with the Titans, Sims signed with the Cincinnati Bengals on a one-year deal in 2020. Sims became a free agent in 2021 but was not signed to an active roster. 

Undrafted T-Birds to go pro

An intricate part of the T-Birds’ 2015 Big Sky Championship team was linebacker/defensive end James Cowser. Cowser went undrafted in the 2016 NFL draft after his phenomenal career as a T-Bird. 

Born and raised in Fruit Heights, Utah, Cowser attended Davis High School in Kaysville, Utah. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cowser went on his mission in 2009. After a two-year mission, Cowser returned to play 2012-15 for the T-Birds’ program. 

In his junior season, Cowser recorded 28.5 tackles for a loss — breaking the record in the Big Sky held by the 2022 NFL Hall of Fame runner-up Jared Allen. Cowser recorded 294 tackles, 80 tackles for loss and 42.5 sacks in his career for the T-Birds. Going undrafted in 2016, Cowser spent 2016-17 in between the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad and active roster.

T-Bird transfers

The T-Birds’ wide receiver Nick Miller went undrafted in 2009 after spending his last two college seasons with the program. Miller is a native of Mesa, Arizona where he played high school football for Red Mountain High School.

After transferring from Scottsdale Community College in 2007, Miller set SUU records — amassing 914 yards on 41 kickoff returns in 2007. Miller played in the NFL for four years, starting with the Oakland Raiders from 2009-11, the St. Louis Rams in 2011 and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013.

Salt Lake City native Marques Harris played high school football for Grand Junction High School in Grand Junction, Colorado. Spending his first three seasons with the Colorado Buffaloes, Harris transferred to SUU for his senior season as a linebacker/defensive end.

During his senior season, Harris recorded 68 tackles and 11 sacks to earn himself third-team All-American honors by Sports Network.  

Being an undrafted free agent in 2005, Harris signed with the San Diego Chargers to play special teams and as a sack specialist. After playing for the Chargers from 2005-08, Harris signed with the San Francisco 49ers but was released before the start of the season.

Wide receiver Mark Harris played his freshman year for the T-Birds in 1992 before transferring to finish his college career at Stanford. Harris was born in Clovis, New Mexico but played high school for Box Elder High School in Brigham City, Utah.

After going undrafted in 1996, Harris signed with the San Francisco 49ers after the 1995 Super Bowl. Further down the depth chart, Harris was a 49er for four seasons until 1999 and was not signed by a team again. 

SUU’s firsts

The first T-Bird to step on an NFL field was defensive back Len Walterscheid. He was born in Gainesville, Texas but played high school football at Grand High School in Moab, Utah.

Walterscheid played for SUU from 1973-77 and was signed by the Chicago Bears after going undrafted in 1977. His time with the Bears came to an end in 1983 but he played the last of his eight NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills. 

Quarterback Brad Sorensen was the first Thunderbird to ever be drafted into the NFL. Sorensen is an all-time leader in most passing stats at Southern Utah. He was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the seventh round of the 2013  NFL draft. Although drafted, Sorensen never saw the field professionally. He spent time on and off the Chargers’ practice squad and also had brief stints with the Tennesee Titans and Minnesota Vikings.

Article by: Chevy Blackburn

Photo Courtesy of SUU Athletics