As Mike Needham scans the field, he sees a defensive line stacked with depth anchored on the inside by two of the strongest, most physically imposing players in the Big Sky. Next to him, the first-team All-Big Sky Conference outside linebacker sees athletes who eat up space with their range. Behind him, Needham sees a secondary with a ball-hawking senior and cornerback that Southern Utah head coach DeMario Warren says might be his team’s latest NFL prospect.
Across the line of scrimmage, Needham sees a veteran offense with a third straight towering former BYU transfer at the controls of the unit. He sees a hulking 6-foot-7 tight end sure to be one of the Big Sky’s best. He sees a receiving corps that thrived once Justin Walterscheidt took over as SUU’s offensive coordinator and a backfield guided by a productive senior.
Needham is well-aware that his Thunderbirds lost three standout players off Southern Utah’s ball-hawking defense from a season ago. But SUU has qualified for the FCS playoffs twice in the last three seasons, including winning the first Big Sky title in school history last season. Aside from NFL hopefuls in safety Miles Killebrew, cornerback LeShaun Sims and defensive end James Cowser, the defense returns largely in tact. Offensively, the T-Birds lose 6-foot-5 strong-armed quarterback Ammon Olsen but replace him with 6-foot-6, 235-pound McCoy Hill, like Olsen a drop down from BYU. Southern Utah loses Ed Lamb after eight years at the helm, but slide in Warren, the mastermind of SUU’s defense last season, into the head coaching role.
Despite the collection of talent, Needham understands why Southern Utah is a middle of the pack pick in this year’s Big Sky race. It’s simply a way of life in Cedar City.
“Being the underdogs is nothing new to us,” said Needham, a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season as a sophomore after scoring a league-best three defensive touchdowns. “Every year that I’ve played here, we have been the underdogs. Last year, it was nice to be able to prove ourselves that we are more than a middle of the league team. I don’t see it affect us at all. It’s just a number we hear and then we forget about it. Even if we were ranked first, it’s just a number and we will prove it when the season comes.”
Southern Utah posted a 7-1 record in Big Sky play last season, the lone loss a 24-23 defeat at Portland State on a missed two-point conversion. Still, the Thunderbirds were forced to go on the road in the first round of the FCS playoffs. SUU took Sam Houston State down to the wire in Huntsville, Texas as Mike Sharp caught three touchdowns in an eight-minute span but SHSU eventually prevailed thanks to Yedidiah Louis’s 55-yard touchdown catch with 3:44 remaining to lift the Bearkats to a 42-39 victory.
In the off-season, Lamb left to take the associate head coaching position at BYU, his alma mater. Southern Utah athletic director Jason Butikofer wasted little time promoting Warren to head coach. The UC Davis alum served on Lamb’s staff for all eight seasons in Cedar City, including the last two as defensive coordinator.
“It’s been a blessing and an honor to take over for my mentor,” Warren said in an interview in June. “He had the vision over the last eight years to get us to this top level. It’s been a great challenge for us to be consistent. We have two playoff appearances and two losing seasons. It’s a challenge for us to become a winning program
“This is the time no matter if it’s Coach Lamb or myself that we have to prove we can be a consistent winner in the Big Sky. That’s what the next goal is if we want to earn respect. Are we going to do it every couple of years? Or can we be consistent with it every year. Our mindset after winning the Big Sky was what’s next? Can we do this year in and year out?”
Southern Utah broke through with a eight-win season in 2013 that included a landmark win at Montana State, at the time the three-time defending league champions. In 2014, SUU struggled mightily on defense, giving up big plays prevalently and surrendering more yards than any other team in the FCS.
In an effort to maintain the continuity of the program and build momentum on the foundation laid by Lamb, Warren was hired in January, less than a month before National Signing Day. He has done little to change the routine for success already in place.
“Coach Lamb and Coach Warren came here together,” Needham said. “Coach Warren learned a ton from Coach Lamb so there’s not a ton of difference. Small things, routines, the way we set the schedule, there’s no huge differences from moving on from Coach Lamb leaving.”
“We don’t have to worry about a new guy who we don’t know coming in. We are all very comfortable with Coach Warren, his family, his wife, his kids. It was a transition that was easy for us.”
Replacing a fourth-round NFL draft pick (Killebrew), a fifth-round selection (Sims) and a free agent signee who piled up more sacks than anyone in FCS history (Cowser) will be no small task. But Southern Utah feels it has the pieces in place to make another playoff run.
Up front, 6-foot-3, 355-pound defensive tackle Fesi Vaa’ivaka is arguably the most powerful player in the league. The 31-year-old graduated high school in 2004 and did not attend college until 2014. He will be a junior. He can squat more than 700 pounds and bench press more than 500. He and Robert Torgerson, a 6-foot-4, 280-pounder who missed last season with a knee injury, will anchor the interior of SUU’s line.
“Torgerson, he’s an animal,” Needham said. “When you look at him, you wouldn’t really expect him to be anything great. He’s not huge or super buff but in the weight room, he just kills it and in spring ball, this was the first time I played with him and he just destroys offensive linemen. It’s going to be fun to watch him this year.”
On the outside, Taylor Pili had three sacks and five tackles for loss in spot duty last season. The junior will be bookended by senior Josh Talbort and 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior Chance Bearnson, who had 13 tackles for loss as a sophomore.
Junior linebacker Taylor Nelson notched 94 tackles and seven tackles for loss last season. He will play on the opposite side of Needham with Junior Tufuga manning the middle.
On the back end, Kyle Hanneman had four interceptions last season despite missing time with injuries. Josh Thornton is back for his senior year after snaring two interceptions playing opposite Sims last season. Warren said Thornton is one of SUU’s top NFL prospects.
“The biggest thing we are working on defensively is stepping up to see who will become leaders on the team,” Needham said. “The biggest thing is having guys step up and fill the roles of Cowser, Killebrew and Sims. Those guys are crazy, huge impacts to our team but we’ve had guys step in.”
At the beginning of October of last fall, veteran offensive coordinator Gary Crowton abruptly resigned at Southern Utah. Lamb scrambled, eventually promoting Walterscheidt to offensive coordinator. In the nine games with the former Southern Utah player calling the offense, SUU averaged nearly 40 points per game. Mike Sharp earned All-Big Sky honors at wide receiver by catching 11 of his 13 touchdowns the second half of the season.
Olsen was a key to the offense, throwing for 3,344 yards and 26 touchdowns to earn a free agent tryout with the Indianapolis Colts. Now the controls of the attack, which features senior running back Malik Brown (829 yards, 8 touchdowns) and giant 6-foot-7, 265-pound all-league senior tight end Steven Wroblewski (36 catches, 375 yards, two TDs), belong to Hill, an in-state product who fell behind Taisom Hill and Tanner Mangum on the BYU depth chart before transferring.
“I think that Coach Walterscheidt has done a great job here just in the short amount of time he has had. Since taking over last year, he’s done a great job of forcing execution through simplicity and making sure everyone is on the same page,” Hill said in an interview this off-season. “That’s something I’ve really enjoyed.”
A season ago, Southern Utah did not have to play perennial Big Sky powers Montana or Eastern Washington. This season’s schedule includes trips to play UM in Missoula, North Dakota in Grand Forks and Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. SUU also plays three in-state rivals — Weber State in Cedar City along with non-conference trips up the highway to Provo to play BYU in late November and Utah in Salt Lake to open the season.
“This season is about staying humble and coming out every day to fight,” Needham said. “We have to focus on Utah because I have no doubt we are going to come out and smack them in the face. We have guys on our team who can play at that level. If we start strong and play well to start the year like we did last year against Utah State (a 12-9 loss in Logan), then we are going to have a great season. I’m not worried about the teams we play in the conference this year. We are here to compete with Utah and BYU and play at that level.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.