Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
SOUTHERN UTAH THUNDERBIRDS
RECORD LAST SEASON: 9-3 OVERALL, 7-1 IN BIG SKY PLAY – CO-LEAGUE CHAMPION
2018 non-conference record: 0-3
Big question: Will they finally get their due?
The Thunderbirds have been one of the most consistently successful teams in the Big Sky since they joined the league in 2012. Since then, they’ve had four winning seasons, three playoff appearances, and two league titles, including last year when they went 7-1 in conference play to share the title with co-champion Weber State. SUU earned the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs due to a 32-16 win at fellow co-champion Weber State.
If you took the preseason polls at face value, that was a surprise, as the T-Birds were picked seventh in the league last year. This year, despite being the defending champions? They were sixth.
“For us to have to climb that mountain from outside the rankings is hard,” head coach Demario Warren said. “You have to continue to fight and claw and do everything you can to get the respect around the country. … We don’t ever want to actually be the underdog. We want to be one of those teams that is actually talked about around the country as one of the best in the country.”
Southern Utah has the talent to do that this year. Warren, who was Ed Lamb’s defensive coordinator before taking over the head coaching job, always builds tough defenses, and they return maybe the best 1-2 punch at running back in the conference in James Felila and Jay Green, a pair of powerful and agile runners lining up behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.
But Southern Utah’s brutal schedule has gotten the best of the T-Birds early on. SUU surprisingly dropped its home opener 34-30 to North Alabama, a former Division II powerhouse that is still transitioning to the FCS. A 48-25 loss at Oregon State and a 62-31 loss at Arizona followed.
The schedule provides no relief. Southern Utah will play a fourth and fifth straight home games with matchups at Northern Arizona this week and at Eastern Washington next week before finally returning home after five straight away games to begin October against Sacramento State.
Offensive Player to Watch: James Felila and Jay Green Jr., running backs
Felila and Green were two of the best backs in the conference last year, and with both returning, the only problem for SUU will be getting enough carries for both. Felila, a junior from Kearns, Utah, ran for 700 yards last year in just nine games. His yards-per-game average of 77.8 was fourth in the league. Green, meanwhile, was the top touchdown-getter in the league as a sophomore, recording 14 scores in just 11 games to go with his 655 yards rushing and 160 receiving. At just 193 pounds, he’s not the goal-line back you’d expect from those numbers, but a nose for the endzone is always a good thing. With quarterback Patrick Tyler gone to graduation, leaving transfers Chris Helbig (Butler CC) and Aaron Zwahlen (Hawaii) to compete for the starting quarterback job, expect the Thunderbirds to lean on Felila and Green even more.
Thus far, only Helbig has taken snaps at quarterback. He is completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 309 yards per game and has thrown five touchdowns compared to one interception. Felila and Gren have split carries almost evenly, with Felila getting 39 carries for 182 yards and a touchdown and Green taking 35 carries for 166 yards and a score. Helbig has also been a running threat, carrying the ball 37 times for 98 yards and four of SUU’s 11 total touchdowns.
Defensive Player to Watch: Chinedu Ahanonu, senior linebacker
Ahanonu had one of the most prolific all-time Big Sky defensive seasons in 2014, recording 152 total tackles, including a conference-record 28 in one game against Nevada. The reason that he’s still around in 2018 is that, like a number of players at Southern Utah, he left for a Mormon mission after that season. That cost him the 2015 and 2016 seasons, but he was back and just as good last year, recording 70 total tackles despite only playing in seven games.
It looked like his role shifted a little, too, as despite his tackling numbers not being quite as good, he recorded nine tackles for loss, more than he had in that 2014 season. If Ahanonu’s now a menace in the backfield as well as a field-covering linebacker extraordinaire, watch out Big Sky offenses.
This season, he has 21 solo tackles among his team-best 26 total stops, including two tackles for loss.
Senior tight end Logan Parker: “Our team was extremely fired up to prove to people what we were capable of,” Parker said. “We had a young team then and we are a more experienced team now. That expectation of raising the level to another level is something we can improve on year after year and that’s what helps everybody be competitive and come closer together as a team. Last year was a great benchmark for us to say, ‘We’ve already done hard things. We can now push ourselves to do ever greater things.”
Conference opener: Southern Utah at Northern Arizona, 5 p.m. MST