SUU made history with last year’s championship and playoff run, but questions at QB and on defense will make a repeat difficult

(Jordan Allred | The Spectrum | The Associated Press) Southern Utah running back Jay Green Jr. (21) carries the ball for a first down during an NCAA college football game against Northern Arizona, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Cedar City, Utah. Southern Utah defeated Northern Arizona 48-20 to claim a share of the Big Sky Conference title.

Southern Utah coach Demario Warren isn’t looking to change his expectations after arguably the best season in SUU’s football history.

“We always have the same goals, it doesn’t really matter the year,” Warren said. “We want to have a winning record, we want to make the playoffs, we want to win the conference championship, and we want to win a national championship.”

Last season featured a 9-3 overall record, including a 7-1 run in Big Sky Conference play to claim a share of the league title. And yes, the Thunderbirds went further than they ever have in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs before falling 30-13 to rival Weber State in the postseason.

But this year, there will be some uncertainty. All-Conference quarterback Patrick Tyler is gone, and the Thunderbirds are staging a quarterback battle to find his replacement. Junior Aaron Zwahlen, Tyler’s backup last year, might be the most likely candidate, though Chris Helbig, a junior college transfer from Butler (Kan.) Community College, is in the mix.

“I feel great about the quarterbacks that are battling right now,” Warren said. “We feel like we have two really great ones. We’re just looking for consistency, guys who can deal with adversity, guys who can lead this football team. We know both of them can do it.”

Either quarterback will be in a position to succeed thanks to much of the rest of the offense returning. That’s especially true on a veteran offensive line which includes three preseason All-Big Sky team selections. The best of this bunch may be junior center Zach Larsen, who has been named to the national All-FCS team.

“He’s got the most grit on the team,” Zwahlen said.

The running back group should be strong as well, with the team returning the players who scored 23 of SUU’s 29 rushing touchdowns last year. Jay Green Jr. scored 14 of those, and Terrance Beasley and Lelon Dillard are back to give Green some plays off.

Last year’s defense was a sore spot. SUU returns five starters from a unit that ranked 80th in FCS in points allowed, but Warren is optimistic about bouncing back.

“We have a lot of youth, but a lot of talent and a lot of depth. We expect to play great defense,” Warren said. “We lost a lot of guys but that’s no excuse to not play good defense.”

Overall, the picture is uncertain enough that not only is Southern Utah not picked to repeat, it is not even in the top half of the Big Sky’s preseason coaches poll (sixth), the lowest preseason slot for the Thunderbirds since 2014 under Ed Lamb.


All Times Mountain

Sept. 1 • North Alabama, 6 p.m.

The Lions are entering their first season as an FCS school, as an independent.

Sept. 8 • at Oregon State, 6 p.m.

Beavers are Pac-12′s doormat and breaking in a new coach. There’s an opportunity here.

Sept. 15 • at Arizona, 9 p.m.

Arizona QB Khalil Tate is a tough order for Power 5 teams, let alone an FCS one.

Sept. 22 • at Northern Arizona, 5 p.m.

With both teams on the upswing, this has turned into a fun, entertaining rivalry.

Oct. 6 • at Eastern Washington, 1 p.m.

A tall order on the red rug in Cheney.

Oct. 13 • Sacramento State, 6 p.m.

The Hornets have been revived after years as one of the Big Sky’s worst teams.

Oct. 20 • at Idaho, 3 p.m.

The Vandals have dropped down to FCS after struggling in FBS.

Oct. 27 • Northern Colorado, 6 p.m.

Difficulty factor ramps up if injury-plagued Bears QB Jacob Knipp is healthy.

Nov. 3 • Montana, 1 p.m.

Always helps to get the perennially-tough Grizzlies at home.

Nov. 10 • Weber State, 5 p.m.

Rivalry game. Championship, FCS playoff berth also on the line?

Nov. 17 • at Cal Poly, 5 p.m.

If T-Birds are in postseason mix, Mustangs will want to play spoiler.


The Thunderbirds will succeed if ... The youthful defense comes through, and the winner of the quarterback battle is able to take advantage of a stout offensive line and running game.

The Thunderbirds won’t succeed if ... The loss of Patrick Tyler causes the offense to fall apart, and if the defense proves unable to stop anyone in the tough Big Sky Conference.

Bottom line is ... The Thunderbirds are coming off one of their best seasons ever. But questions at starting quarterback and a defense that returns only five starters from last season may hamper the T-Birds, who are picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky after finishing as co-champions a year ago.