Southern Utah football looking to recover after dismal showing in 2018

(Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics) Southern Utah football coach Demario Warren.

Demario Warren wasn’t even mad.

In fact, when Southern Utah University’s fourth-year head coach learned the Thunderbirds were picked to finish 12th in the 13-team Big Sky Conference in the annual coaches poll, he said he was excited.

“I love proving people wrong all the time, so the lower the better,” Warren said. “It is going to be a great story for everybody when we do what we expect to do this season. Our guys have been fired up for a long time from the disappointment of last season, and this just gives us another opportunity to add to our story.”

Until last year, SUU’s curve was trending upward. In 2017, Warren’s second season, the Thunderbirds won their second BSC championship and made their third FCS playoff appearance in school history, finishing at 9-3.

But Southern Utah went a woeful 1-10 in 2018, dropping Warren’s career record at the Cedar City school to 16-18 overall, 13-11 in league contests.

Their only win was a 48-27 thumping of Sacramento State in Cedar City on Oct. 13. The Hornets went 2-8.


Aug. 31 at UNLV, 8 p.m. MT

Sept. 7 at Northern Iowa, 3 p.m. MT

Sept. 14 vs. Stephen F. Austin, TBA

Sept. 21 at South Dakota State, 5 p.m. MT

Sept. 28 vs. Cal Poly, TBA

Oct. 5 at Portland State, TBA

Oct. 12 at Weber State, 6 p.m. MT

Oct. 19 vs. UC Davis, TBA

Oct. 26 vs. Idaho State, TBA

Nov. 2 at Montana State, TBA

Nov. 16 vs. Northern Arizona, TBA

Nov. 23 vs. North Dakota, 12 p.m. MT

Poor defense was the primary culprit, as SUU gave up a whopping 41.5 points and 541.2 yards per game.

Warren hopes to solve the problem with the hiring of new defensive coordinator Brandon Fisher, who was the secondary coach for the Los Angeles Rams in 2016 and is the son of Jeff Fisher, a longtime head coach in the NFL.

The Rams’ secondary finished ninth in the NFL in total defense and 10th in fewest passing yards allowed in 2016.

“Coming off a difficult season for everybody, I thought [Fisher] was the right type of guy to come in here and challenge the guys to not just get better, but be the best,” Warren said.

Former BYU linebacker Uani Unga has also joined the staff as assistant to the head coach and a linebacker coaching assistant.

SUU’s defensive line should be a strength, led by senior Lehi Afatasi, Utah State transfer Gasetoto Schuster and Snow College transfer Watson Asi.

Offensively, the T-Birds were fifth in the Big Sky in total offense at 435.2 yards per game in 2018, and welcome back several key contributors on that side of the ball, most notably preseason all-conference center Zach Larsen, a Jordan High product.

“He’s been a tremendous leader,” Warren said. “He came to me right after the season and wanted to know what he could do to make sure we didn’t have another season like last year.”

Senior Jay Green Jr. led the Thunderbirds in rushing last year with 829 yards and eight touchdowns and also caught 14 passes for 150 yards. Redshirt junior James Fellia, from Kearns High, is also back after picking up 260 rushing yards last season before an injury cut his year short.

Three players — Chris Helbig, Aaron Zwahlen and Tyler Skidmore — shared most of the quarterbacking duties last year, with Helbig throwing for 1,011 yards, Zwahlen for 792 and Skidmore for 797. Helbig and Skidmore, from Roy High School, are battling to be the starter this year.


The Thunderbirds will succeed if: Some offseason coaching moves that head coach Demario Warren made prove beneficial, particularly on defense, and the team follows the leadership of offensive stars Jay Green and Zach Larsen. Better quarterback play than in 2018 is also a must.

The Thunderbirds won’t succeed if: A rugged early schedule of UNLV, Northern Iowa, Stephen F. Austin and South Dakota State takes its toll and players lose confidence in Warren’s promise that they will turn the ship around after going 1-10 last year.

Bottom line: After posting one of the best seasons (9-3) in school history in 2017, the program inexplicably collapsed in 2018 due to some untimely injuries and a porous defense. Changes were made, and Warren believes he has the talent in place at key positions to get SUU back to its winning ways.