2016 Big Sky Preview: Southern Utah

2015 Record: 8-4 (7-1)

Key Returners: Kyle Hannemann, Mike Sharp, Keita Calhoun, Ty Rutledge, Steven Wroblewski

Key Losses: Ammon Olson, Malik Brown, Justin Brown, James Cowser, LeShaun Sims, Miles Killebrew

The Southern Utah Thunderbirds made some personal history last season by winning their first Big Sky Conference title. The reward for winning the conference? A road trip to Sam Houston State in the first round of the FCS playoffs. The Thunderbirds, unfortunately, did not win that contest. Their season started off fairly promising, losing a 12-9 contest with Utah State and kept rolling from there after a somewhat large setback against South Dakota State. The big question for the T-Birds this season is can they repeat as Big Sky champions? They have a lot of work to do, especially after losing their head coach to BYU and their senior quarterback, Ammon Olson, left for graduation. They also lost two very talented players to the NFL, James Cowser and Miles Killebrew. New head coach Demario Warren will have his hands full this season, but given his experience at SUU he should be able to transition easily.

The Thunderbirds were quite good on offense last season, finishing 20th in the country, fifth in the Big Sky Conference. They averaged 445 yards of offense per game last season. The Thunderbirds finished 14th in the country in passing offense, averaging 279 yards per game. Compared to most of the rest of the Big Sky they were also quite good on defense, finishing 67th, giving up 390 yards per game. The Thunderbirds finished +20 in the touchdown category, a good indicator that they were a pretty good football team last season. In just as mind boggling of a statistic the Thunderbirds finished +20 in the turnover margin last season, that was good enough for first in the country. They will need to replicate that kind of output if they want any shot at repeating as Big Sky champions this coming season. Doing so with a somewhat depleted defense will be a challenge but their head coach seems to know a couple of things about coaching a good defense.

The T-Birds will return defensive lineman Chance Bearnson who recorded 13 tackles for loss last season and three and a half sacks. He had 46 total tackles, 21 of them solo. Linebacker Mike Needham will be a junior this coming season. Last season he had 94 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. He also had three interceptions, one of them returned for a touchdown, as well as two fumble returns for touchdowns. He was the 2015 Linebackers of the Year, as named by College Football Performance Awards.

The Thunderbirds will be searching for a new gunslinger this season as the aforementioned Ammon Olsen took his talents to adulthood. The T-birds have a few options, one quarterback who got some playing time last season is junior Tannon Pedersen who threw for a whopping six yards last season. They also have transfer quarterback Patrick Tyler, who will be a junior this season. The Thunderbirds will also be tasked with replacing top rusher from last season, Malik Brown, who piled up 829 yards and eight touchdowns. The most likely candidate will be Jarom Healey, a senior from Hurricane, Utah. To ease their new quarterback’s transition they will be returning two talented pass catchers, Steven Wroblewski and Mike Sharp. The Thunderbirds placed more players on the Big Sky preseason team than any other team in the conference.

The Thunderbirds schedule this season isn’t going to be an easy one. They’ll play all three of their in-state rivals, Utah, BYU, and Weber State. They will also host Southeast Louisiana and Portland State. They will travel to Montana and Northern Arizona. This is a tough schedule for a first year head coach and a team that’s replacing a lot of pieces. Finishing at .500 this season would probably be a victory for the Thunderbirds, but they have their work cut out for them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them take a step back this season. With this schedule they have plenty of work to do.

Thu, Sep 01      University of Utah
Sat, Sep 10      Southeast Louisiana
Sat, Sep 24      Portland State
Sat, Oct 01      Montana
Sat, Oct 08      UC Davis
Sat, Oct 15      North Dakota
Sat, Oct 22      Weber State
Sat, Oct 29      Idaho State
Sat, Nov 05      Montana State
Sat, Nov 12      Brigham Young University
Sat, Nov 19      Northern Arizona

Written by 

I'm a Wyoming native living in Missoula, Montana. I'm the owner of, a fan site for the Wyoming Cowboys. Now that I live in the heart of the Big Sky Conference I write about things that focus on those teams. I watch and read a lot of college football, probably more than is healthy. Hit me up on the Twitters @MrTitleist or @WyoNationDotCom Go Pokes, Go Griz!

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