Thunderbirds Open Fall Drills Monday

Thunderbirds Open Fall Drills Monday

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CEDAR CITY, Utah, July 31 - Southern Utah University will take the first step in its quest for the 2007 Great West Football Conference championship Monday when the Thunderbirds welcome newcomers and returning players to fall camp. All players are scheduled to report Monday for orientation with the first practice slated for 3:15 p.m. at the Thunderbird practice facility.

"We're extremely excited to get going," SUU head coach Wes Meier said. "Most of our guys have had a good summer, they've worked real hard. We're going into this season with high expectations."

The Thunderbirds will square off against what is arguably the nation's toughest schedule this season. SUU faces nine teams ranked in the Football Championship Subdivision's top-25 this year, including five games against teams ranked in the pre-season top-10.

The Thunderbirds open the season Sept. 1, when they travel to No. 2 Montana for a 1:05 p.m. game. The first home game is Sept. 8, when Division II North Dakota visits Cedar City for a 6:00 p.m. game. SUU begins Great West Football Conference play Oct. 20, when it hosts UC Davis. Homecoming is slated for Sept. 22, when SUU hosts No. 7 McNeese State in a 6:00 p.m. game.

SUU hosts two more ranked teams, including No. 14 Southern Illinois (Sept. 15), and No. 16 Cal Poly (Nov. 3). In addition, the Thunderbirds travel to No. 22 Montana St. (Oct. 6), No. 6 Youngstown St. (Oct. 13), No. 3 North Dakota St. (Oct. 27), No. 20 South Dakota St. (Nov. 10) and No. 9 Northern Iowa (Nov. 17).

"The schedule is something we're really excited about," Meier pointed out. "We've never had the opportunity to play this type of schedule and its something we're looking forward to. Our fans are going to be treated to some excellent competition this year and we're looking forward to seeing some great crowds when we bring in these top teams."

There will be a lot of new faces on the first day of camp as Southern Utah will welcome 90 players Monday, including 20 newcomers. Thirty-six lettermen return, including 17 starters. Eight starters are back on defense while seven return on the offensive side of the ball. The Thunderbirds will also welcome 19 redshirts and 15 transfers and other newcomers who were with the team during spring ball back.

Thunderbird Quick Hits:

x SUU will be entering its 45th season as a four-year football-playing institution and its 22nd as a member of the NCAA. The 2007 season also marks the Thunderbirds' 15th as a member of the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA).

x SUU opens at Montana this year, marking the fourth time in the last five seasons the Thunderbirds have played their first game of the season away from home. It will be the second time SUU has opened at Montana. The Thunderbirds opened against the Grizzlies back in 1998 and took a 45-35 win in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

x The Thunderbirds have six returning all-conference players, center Matt Roan, running back Johnny Sanchez, quarterback Wes Marshall, linebackers Robert Takeno and La'Var Porter and safety D.J. Senter.

x SUU also returns three academic all-GWFC honorees from the 2006 squad: Roan, sophomore slotback Brandon Godfrey and sop.

x SUU plays 10 of its 11 games against FCS opponents this year, with the only exception the matchup with Division II North Dakota State. Last year, the Thunderbirds competed against a gamut of competition, with a game at BCS division Florida Atlantic and games vs. NAIA Montana Tech and NCAA Division II Western State in addition to eight FCS contests.

x The Thunderbirds have always been proud to be Utah's Team and this year is no exception as the SUU squad boasts 53 home-grown players. Nevada has the second-highest number of players on the roster, with 18, followed by California with 13. There are eight players hailing from Arizona, three from Idaho, two from Florida, and one each from Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Virginia. The Thunderbirds also have three international players on the roster this season: two from American Samoa and one from Sweden.

Quick Outlook: Although his team is young, Meier says he is encouraged by the players he has returning, including seven starters on the offensive side of the ball and eight on the defensive side.

Starting quarterback Wes Marshall, along with running backs Johnny Sanchez and Kyle Coop, slotback Craig Gritton and offensive linemen Matt Roan, Tim Husselbee and Stephen Boyer all return after starting much, if not all, of the 2006 campaign. Sanchez and Roan were second-team all-Great West Football Conference selections last year, while Marshall earned honorable mention honors from the coaches. Defensively, SUU has four starters returning in the backfield: safeties D.J. Senter and Jovan Jackson and cornerbacks Derek Brown and DeWayne Lewis. Up front linebackers La'Var Porter and T.J. Tabatabai, tackles Austin Curtis and Aaron Fernandez and end Jimmy Judd all return after starting the majority of the games in 2006.

"I like the fact we have a lot of guys who can step up and take the pressure," Meier notes. "We have a lot of guys who have been around and are confident in what we can do. Wes, Kyle, Johnny, Matt Roan, Husselbee, those are all guys on the offensive side who are ready to step up. Defensively Aaron and Austin, Jimmy Judd, D.J., La'Var, T.J, Jovan, these guys know we can be good, they want the pressure that comes with high expectations."

Coaching Lineup: Meier will be entering his fourth season as head coach and his fifth on the SUU staff and the majority of his staff returns intact.

Cole Wilson returns for his eighth season on the Thunderbird sideline and his third as assistant head coach/defensive coordinator. Helping out on the defensive side of the ball and serving as special teams coordinator is Dustin Pearce, who is back for his third season, while Solomona "Taps" Tapasa - the lone newcomer to the program - will handle the defensive line after joining the Thunderbirds last spring. Also helping out on the defensive side of the ball will be Derek Campbell, who is back for his second season.

Jared Martin is in his fifth season on the staff and his second as offensive coordinator with Ryan Hunt entering his fourth season, his second as offensive line coach. Receivers coach Ben Meier is in his second season as a full-time assistant and his fifth overall with the staff, while Chris Shipman is in his second season as running backs coach. Mike Knight, an all-GWFC performer the last two seasons, moves to the coaching staff this year, working with the offensive line.

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