FCS football preview: A look at the Southern Utah Thunderbirds


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Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

CEDAR CITY — There's a new sheriff in town at Southern Utah University, and he's a man on a mission.

New head coach DeLane Fitzgerald inherited a program that won only a single game last season, and he is tasked with changing the identity of Southern Utah football. Fitzgerald was selected, in part, due to his work at Frostburg State, where he took over a one-win program in 2013 and turned them into a Division-II powerhouse by the end of his tenure.

Though the Thunderbirds haven't a winning season since 2017, the program hopes Fitzgerald can work his magic again. After all, it may be the perfect time to rebuild the program since Southern Utah transitioned to the Western Athletic Conference over the summer.

The Thunderbirds' roster has seen a significant amount of turnover since their season ended in November — very few major contributors are returning. That means Fitzgerald gets a jump start at completely renovating the culture of the program. Several positions are still open for battle, but here's how the roster looks as of now:

Offense

Fitzgerald and his staff were immediately faced with a tough decision in the offseason about who to start at quarterback for the 2022 season. Last year's starter, Justin Miller, split reps throughout the spring and summer with Grady Robison, a transfer from Western Kentucky. Ultimately, Miller won the job.

"Good player, good leader," Fitzgerald said. "(Miller has) done a great job of leading and mentoring our players."

Fitzgerald noted that if Robison is healthy, there is a good chance that he will make plenty of appearances throughout the season. The coaching staff values his dual-threat playing style and ability to extend plays.

The skills positions saw a complete overhaul over the summer, with the only notable returner being last year's reception leader, Ethan Bolingbroke. The running back and receiver rooms were stipped down and built back up through the transfer portal. Steve Jenkins (UNLV) and Isaiah Wooden (Kent State) are other names to look out for at receiver.

As far as running backs go, Fitzgerald was unhappy with what he had throughout the spring camp and added a host of new players over the summer.

"We went to the portal and just fixed that position," Fitzgerald said. "We will be improved at the running back position."

Headlining that group is Bobby Cole, a transfer from New Mexico; Joe Davis from Colorado and Elijah Burns from William and Mary will also play big roles.

Southern Utah will see a lot of work from their tight ends, as well, specifically Mata'ave Ta'ase, Clayton Johnson and Jacob Moffitt. Fitzgerald said they will run one, two, and three tight end sets.

Along the offensive line, the only returning player to start all 11 games last season is right guard Lyle Santos. Tackle Christy Nkanu has also started over the last couple of seasons for the Thunderbirds and will see a lot of time in the 2022 season. During the team's spring camp, the O-line was stretched thin, with only eight total players available. That number is now up to 18 as the staff focused on adding depth.

Defense

The defense features perhaps even more turnover, with only two major contributors returning from last season: linebacker Aubrey Nellems and defensive end Francis Bemiy.

Nellems is entering his junior season and will be starting as the will linebacker position, while the other linebacker spots will need to be sorted out through training camp. Bemiy was the only Thunderbird named to the WAC preseason All-Conference team and is an excellent run stopper who can also get after the quarterback.

"If Francis has a big year, he will be on an NFL team this time next year," Fitzgerald said. "He's had a good summer in the weight room. He will do a nice job."

At the other defensive end spot is Zach Strand, a transfer that Fitzgerald brought with him from Frostburg State. Standing under 6 feet, Strand is unassuming as a defensive lineman, but his relentless motor allowed him to win Mountain East Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2020.

The defensive backfield is far from set, but Fitzgerald is happy with the depth that he has. Both starting cornerback spots are up for grabs, with Davin Wilson and Damaje Yancey being two returning players that have a shot to earn a starting role.

At safety, Rodrick Ward showed out in spring and figures to have a crack at competing for the starting job. Another safety that Fitzgerald talked highly about was Josh Dunn, who also comes from Frostburg State.

"If you are just talking potential, Josh Dunn has a chance to be a real-deal football player," Fitzgerald said. "He's a DB that power cleaned 315 pounds — very explosive. He's also one of the more sure tacklers that I have ever seen."

Outlook

One key matchup to be excited for is the new conference rivalry with Utah Tech. With St. George less than an hour away from Cedar City, the Trailblazers figure to be Southern Utah's biggest rival in most sports. To make things even sweeter, the teams will have a home-and-home this year to account for the University of the Incarnate Word leaving the WAC before the season started.

Southern Utah football is essentially starting from scratch in their first year in their new conference, with Fitzgerald only returning a few proven players from last year's roster. He and his staff have been working meticulously throughout the summer to bring in new players from the transfer portal in order to give his team a fighting chance in his inaugural season, but also to help change the culture for the future.

The WAC produced some of the top FCS teams last season, so this is no short order. It will only take a couple of wins to improve upon last year's 1-10 record, and Fitzgerald thinks his Thunderbirds are up to the challenge.

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