UNLV Football: First Look At The Southern Utah Thunderbirds
The Rebels will open 2019 against FCS Southern Utah. Here’s a first look at the Thunderbirds.
One of 2018’s worst FCS teams visits Sam Boyd.
2019 is shaping up to be the most important season in recent UNLV football history, and it all begins when the Rebels host the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in the season opener.
SUU is likely to be newly motivated after last year’s disastrous 1-10 finish, the program’s first losing season since 2014 and just its third this decade.
Location: Cedar City, UT
Mascot: Thor the Thunderbird
Conference: Big Sky
2018 Record: 1-10 (1-7 Big Sky)
Head Coach: Demario Warren (fourth year, 16-18 overall). After being promoted from SUU’s defensive coordinator to head coach in 2016, the Thunderbirds won the Big Sky title in 2017 and… well, fell off a cliff last fall.
There’s definitely room for improvement
C Zach Larsen
If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because you may remember his brother, Tyler, who starred at Utah State and now plays for the Carolina Panthers. Like Tyler, Zach has proven to be an effective linchpin in the middle of the Thunderbirds offense but, unlike his brother, he might just be one of the best players on the FCS level, having been been named a first-time all-Big Sky selection and a Phil Steele FCS All-American in both of the past two seasons.
QB Chris Helbig
SUU had an extremely unsettled quarterback situation last fall — three players had at least 130 pass attempts — but the 6-foot-4, 214-pound sophomore figures to be back atop the depth chart after recovering from a shoulder injury that cost him most of the season.
In four games, Helbig completed 64.8% of his passes with five touchdowns against two interceptions. Perhaps more importantly, SUU averaged 27.3 points per game with him in the lineup and 24.6 without him, so the stability should aid in some regression to the mean.
DL Lehi Afatasi and DE Watson Asi
Southern Utah struggled mightily to create a pass rush in 2018, racking up just 12 sacks all season, which puts the onus on past contributors like Afatasi and Asi to step up this fall. They each had 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, both are which are tops among returning SUU defenders.
TE Nick Colson
The passing game never had one true focal point last year and now must replace three of last year’s top four receivers, who combined for 102 catches and 1,007 yards. Enter Colson, who could easily pick up a fair share of targets by providing an athletic 6-foot-4 target between the hashes, picking up where the departed tandem of McCoy Hill and Logan Parker left off.
Injuries at quarterback wrecked whatever continuity SUU might have cobbled together, so while the Thunderbirds did finish with a healthy 40% third-down conversion rate and committed only 14 turnovers, they also had a middling 120.91 team passer rating and averaged the third-fewest yards per play in the FCS.
Some pieces remain in place, though. Helbig returns, as does leading rusher Jay Green, who had over 800 yards rushing last season, and wide receiver Landon Measom, who led the team with 13.7 yards per catch. Beyond that core, there’s a lot left to settle in fall camp: Sophomores like tight end Gavin Eyre, receiver Frank Harris III and running back Lance Lawson might all get long looks to see what kind of niche they carve for themselves.
Last year’s regression on defense must have been particularly galling for Warren. Southern Utah ranked Sac State ranked 117th among FCS teams in scoring defense, allowing 41.5 points per game, and 123rd (next-to-last) in total defense with 541.2 yards per game.
SUU responded to this by bringing in a new defensive coordinator, Brandon Fisher, but there are a lot of roles left to fill. The Thunderbirds lost the two defenders who collected double-digit tackles for loss, so while finding new disruptive players is surely a top priority, Atafasi and Asi and Raymond Fiame at least bring plenty of experience to the hunt on the defensive line.
Linebacker, by contrast, could skew very young since five of the eight listed on the current roster are sophomores.
The back end of the unit might have the most to prove, though, after allowing opponents to complete 61.7% of passes while averaging 9.5 yards per attempt and accumulating 30 touchdowns against just three interceptions. Cornerback Jalen Russell returns after defending seven passes in 2018, as does sophomore safety Logan Taylor, but there’s a lot of other youth to sort through here, too.
UNLV is hoping to get off to a fast start in 2019 and, with so many questions on defense, Southern Utah looks like a prime opponent for their running game to feast upon. The defense may give up a few big plays if SUU’s offense gets back on track, but don’t expect a serious upset bid. UNLV 45, Southern Utah 24