San Jose State Football: First Look at the Southern Utah Thunderbirds
The San Jose State Spartans will begin their 2021 season with a home date against FCS Southern Utah.
Will the Thunderbirds reverse their fortunes this fall?
San Jose State Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
The San Jose State Spartans will begin their 2021 football season at home against the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. The FCS’s spring season didn’t go quite as expected for SUU, but with a stable of veteran contributors on both sides of the ball returning to make good on a rebuild with a run at the playoffs, Brent Brennan’s team can expect a motivated opponent that can’t be overlooked.
Location: Cedar City, Utah
Conference: Big Sky
2020 Record: 1-5 (1-5 Big Sky)
Head Coach: Demario Warren (sixth year, 20-32 overall). Since claiming a share of the Big Sky crown in 2017, the Thunderbirds have undergone something of a rebuild and though they finished 1-5 in the FCS’s spring season, don’t let the record fool you. Those five losses came by a combined 15 points and only Northern Arizona beat SUU by more than three points, so there’s probably an alternate universe out there where the Thunderbirds were a serious FCS title contender.
That could come to fruition this fall considering that Southern Utah will return a rising FCS star at quarterback who’s only a sophomore, their top three running backs and top three pass catchers from the spring, and their four most disruptive playmakers on defense.
LB La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis
The name might be a mouthful, but it’s worth remembering since Kaho’ohanohano-Davis had a monster spring season. He led the Thunderbirds with 57 tackles, nine tackles for loss, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, which made him an obvious choice for the Big Sky’s first-team all-conference defense and a few different all-American squads. San Jose State might still possess a quick strike offense, but Kaho’ohanohano-Davis is a good bet to make his presence felt one way or another.
NEWS | La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis Named to Stats Perform FCS All-America First Team
— SUU Football 🏈 (@SUUFB) May 10, 2021
OT Braxton Jones
Last year, the Thunderbirds could boast of one of the strong offensive line units in the FCS, especially with regards to pass protection, and no one on the line was better than Jones. Like Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, Jones landed on Phil Steele’s FCS All-American first team, one of three Big Sky linemen to do so, after anchoring a unit that gave up just five sacks and enabled leading rusher Dayne Christiansen to average nearly seven yards per carry.
QB Justin Miller
Given the unusual circumstances, Miller more than held his own in his first full season as SUU’s starting quarterback. He completed 65.7% of his passes in the spring and averaged a solid 7.3 yards per attempt, throwing 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions. The redshirt junior will have plenty of opportunity to grow into the role as the Thunderbirds hope to get back to their previous winning ways.
DL Francis Bemiy
Kaho’ohanohano-Davis has received most of the recent accolades, but the senior from Montreal is no slouch himself as a disruptive force. Bemiy was, after all, the only other Thunderbirds defender named to the all-Big Sky first team defense after finishing the spring season with four sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss.
WR Landom Measom
The Thunderbirds did an effective job of spreading the ball around last season, but Measom has been a SUU mainstay since being named a FCS Freshman All-American back in 2017. He set career highs in the spring by averaging 89.2 receiving yards per game and scoring five touchdowns, and he’s also a safe bet to finish his collegiate career as one of the best pass catchers in the program’s history.
The Thunderbirds offense was solid if not spectacular last year, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. For instance, the running game averaged just 3.2 yards per carry as a whole, which can’t be entirely explained away by adjustments for sack yardage. SUU’s 39.7% conversion rate on third downs was good enough to rank in the top 40, too, but it was also a far cry from what Big Sky contenders like Weber State (42.5%) and Eastern Washington (46.2%) managed. The name of the game in 2021 is incremental improvements.
Despite the star power in the front seven, the Thunderbirds may have been somewhat snakebit by letdowns in high-leverage situations. By total defense (408.6 YPGA), yards per play allowed (5.72), and third-down and red zone defense, SUU was below-average. Regressing past the mean isn’t out of the question, though there’s a good chance it’ll be led by numerous veteran contributors — not just Bemiy and Kaho’ohanohano-Davis, but Greg Rogers and Alonzo Davis, all of whom are seniors — meaning that the time for a big leap is now before the more significant turnover comes in 2022.
It’s almost a given that Southern Utah’s luck will turn in 2021, the only question is by how much. Despite the team’s apparent strengths, San Jose State sports a strong defensive front of its own and should be able to limit whatever damage the Thunderbirds can do through the air. SUU might land a couple body blows but, right now on paper, it’d be a shock if this one was close.
San Jose State 38, Southern Utah 14