CEDAR CITY, Utah, March 21 – Southern Utah University begins on-field preparations for the 2013 football season Tuesday afternoon when the Thunderbirds are scheduled to begin spring drills.

The spring 2013 schedule calls for the team to hold meetings on Monday, with the first official practice on Tuesday. Practices will be held each week on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., with Saturday practices scheduled for 11:00 a.m. Meetings will be held on the alternate days and the spring game is slated for April 27 at 11:00 a.m. in Eccles Coliseum.

SUU Coach Ed Lamb, who is in his sixth season at the helm of the Thunderbird program, has six starters on offense, seven on defense and two specialists returning from last year’s squad that finished tied for fifth at 4-4 in its first season in the Big Sky Conference and 5-6 overall. Included in the group are sophomore linebacker Zak Browning and sophomore defensive end James Cowser, a pair of 2012 freshman All-Americans and Jerry Rice Award finalists.

Browning led the nation’s freshmen last year with an average of 11.6 tackles per game while Cowser was the top sack artist among freshmen in 2012 with 0.7 per game.

Browning finished the season with 116 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, an interception and five fumbles forced. Included in his efforts was an 18-tackle game at Montana, the highest single-game total by a freshman since Steve Smith had 21 at Arkansas State in 2002.

Cowser finished the season with a team-best 7.5 sacks, which was second in the Big Sky and an SUU record for a freshman, and 13.5 tackles for loss, numbers which put him 25th in the nation in sacks and 27th in TFLs. He tallied 61 tackles, and added an interception, a fumble forced and recovered, and co-led the team with five quarterback hurries.

Starters returning to join Browning and Cowser on the defense are senior free safety Tommy Collet Jr., sophomore strong safety Miles Killebrew, senior cornerback Tyree Mills and sophomore corner LeShaun Sims as well as defensive tackle Brad Meyer.

Collet tallied 50 tackles, three interceptions, three passes broken up and one interception return for a touchdown last year while Killebrew had 69 tackles and 1 fumble return for a touchdown, broke up five passes and blocked a kick. Mills had 52 tackles with an interception and four passes broken up while Sims tallied 27 stops with three interceptions and two PBUs. Meyer – who finished the season with 18 tackles and three PBUs from his nose guard spot – is slated to move to offensive line this spring.

On the offensive side of the ball the Thunderbirds have the entire starting receiving corps back as well as a pair of starters from the offensive line. Wide receivers Fatu Moala, Mitch Jessop, Griff McNabb and Easton Pedersen all return after combining to start every game for the Thunderbirds last year, while O-linemen Gavin Farr and Cody Burgess also return.

Moala, a senior, earned second-team all-Big Sky honors last year after leading the Thunderbirds with 65 receptions for 810 yards and nine touchdowns, while Jessop, a junior, earned honorable mention after catching 33 balls for 519 yards with three scores in just seven games as his season was cut short by injury. McNabb, who was also the team’s punt return specialist, had 30 receptions for 290 yards and a pair of scores, while Pedersen pulled in 31 balls for 423 yards and two TDs, including the game-winner in overtime in the season-finale at Northern Arizona.

Farr has earned all-conference honors three times at SUU, twice in the Great West Conference, where he was named the offensive lineman of the year as a freshman, and last year when he was SUU’s only first-team all-Big Sky selection on the offensive side of the ball. Burgess earned honorable mention all-BSC recognition in 2012 despite missing a pair of games with an injury.

Specialists returning are senior placekicker Colton Cook and senior punter Brock Miller. Cook earned second team all-Big Sky and second-team All-America honors last year after leading the Thunderbirds in scoring with 87 points, hitting 30-of-33 extra points and 19-of-22 field goal attempts. Miller ranked 11th in the NCAA’s championship subdivision with a 43.3 yards per punt average, the fourth-best mark in SUU history. He also booted the fifth- and sixth-longest punts in SUU history last year, a 72-yarder at Utah State and a 71-yard effort vs. Weber State.

The biggest question surrounding the Thunderbirds is: “who will replace Brad Sorensen at quarterback?” Sorensen wound up his career last year as the school’s all-time leading passer and he holds nearly all the school’s passing records. A handful of players will compete for the job this spring, including senior Jacob Allie, who has played fullback and tight end but will move back to QB this spring; redshirt freshman Austin Young, who at 6-foot-5 and 228-pounds most closely resembles Sorensen, at least physically; Aaron Cantu, a transfer from East Los Angeles College who joined the Thunderbirds at mid-year after leading the junior college ranks in passing yards last year; Mitch Dahlen, who transferred from Utah last fall; and true freshmen Tannen Pedersen and Mike Sharp, who both signed with the Thunderbirds in 2010 prior to serving LDS church missions. Walk-on Kenny Schmidt could also be in the mix.

The Thunderbirds open the 2013 season at FBS-level South Alabama on Aug. 29, a Thursday, then open the home slate the following weekend when they host Ft. Lewis, their only non-Division I opponent, on Sept. 7. Non-conference games at Washington State (Sept. 14) and Sacramento State (Sept. 21) follow on the next two weekends before the Thunderbirds begin their second season of Big Sky competition at Northern Colorado, Sept. 28. The Big Sky home season begins the following weekend when UC Davis visits Eccles Coliseum, Oct. 5, and homecoming is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 12 when Portland State comes to Cedar City. SUU then travels to Eastern Washington (Oct. 19) before hosting Idaho State (Oct. 26) and enjoying a bye the week of Nov. 2. Road games at Weber State (Nov. 9) and Montana State (Nov. 16) are followed by the season-finale, a home contest vs. Northern Arizona on Nov. 23, with the FCS playoffs scheduled to begin Nov. 30.

-- SUU --