CEDAR CITY, April 15 – Saturday it was the defense’s turn.

After Southern Utah’s offense took the upper hand in a limited scrimmage on April 6 the defense turned the tables and held the advantage in another scrimmage this past Saturday.

That’s the way it usually goes when the team goes through spring ball or the early stages of fall practice. Either the offensive or the defensive unit has the advantage in one scrimmage, and the other side comes out on top the next time out.

The difference for SUU’s defense on Saturday can be traced to many factors, but a common denominator according to the participants has been more work and more time together.

“I think we’re coming along really well, we’re getting better every time out with more experience together,” sophomore defensive end James Cowser pointed out.

Cowser, who was a freshman all-American last year after ranking among the nation’s leaders in both sacks and tackles for loss, is the only returning starter on a defensive line that lost all-American tackle Cody Larsen and a two-year starter at end in Jeff Tukuafu. The other starter on the Thunderbirds’ defensive line in 2012, Brad Meyer, has moved to the offensive side of the ball to bolster the O-line, as has Nick Nissen, who was a reserve defensive tackle last season.

Cowser said a handful of players have stepped up to make contributions on the interior, including freshman Robert Torgerson and junior Trever McFalls as well as redshirt freshmen Drew Eide and Sione Fukofuka.

“Right now Robert Torgerson’s doing a great job, Trever McFalls has stepped up really well, Drew Eide plays some end and can play some tackle, and Sione Fukufuka had two sacks [Saturday], he played really well and he’s really improving,” Cowser noted. “Everyone really, is improving. We need people to step up and they’re doing it.”

Cowser has established himself at one end spot while the other side has been manned junior Kouri Jones and Eide. Austin Anderson, who started five games at end last season before suffering a season-ending injury vs. Montana State, will figure into the mix this fall but he has seen limited action this spring.

“Right now with just seven healthy guys we’re moving people around,” defensive line coach Ryan Hunt said. “Austin hasn’t been able to scrimmage but he’s been doing drills, so at the end spot we’ve got Cowser, Kouri Jones and Eide. Eide can line up at end against a tight end set and can play inside when there isn’t a tight end while Kouri gives us more speed at end.”

Hunt said he’s been very pleased with the progress of the unit, however.

Trever McFalls has come a long way,” Hunt pointed out. “He’s developed into an every-down kind of guy, and Fukofuka has progressed tremendously. He’s a guy who hadn’t played football until last year [he was a rugby player in his native Tonga] so his football knowledge is limited but he’s picking it up. Overall I think we’re coming along well.”

More work together has been a key for the secondary as well, according to sophomore cornerback J.T. Anderson, who intercepted a pass on the final play of the scrimmage to punctuate the defense’s effort.

“We have everybody back and with another week of practice we’re that much more confident,” he said. “We all know our assignments and are comfortable in the system, which makes it easier to help the other positions and also to make plays.

“They got to us last Saturday but this week we came out with the goal that we weren’t going to get beat,” Anderson added. “We want to make them better and they want to make us better, so that’s our goal, don’t get beat, make them execute.”

Unlike the line, the starting secondary returns intact, with cornerbacks LeShaun Sims and Tyree Mills and safeties Miles Killebrew and Tommy Collet, Jr., all back this year. Mills and Collet are both seniors, while Sims and Killebrew will be redshirt sophomores next year.

Anderson also got three starts last year and appeared in all but one game while safeties Anthony Fagans, a junior, and Michael Byrd, a sophomore, have experience as well.

“We have everybody back,” Anderson pointed out. “We all know our assignments and are comfortable in the system, which makes it easier to help the other positions and also to make plays. It was definitely helpful [to play last year]. I feel like I know what I’m doing. I definitely have a different way of seeing the game having played last year.”

The secondary is bolstered by a handful of players with limited experience. Martavious Redmond and Anthony Sattiewhite, who both redshirted as freshmen last fall, Cody Smith, who moved over from receiver in the spring, and freshman Maxime Venot-Petit, a walk-on from France, are all looking for an opportunity to make their mark. Gordon Garrett, who has been a contributor at cornerback the past two seasons, is sitting out the spring while he recovers from an off-season injury.

At linebacker the team returns one starter and a pair of players who have been starters in years past, Zak Browning, Chad Hansen and Matt Holley.

Browning started at middle linebacker last year and wound up leading the Thunderbirds – and the nation’s freshmen – in tackles per game and, as a result, was named the Big Sky’s freshman of the year as well as a freshman all-American.

Hansen was the team’s leading tackler in 2011 but he was slowed by an injury last year and wound up playing a reserve role but he is back to full strength this spring.

Holley was an all-conference performer at safety in 2010 prior to serving an LDS church mission, but with a change in the defensive scheme he has moved to outside linebacker this season and has thrived in the new system.

“The linebackers are experienced,” head coach Ed Lamb said. “Chad Hansen led the team in tackles two years ago and he appears to be fully recovered from [the injury]. He’s playing more of an inside linebacker position on our defensive interior alignment and that seems to be a position that suits him well. Browning played fantastically for us last year and seems to be picking up where he left off and then there’s Matt Holley who was a defensive leader for us from the strong safety position in 2010. Our defense is designed just a little bit different and [Holley] fits the scheme now a little bit better at the field linebacker position. He’s done a tremendous job too. With Chad and Zak and Matt we have a lot of guys who have won a lot of football games now starting at the linebacker position.”

Summing up the entire defense Lamb said he’s pleased with the unit at this point in the spring.

“I think we’ve got great physical ability along the defensive front,” he noted. “The guys are big and strong, they’re playing really hard. The linebackers are experienced, we lost a freshman starter in Mike Needham [to an LDS church mission] but we gained Matt Holley back, who was a starter before his mission, so Matt comes back and fills that hole and with Chad and Zak we have good experience at the linebacker position. The secondary is just older and more mature. It’s the same secondary we played with all last year and some of those guys have been there for [some time]. Tyree [Mills] has been playing a significant role for a couple of years, as has Tommy Collet. They’re just more mature, more competitive, a little more sure about their roles within the defense and that’s allowed them to play with confidence. I love the way the defense is playing right now.”

-- SUU --