OUTLOOK: DEFENSE

As with the offense, one of the strengths on the defensive side of the ball is up front. Four starters return on the D-line, although they may not necessarily return in the same positions they played last year.

One who will remain in the same position is Osborne (6-2, 245, Sr), a consensus 2010 first-team all-conference performer who has been named a pre-season all-American by several publications. He led the squad with seven sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss last year, when he also finished with 54 tackles from his rush end position.

Jeff Tukuafu (6-4, 262, Jr) returns at the strong-side, or bull end position after notching 19 tackles, with 3.0 TFLs, including 2.5 sacks.

Returning starters who may make a move this year include Cody Larsen (6-4, 272, Jr), and Nick Witzmann (5-11, 270, Jr). Larsen was the starter at nose tackle last year and he wound up tied for third on the team with four sacks while piling up 29 total tackles, but he will move to tackle this season.

Witzmann played in a rotation with Cody Heinreich (6-4, 260, Sr) and Brad Meyer (6-3, 280, So) at the tackle position last season, and those three could again team to man the nose. Witzmann had 15 tackles with two TFLs and a sack, while Heinreich had 14 tackles, including four sacks and six TFLs, and Meyer finished the season with six tackles, including a sack.

"We've got four starters returning at the defensive line spot, that's really exciting for us," Lamb points out. "Even with four starters returning there's going to be tremendous competition. Right now all four of those guys aren't slated to start, the way that we have it.

"We anticipate being able to move Cody Larsen to our defensive tackle position instead of playing the nose, especially in some pass rushing situations. He's the same big strong guy that he was when he was playing nose, but he is also leaned up, he's got improved quickness, he's worked hard on his pass rushing ability and we'd like to emphasize that in our system with a position change."

"Jeff Tukuafu was a starter at the strong side defensive tackle for us, he's had a great off-season, he's bigger and stronger, and then Tyler Osborne - who really sets the standard for our whole team, in the weight room and the way he trains in the off-season, in terms of toughness and the tenacity he plays with - he will be the rush end for us again," Lamb goes on to say. "He was our leading tackle-for-loss and sack producer a year ago.

"Last year the nose position was occupied by Larsen and we rotated some other guys in the tackle position Heinreich, Witzmann and Brad Meyer. This fall we anticipate some of those guys who were playing tackle fighting for the starting nose position. Witzmann has the most experience and has been the most consistently productive, but Brad Meyer showed some real flashes last year in his first year off of a mission, he's much better now that he has a whole off-season under his belt. Cody Heinreich is a really gifted athlete who is still learning the game of football and we're excited as he keeps progressing through his career because I think at any time he has the ability to really step up and be a really good player."

In addition to the players battling for stating spots, senior Eddie Mailoto (5-11, 240, Sr) returns to back up Osborne, and a handful of young players, including redshirt freshmen Nick Nissen (6-2, 275) and Kouri Jones (6-4, 235) and true freshmen Toi Taufa (6-1, 260) and Brody Swanson (6-3, 255), will provide depth.

The linebacker position is a bit of a question, with just SAM 'backer Blake Fenn (6-1, 224, Sr) returning after starting last season, leaving a battle at both the middle and weak side positions.

A three-year contributor, Fenn led the team with 97 tackles last year, earning second-team all-conference honors. He will be backed up by sophomore Randall Nygren (6-2, 225, So), a converted quarterback who has taken to the defensive side of the ball.

"Blake was our leading tackler last year, we're really counting on him to set the standard for the linebackers," Lamb says.

Senior Drew Willard (6-3, 236), who has seen spot start duties and has been a regular in specialty situations, is the only other linebacker with starting experience. He is in the mix in the middle, along with redshirt sophomore Chad Hansen (6-3, 235) and redshirt freshman Austin Anderson (6-5, 205). Willard had 20 tackles last season.

"Drew Willard has played some starting roles for us, in nickel and short yardage situations, he has been considered a starter by us," Lamb notes. "But the other two haven't had any game experience with us yet, that position will be a battle."

At weak side linebacker, two players who have considerable experience as reserves, Herman Sword (5-11, 215, Sr) and Rickey Clark (6-2, 225, Jr) will battle for the starting position. Sword had 10 tackles last year while Clark tallied seven stops.

"Herman Sword and Rickey Clark have both played significantly on special teams and sparingly on defense but they're both working really hard for that position so it should be a fun position battle to watch in fall camp," Lamb says.

The secondary also took a hit with the loss of four-time all-GWC cornerback Colin Pretlow, but consensus first-team all-GWC safety Erron Vonner (5-11, 188, Sr) and cornerback Dion Turner (6-0, 195, Sr), who was a first-team selection by the coaches and a second-teamer on the media list, both return. Both will be keys again, Lamb says.

"What we do in the secondary is all predicated on having a great man-to-man corner, and [Turner] has done that for us," he points out. "He's incredibly competitive and really talented. We're really counting on him to continue to produce the way that he has.

"At the strong safety position we have a returning all-conference player and one of our leading tacklers last year, Erron Vonner; he had a great off-season and we're excited about his senior year," Lamb adds.

Vonner finished the 2010 season with 60 tackles, including 4.5 TFLs, and he broke up a team-high seven passes as well. Turner moved to corner from safety prior to the 2010 season and it was a good move, as he tallied 54 stops, broke up four passes and had an interception.

Pretlow's replacement looks to be junior Marlon Hogains (5-11, 175), a converted wide receiver who had a solid season last year as the nickel back, while there is a three-way battle at free safety between senior Tyson Turley, who had 17 tackles as a reserve last year, and JC transfers Brennan Fjord (6-0, 195, Jr) and Ryan Comer (6-1, 200, Jr).

 "Marlon played really well in the time he was able to come in as our nickel back last year," Lamb points out. "It will be exciting to see him play more often, because he is really a good player.

"The free safety position was vacated when Matt Holley went on a mission, so we really attacked that," the coach went on to say. "Number one we have a returner in Tyson Turley, who's been a good player on special teams for us and a depth player at the safety position so I know he'll be working hard for the starting free safety spot. Then we got the two starting safeties from Snow College, Brennan Fjord and Ryan Comer, so I think we'll have a nice three-way battle for free safety."

There are also some talented returning players and newcomers in the secondary, including junior Cameron Morgan (6-3, 195), sophomore Tyree Mills (6-2, 175) and freshmen LeShaun Sims (6-0, 175) and Gordon Garrett (6-2, 185), who figure to be reserves at the corners. Garrett redshirted with the team in 2008 before serving an LDS church mission.

Senior Zack Olsen (6-0, 175), sophomore Tommy Collett (6-0, 175) and freshman Miles Killebrew (6-3, 197) will provide depth at safety.

As far as special teams go, the Thunderbirds return placekicker Brock Miller and kick returners Henna Brown and Brian Wilson, but will be looking at new faces on both ends of the punting game.

Miller earned honorable mention all-conference honors last season after continually improving through the year and winding up as the team's second-leading scorer with 63 points. He hit 27-of-28 PATs and 12-17 field goal attempts, with a long field goal of 50 yards.

Miller will handle the placekicking, while newcomer Colton Cook, a former Utah Mr. Soccer at Viewmont High, will handle kickoff duties.

"We had a nice battle between Brock Miller and Colton Cook for our placekicking jobs in spring, but coming out of it, it looks like Colton will be the kickoff guy," the coach explains. "He's got a big leg and we're excited about that, and Brock was more consistent and more accurate than Colton, so going into camp it's going to be Brock as the field goal and PAT kicker and Colton as the kickoff guy."

Sitake, Brown and Wilson were the team's top three kick returners last year, when Brown finished second to Sitake with nine returns but had the best average, at 24.6 yards per return. Wilson averaged 22.7 yards per return, second-best on the team.

Sitake was also the punt return specialist the past two seasons and the coaches will look at a variety of players to replace him, with Ursua the front-runner coming out of spring ball.

As far as the punting goes, the team brought in Tate Lewis (6-6, 220) to take over and expectations are high for the freshman from Fremont High School.

"We've brought in a freshman punter to start, Tate Lewis," Lamb notes. "We've put a lot of pressure on him and he's going to have to learn quickly. We certainly have some depth, both Brock and Colton are capable punters, and Fatu Moala is a capable punter, but we recruited Tate for the position. He's 6-6, 220 pounds, and he's got all the leg he needs. He's from the same high school as [former SUU all-America punter] Trevor Ward and they've been working together all summer. So, I hope we have the next great punter here. I think he has the makings, if he works hard and makes the transition from high school to college, he can be a great one."

Lamb is also excited about his kick coverage unit.

"When we put together a travel squad, the first thing we do is find the kickoff coverage guys," he says. "Those are the most highly valued players on our team. Last year we had some really solid kickoff coverage guys, one of those was Mike Tagliaferri, and we had some other guys like Mike who also played considerably on offense or defense, but one player who didn't play at all on defense who was one of our best kickoff coverage guys was KC Rawlinson, so any conversation about special teams has to start with those kick coverage guys, and KC is probably at the front of that group with the way he plays. Around him we put the very best football players on our team. Dion Turner, Erron Vonner, Mike Tagliaferri, those type of guys - very good players ­for us - have been the kickoff coverage guys. I'm sure there will be many of our starters on offense and defense that are running down with KC."

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