CEDAR CITY, April 6 – After losing the most prolific passer in the history of the school as well as three stalwart offensive linemen and its starting running back from the 2012 squad there were myriad questions facing the Southern Utah football team on the offensive side of the ball this spring.
Although not all of those questions have been answered definitively in the first two weeks of spring ball, the progression of the Thunderbird offense was evident on Saturday when the team wrapped up its sixth practice with a 35-minute scrimmage session.
In the effort to replace Brad Sorensen (who threw for over 9,000 yards in his three seasons as the team’s starter), four quarterbacks still find themselves in the mix: senior Jacob Allie, junior Aaron Cantu, sophomore Mitch Dahlen and freshman Tannon Pedersen.
All four have their strengths, and all four looked good on Saturday, leading quarterbacks coach and coordinator of the offense Steve Clark to say he’s not ready to name a starter yet. Which isn’t a bad thing.
“Consistency is what we’re looking for,” Clark pointed out. “Jake had a great practice today but on Thursday he had a terrible practice. Tannon Pedersen had a great practice Thursday but he didn’t have a great one today. Aaron Cantu has been probably the most consistent, he just needs to learn the offense. Mitch Dahlen has been a huge surprise for us … but he’s worked very hard to get where he is. They’re battling every day, all four of them are very close right now … it’s going to go down to the wire, if we name one in the spring.”
Head Coach Ed Lamb agreed that there is no hurry to name a starter.
“Ideally I think it would be great to come out of spring with a starting quarterback but to make a hasty decision if one hasn’t separated himself clearly would be a mistake by the coaches,” he noted. “We’re just enjoying the fact that we’ve got several quarterbacks who each believe that they should be the starting guy and each thinks that he’s got the ability to do it. Right now I have confidence in a lot more than one guy.”
Several factors have contributed to the quarterbacks’ success on Saturday and throughout the spring, including an experienced receiving corps and some determined, if young, running backs, but the biggest factor has been the work of the offensive line, the coaches pointed out.
Gavin Farr, a senior who will move back to center after earning first-team all-Big Sky honors at left guard last year, anchors the line. He’s joined by three more seniors, left tackle Cody Burgess, another starter from last season who earned honorable mention all-BSC honors, and Daron Griffin and Kyle Donaldson, who both got plenty of game action last year as reserves. In addition to those four, sophomore Fernando Huerta, and junior Zac Russell return after serving as reserves last year, while senior Brad Meyer, junior Nick Nissen and redshirt freshman P.J. Taeao-Taunu’u all moved from defensive line to offensive line this season. Throw in redshirt freshmen Evan Ross and Anthony Sarrocco as well as Steve Clark who is back with the team after an LDS church mission, and there is a good group manning the offensive trenches.
“I think the offensive line has made the most improvement from day-one of spring until today,” Lamb said. “They’ve really worked hard, they’ve worked extra on their own, we’ve made some personnel changes to try to get some more competition over there, they’ve just accepted the challenge really well. So we’re running the ball with confidence, which is opening up things in our passing game.”
“This is probably the best O-line we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Clark said. “We were able to keep it pretty simple for the quarterbacks today. I thought the line and the running backs kept it pretty easy for the quarterbacks and the quarterbacks did a good job of executing.”
“We lost a couple of guys but we brought some guys over from the defensive side of the ball, and some younger guys, they’re stepping up and doing some great things,” Farr observed. “I think this might be the best offensive line we’ve had in a long time.”
Farr also gave the quarterbacks his endorsement.
“We’ve got a lot of good quarterbacks,” he said. “They’ve all stepped up to the challenge, they’re pushing themselves and pushing each other. They all have really good attitudes, they all work extremely hard and they all know how to take control of the offense, so I’m happy with all of them.”
“It’s been fun,” Allie said. “There have been a lot of great opportunities, especially with the competition between the QBs. It brings out the best performance in everybody. We’ve got great receivers to throw to, a great line protecting us, some young great running backs to help with the protection and establish the running game, so its been good.”
The questions at running back haven’t been answered yet either, but again, as Clark pointed out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“They are young, they’re freshmen, but they were here last year and they know the offense,” he pointed out. “We’re working a lot with them on getting their timing down, they have a desire to run hard, and if we can get them to protect the football that’s really all you need is a running back who knows where he’s supposed to be, protects the football and runs hard. It’s a lot of determination.
“Malik Brown has been blessed with some break-away speed, Jarom [Healey] and Christian [Jensen] are very tough inside-the-tackle type runners who will grind you out some tough yards,” Clark added. “We’re going to need them because we don’t have Brad, we’re not going to throw the ball 50 times, we’re going to want to stay more balanced.”
Lamb agreed, but he also pointed out that the offensive line has made things easier for the running backs as well as the quarterbacks.
“The offensive line is really helping that out too,” Lamb said. “There are some big holes and the guys are really looking good. We’ve got [Christian] Taele and Healey, Malik Brown, Christian Jensen, they’re all running the ball really well and I think it all starts up front with the offensive line.”
Perhaps the only spot on the offensive side of the ball where there hasn’t been a question is at receiver. The four starters as well as the primary reserves all return at the position. Senior Fatu Moala earned second-team all-Big Sky honors last year while juniors Easton Pedersen and Mitch Jessop, as well as senior Griff McNabb are all back after starting the majority of the team’s games last year.
Letter-winners C.J. Morgan and Josh Smith, and Naia Ursua, who is back from an LDS mission after appearing In all 11 games as a true freshman in 2009, will also compete for starting positions, and there are a handful of newcomers in the mix as well this spring. Mike Sharp and Logan Obering both made names for themselves at quarterback at Dixie and Cedar high schools, respectively, before serving LDS missions, and both will look to make an impact at wide receiver for the Thunderbirds.
Having experienced receivers “is wonderful,” Allie said. “We’ve got guys who are experienced veterans so that if you make a bad throw or aren’t right on the money, it’s still going to be caught. You’ve got a ton of room for error because you’ve got receivers who’ve got range, you put it in the vicinity and they’re going to make the catch for you, it’s a great advantage.”-- SUU --