Quickly: Southern Utah University opens its 2013 football season Thursday when the Thunderbirds travel to Mobile, Ala., to take on the University of South Alabama in Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The game is the season-opener for both squads and Southern Utah’s second straight Thursday night opener at the home of an NCAA Division I FBS opponent. Last year SUU opened at Utah State.

Southern Utah (0-0/0-0 Big Sky) – which is embarking upon the first 12-game football schedule in school history Thursday night – is coming off a 5-6 season, including a 4-4 mark in its first season of Big Sky Conference competition. SUU went 3-3 on the road, including a 3-1 mark in conference games last year, and 2-3 at home, 1-3 in BSC match-ups.

South Alabama (0-0/0-0 Sun Belt) posted a 2-11 mark last season, including a 1-7 record in Sun Belt games. USA is a relative newcomer to the collegiate football world, having established its program in 2009. The Jaguars are in their second season as a member of the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference.

This will be just the third visit to the Camellia State for the Thunderbirds, who have faced Troy on two occasions, the last time in 2002.

The Game: Southern Utah (0-0) at South Alabama (0-0), Thursday at 6:30 p.m. (CDT), Ladd-Peebles Stadium (33,471/Field Turf).

Thunderbird Practice Schedule: With a Thursday game this week the team will practice Monday and Tuesday before departing for Mobile on Wednesday. On all subsequent weeks the players are off on Mondays, with daily practices Tuesday through Friday. Tuesday practices are scheduled to begin at 5:35 p.m., Wednesday practices will begin at 5:30, while Thursday and Friday practices will start at 4:45 p.m.

Media Availability: Players and coaches are available for interviews on Tuesdays following practice, at approximately 7:05 p.m. To contact a player or coach on another day or time, or to arrange telephone interviews, contact Neil Gardner at gardner@suu.edu or 435-586-7753.

SUU In Season-Openers and Road-Openers

Southern Utah is 25-25-0 in season-openers since the school moved to four-year status in 1963 ... over that same time-span SUU is 13-37 in road-openers ... SUU is 3-7 in its last 10 season-openers and has lost eight straight road-openers, including a 34-3 setback at Utah State in the season-opener last season ... the last time the Thunderbirds won their first road game of the season was in 2004 when they took a 34-31 season-opening win at Weber State and their last win in a season-opener was a 36-7 triumph at home against Dixie State in 2009.

SUU Head Coach Ed Lamb is 1-4 in season-openers, with four of the previous five coming on the road and three of those at FBS-level opponents. In his four previous season-openers, Lamb’s teams have lost at Air Force (in his first game at the SUU helm) 41-7 in 2008, notched a 36-7 home win over Dixie State in 2009, fallen at Wyoming (28-20 in 2010), at South Dakota State (29-28 in 2011) and at Utah State (34-3) last season.

The Thunderbirds have opened on the road eight of the last 10 years. In addition to this year’s game the previous openers away from home in that span were the game at Utah State last year, at South Dakota State in 2011, at  Wyoming in ‘10, at Air Force in ‘08, at Montana in ‘07, at Idaho State in ‘05,  and at Weber State in ‘04. The openers at home were against Dixie State in ‘09 and against Montana Tech in ‘06.

The Series

This is the first meeting between the two teams on the football field. However, SUU has faced a trio of teams currently competing in the Sun Belt Conference: Arkansas State, Texas State and Troy. The Thunderbirds are 1-1 against Arkansas State, with the program’s first-ever win against an FBS opponent coming in Jonesboro back in the 1997 season, 34-24. SUU is also 7-4 vs. Texas State – with all of those games played when TSU was competing at the FCS level – and 0-2 in two games at Troy.

Big Sky Teleconference: The Big Sky Conference holds a weekly coaches teleconference, beginning at 10:00 a.m. (Mountain). With a number of Thursday games opening week the call will be on Tuesday, but all other weeks the call will be on Wednesdays. For information on accessing the teleconference, contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner. The schedule follows:

            10:00 a.m. MTN (9:00 PCT) – Rob Ash, Montana State

            10:08 a.m. MTN (9:08 PCT) – Chris Mussman, North Dakota

            10:16 a.m. MTN (9:16 PCT) – Ed Lamb, Southern Utah

            10:24 a.m. MTN (9:24 PCT) – Jody Sears, Weber State

            10:32 a.m. MTN (9:32 PCT) – Mike Kramer, Idaho State

            10:40 a.m. MTN (9:40 PCT) –  Mick Delaney, Montana

            10:48 a.m. MTN (9:48 PCT)  – Earnest Collins Jr., No. Colorado

            10:56 a.m. MTN (9:56 PCT) – Jerome Souers, No. Arizona

            11:04 a.m. MTN (10:04 PCT) –  Nigel Burton, Portland State

            11:12 a.m. MTN (10:12 PCT) – Marshall Sperbeck, Sac State

            11:20 a.m. MTN (10:20 PCT) – Beau Baldwin, E. Washington

            11:28 a.m. MTN (10:28 PCT) – Tim Walsh, Cal Poly

            11:36 a.m. MTN (10:36 PCT) – Ron Gould, UC Davis

TV: There will be no television coverage of Thursday’s game but it will be available on ESPN3.

SUU’s TV Games in 2013: SUU is scheduled to play on live television just once this season. The Sept. 14 game at Washington State is scheduled to be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.

Video Highlights: Video highlights of ALL of the Thunderbirds’ home and road games will be available to accredited media outlets via SUU’s FTP site. For information on obtaining those highlights contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner.

Radio: All of Southern Utah’s 2013 football games will be available over the Thunderbird Sports Network. SUU flagship station KSUU (91.1 FM) will carry every game live as well as on the worldwide web at www.suu.edu/ksuu. Dr. Art Challis is entering his 40th season as the Thunderbirds' football voice. Matt Roan, a former all-conference performer for the Thunderbirds, will provide color commentary.

Thunderbird Club Luncheons: The Thunderbird Club’s weekly no-host luncheon is held Mondays at noon at the Cedar City Crystal Inn. The public is invited to attend the luncheons where Southern Utah’s in-season coaches talk about their upcoming contests and review the past week’s action.

Next Up/Remaining Schedule:

The Thunderbirds host one of their oldest rivals, Fort Lewis College, next week in their home-opener. SUU is 20-10 vs. the Skyhawks, a team they shared a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference affiliation with from 1963 until 1986, when SUU moved from NAIA to NCAA competition.

The Thunderbirds then face off against a Pac-12 school for the second consecutive season when they travel to Pullman, Wash., for a Sept. 14 match-up with Washington State. The team goes back on the road for a non-conference game at Sacramento State, Sept. 21.

Southern Utah plays its third straight road game and its Big Sky-opener on Sept. 28 when the Thunderbirds take on Northern Colorado. The Big Sky home-opener against UC Davis follows on Oct. 5, with the annual Homecoming contest a week later, Oct. 12, when the Thunderbirds host Portland State.

Following a road trip to Eastern Washington on Oct. 19, the ‘Birds return home for a game against Idaho State on Oct. 26 before a bye the week of Nov. 2. The final two road games of the season, at Weber State (Nov. 9) and Montana State (Nov. 16) follow.

The regular season wraps up with a home game against Northern Arizona (Nov. 23).

The Coaches

A 2010 Eddie Robinson Award nominee, SUU's Ed Lamb (BYU, 1996) has a record of 26-29 entering his sixth season as the Thunderbird head coach and his sixth season as a head coach overall. Last year Lamb guided the Thunderbirds to a 5-6 record, including a 4-4 mark in SUU’s first season in the Big Sky Conference. In 2011 he led the T-Birds to their second straight winning season and their first win over an FBS-level opponent (UNLV) since 1997.  He led the team to a Great West Conference championship in 2010 when the Thunderbirds went undefeated in GWC play and finished the season with a 6-5 overall mark. Prior to taking over at SUU, Lamb spent three seasons at the University of San Diego where he coordinated the special teams and recruiting and was the Toreros’ defensive backs coach. Lamb also spent two seasons as defensive coordinator at Idaho, a season at BYU as a linebackers coach and four seasons at the University of Redlands, three as defensive coordinator and one as defensive line coach. Lamb is 0-0 against the Jaguars.

South Alabama’s Joey Jones (Alabama, 1989) is the only football coach the school has had since it began its program in 2009. Jones has posted an overall record of 28-22 (including a season at Birmingham Southern) and a 25-15 mark in his four seasons at USA. An all-SEC receiver at Alabama in 1983, Coach Jones spent 13 seasons coaching at the high school level before taking over to restart the Birmingham-Southern program.

Affiliations: Southern Utah is a member of the Big Sky Conference in the majority of its sports, including football (gymnastics is an independent while men’s golf will compete in the American Sky Conference this season). South Alabama is a member of the Sun Belt Conference.

SUU In The FCS National Ranks

SUU had 10 players ranked among the FCS top-50 in 17 statistical categories at the end of last season, while the team figured among the top-50 programs in 13 major categories and among the top-30 in nine.

Defense: LB Zak Browning ranked eighth in the nation with 11.5 tackles per game, tops among freshmen, while James Cowser had 0.68 sacks per game, with was also tops among freshmen and 23rd overall. Cody Larsen averaged 0.59 sacks, which was 45th, and was tied with Cowser for 25th in the nation in tackles for loss with 1.23 per game. CB LeShaun Sims also figured among the nation’s leaders, with 0.33 interceptions per game, which was tied for 37th overall as well as tied for the most by a freshman.

Offense: On the offensive side of the ball, QB Brad Sorensen ranked among the nation’s leaders in five categories: 10th in completions per game with 24.8, 14th in total passing yards with 3,149, 16th in total offense with 278.55 yards per game, 18th in points responsible for with 14.0 per game and 38th in passing efficiency at 134.98. WR Fatu Moala ranked in a trio of categories, including 35th with 5.91 receptions per game and 40th with 73.64 yards per game as well as with 810 total receiving yards.

Special Teams: Kicker Colton Cook had the T-Birds’ highest individual rank, as he was second in the nation in field goals per game with 1.73 to finish 26th in scoring with 7.91 points per game. Punter Brock Miller was 11th in the FCS with an average of 43.22 yards per punt, while Griff McNabb was 42nd with an average of 6.21 yards per punt return.

Team: In the team categories SUU was tied for first in the nation in both Red Zone Offense and fumbles lost. The Thunderbirds converted 95 percent of their drives into the red zone (36-of-38) and lost just three fumbles all season. They also recovered 16 fumbles, which was tied for third in the FCS and their 28 turnovers gained ranked 28th. With just 13 turnovers of their own on the season, the 10th-fewest in the FCS, the T-Birds were fifth in turnover margin as well. SUU also ranked seventh in net punting (38.51 ypp), 16th in passing offense (285.36 ypg), 27th in sacks (2.45 per game), 31st in kickoff returns (21.46), 40th in passing efficiency (135.0) and 46th in tackles for loss ((6.18 per game).

2013 Preseason Accolades

SUU has three preseason all-Americans and preseason all-Big Sky performers heading into the 2013 campaign. PK Colton Cook and OL Gavin Farr each earned a variety of all-America honors, while WR Fatu Moala was a first-team all-BSC honoree as well as a second-team all-American as named by the Senior Scout Bowl.

Colton Cook
            Sports Network (1st Team All-America)
            Senior Scout Bowl (1st Team All-America)
            Beyond Sports Network (1st Team All-America)
            College Sports Journal (2nd Team All-America)
            Phil Steel’s Preview (2nd Team All-America)
            All-Big Sky

Gavin Farr
            Senior Scout Bowl (1st Team All-America)
            College Sports Journal (2nd Team All-America)
            Sports Network (3rd Team All-America)
            Beyond Sports Network (3rd Team All-America
            Phil Steele’s Preview (3rd Team All-America)
            All-Big Sky

Fatu Moala
            Senior Scout Bowl (2nd Team All-America)
            All-Big Sky

SUU picked to finish ninth In Big Sky Polls

Southern Utah’s football team was picked to finish ninth in both the coaches’ and the media’s preseason polls.

The Thunderbirds – who were picked to come in eighth in both polls last year before finishing tied for fifth – received 57 points in the coaches’ poll to finish six points behind Northern Colorado and 228 points in the media poll to finish nine points behind UNC. SUU was eight points ahead of 10th place Portland State in the coaches’ poll and 16 ahead of the Vikings in the media poll.

Montana State was picked to finish first in both polls, getting 140 points and eight first-place votes in the coaches’ poll and 596 points and 31 first-place votes from the media.

The two polls agreed on picks 1-through-10, with Eastern Washington second, Montana third, Cal Poly fourth, Northern Arizona fifth and Sacramento State sixth, followed by North Dakota, UNC, SUU and PSU.

Eastern Washington had 130 points and three first-place votes in the coaches’ poll. Montana was the only other team to receive first-place votes from the coaches, with two, and the Griz wound up with 111 points, two more than Cal Poly’s 109. NAU wasn’t far behind, with 104 points, while Sac State had 88 and UND had 66. UNC was next with 63 points, followed by SUU with 57 and PSU with 49.

The coaches then had Weber State finishing 11th with 48 points (just one point behind Portland State), followed by UC Davis (37 points) and Idaho State (12).

In the media poll EWU had 12 first-place votes and 566 points, while Montana had three first-place nods and 492 points. Cal Poly was fourth with 466 points and a first-place vote, while NAU had 457 points and Sacramento State got the final first-place vote from the media to finish with 374 points. North Dakota had 309 points, followed by UNC with 239, SUU with 228 and PSU with 212.

The media then had UC Davis 11th with 191 points, followed by Weber State (164) and Idaho State (74).

Thunderbird Quick Hits

• SUU is entering its 51st season as a four-year football-playing institution and its 28th as a member of the NCAA. The 2012 season also marks the Thunderbirds’ 21st as a member of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision and is the school’s second in the Big Sky Conference. SUU competed in the Great West Conference prior to moving to the BSC.

• The Thunderbirds are playing a 12-game schedule for the first time in school history. With the exception of one year, SUU has played an 11-game season every year since 1985. The lone exception came in 2005 when the Thunderbirds’ game at McNeese State was cancelled because of damage caused by Hurricane Rita.

• The opener at South Alabama marks the eighth time in the last 10 seasons the Thunderbirds have played their first game of the season on the road, including the last four in a row. Last year SUU opened at Utah State, in 2011 the T-Birds opened at South Dakota State and in 2010 they began the season at Wyoming. The other openers at the road during the past 10 years came at Air Force (2008), at Montana (2007), at Idaho State (2005) and at Weber State (2004). The two openers at home were in 2009 against Dixie State and in 2006 when the ‘Birds kicked off the season against Montana Tech at Eccles Coliseum.

• The Thunderbirds have eight players returning who earned all-Big Sky honors last year. Gavin Farr was a first-team selection while Colton Cook and Fatu Moala were second-team honorees. Zak Browning, the BSC 2012 Newcomer of the Year was joined on the honorable mention list by WR Mitch Jessop, OL Cody Burgess, DE James Cowser and SS Miles Killebrew. In addition to that group, senior LB Chad Hansen – an all-Great West Conference honoree in 2011 when he was the team’s leading tackler – returns after injuries slowed him last season.

• SUU also has two returning all-Americans, Cook and Farr, who were named by various publications last year, as well as two freshman all-Americans, Browning and Cowser.

• SUU has six returning academic all-Big Sky honorees, including senior offensive lineman Brad Meyer, junior DL Kouri Jones, junior WR Easton Pedersen, Cook, Cowser and Jessop.

• SUU plays 11 of its 12 games against NCAA Division I opponents this year. Nine T-Bird opponents are from the championship subdivision, two are from the bowl subdivision and one is an NCAA Division II school. South Alabama and Washington State are the two FBS opponents and Fort Lewis – a team the ‘Birds met 30 times while both programs were affiliated with the NAIA Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference – is the D-II foe.

• Nearly half of the players on the roster are Utah natives, with 40 of the 84 who reported for fall camp hailing from the Beehive State. California is the next-most represented state, with 17, while nine call Nevada home. Texas and Washington are each home to three players, while two hail from Colorado, Idaho and Florida. The states of Arizona, Hawai’i and Oregon are each home to one Thunderbird, while two call Tonga home and another is from France.

Coaching Lineup

The SUU staff returns almost intact for 2013, with Head Coach Ed Lamb entering his sixth season on the SUU sidelines. Although the names are the same some titles have changed. Justin Ena, an NFL veteran and former BYU standout, will  continue as defensive coordinator and will work with linebackers. Former BYU and Utah assistant Steve Clark will be the director of offense after serving as offensive coordinator the past five years. Teag Whiting, another NFL veteran and former BYU standout, is in his fourth season as offensive line coach after working as a graduate assistant in 2009; this year Whiting takes on the title of co-offensive coordinator/running game. Former Thunderbird standout WR/KR Justin Walterscheid is entering his fourth season with the team but this season he is co-offensive coordinator/passing game after spending the last two as co-special teams coordinator and running backs coach. Ryan Hunt, a former all-conference performer at offensive tackle for SUU, returns as defensive line coach with the new title of assistant head coach while Demario Warren, a former UC Davis running back, returns as secondary coach as well as associate head coach duties. Aaron Fernandez, an all-Great West defensive tackle at SUU in 2008, takes over the tight ends and special teams as well as recruiting coordinator duties this year, while Fesi Sitake, a former all-conference receiver for the Thunderbirds, returns as receivers coach and takes on the mantle of passing game coordinator. Ben Macy, who spent the 2012 season as a volunteer assistant with the program, joins the staff as defensive assistant this season. The only departure was Ronnie Pentz who, after four seasons with the team in various capacities, has returned to his alma Mater, San Diego, to take a position on the Toreros’ staff.

SUU’s Eccles Coliseum is one of two football stadiums in the world sporting both the Olympic Rings and an Olympic Cauldron inside the stadium (The Los Angeles Coliseum is the other). Southern Utah’s Olympic Cauldron, donated by DCI Incorporated of Utah, was lit by the Olympic Torch Feb. 5, 2002, during the Olympic Torch Relay.            

Quick SUU Outlook

Southern Utah lost a lot with the departure of career passing leader Brad Sorensen and defensive tackle Cody Larsen, who are now playing with the San Diego chargers and the Baltimore Ravens, respectively, but heading into the season it appears the Thunderbirds have found replacements for those two as well as in the other positions of concern heading out of the 2012 season.

Aaron Cantu, who led the nation’s junior colleges with 3,358 passing yards and 32 touchdowns last year, emerged as the team’s quarterback during spring ball and solidified his hold on the position this fall.

Cantu has a stable of experienced receivers as three starting receivers and one of the top reserves return for the 2013 season. preseason all-Big Sky pick Fatu Moala, Easton Pedersen and Griff McNabb were all starters last season, and C.J. Morgan came on as the season progressed. In addition to those four three young receivers, Josh Smith, Naia Ursua and Chris Robinson looked good in the fall.

Running back is another place there were questions, but it appears the T-Birds have as many talented backs, if not more, as they have ever had. Redshirt freshman Christian Taele has had the best fall but true freshmen Raysean Marshall, Pete Williams and Toa Afatasi all made their marks this fall, as did sophomore Malik Brown. At fullback newcomer Frank Sanft will look to produce as well.

Tight end is another position of strength, where Anthony Norris, Chandler Allphin and Jake Allie all enter the season looking at plenty of playing time.

The one area of the offense most everyone agrees will be the line. preseason all-American Gavin Farr anchors a unit that also includes seniors Cody Burgess, Daron Griffin and Brad Meyer, as well as junior Nick Nissen as starters, with plenty of depth across the board.

On the defensive side of the ball the secondary returns intact, with senior Tommy Collet Jr. at free safety, Miles Killebrew at the strong side and cornerbacks Tyree Mills and LeShaun Sims returning along with J.T. Anderson who had a productive season as a reserve last year. Mills is a junior but the other three are all sophomores, who were young last year but experienced and young this year.

Two more young but experienced players are linebacker Zak Browning and defensive end James Cowser, who were both freshman all-Americans last season. Browning led the nation’s freshmen in tackles in 2012 while Cowser led all first-year players in sacks.

Joining Browning at linebacker are two players who were all-Great West Conference performers in the past: Matt Holley and Chad Hansen. Holley earned all-GWC honors in 2010 prior to serving an LDS church mission while Hansen was the team’s leading tackler in 2011 before being slowed by injuries last year.

Cowser has three new mates along the line but the unit has looked good during the fall. Andrew Eide, another returned LDS missionary, will line up at the other end while Trever McFalls will take over at Larsen’s old DT position. At nose tackle it will be either sophomore Toi Taufa or freshman Levi Afatasi, who have both had good falls. There is also experienced depth, with juniors Austin Anderson and Kouri Jones ready to step in at DE and freshman Robert Torgerson at DT.

Special teams also stack up well as the Thunderbirds return all-American kicker Colton Cook and SUU’s career punting average leader Brock Miller, as well as both primary return men, Josh Smith and Griff McNabb, who returned kickoffs and punts, respectively, for the T-Birds last year.

Jaguar Notes: 

South Alabama was picked to finish seventh in the Sun Belt in the preseason poll of head coaches and selected media members. The Jaguars have three players on the all-Sun Belt preseason team, including defensive lineman Alex Page, defensive back Tyrell Pearson and tight end Wes Saxton. Two Jaguars are also on the Senior Bowl watch list, defensive lineman Romelle Jones and linebacker Enrique Williams.

USA returns 41 letter-winners from last season’s 2-11 squad, including 16 starters, seven on offense, eight on defense and one special-teamer. The Jaguars had a fairly balanced offense in 2012, passing for 2,728 yards on 449 attempts while rushing for 1,606 yards on 489 attempts. South Alabama averaged 18.5 points per game last year while allowing 29.5.

Among the returning starters are senior quarterback Ross Metheny, who completed 189 of 345 passes for 2,148 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, with another 12 interceptions. Metheny’s three favorite receivers from 2012, wide receivers Jereme' Jones, Bryant Lavender and Corey Besteda also return this season. Jones caught 45 passes for 513 yards and seven touchdowns last season, while Lavender pulled in 41 tosses for 378 yards and Besteda had 28 receptions for 430 yards and a pair of scores. Saxton was fourth on the team’s receiving list last year, with 27 receptions for 206 yards and he also carried 59 times for 210 yards and a score. The other three returning starters on the offensive side of the ball are linemen: junior Shaun Artiz, sophomore Chris May and junior Melvin Meggs.

Juniors Jay Jones, Cris Dinham and Kendall Houston look to handle the rushing duties. Houston had 81 attempts for 217 yards and a pair of scores last year.

Defensively the Jaguars gave up 164.5 yards per game on the ground and 218.5 through the air last season. Although USA lost two of its top three tacklers from last season they return six of the top-eight defenders, in terms of total tackles. Williams was second on the team with 105 tackles from his inside linebacker spot, while FS Terrell Brigham was fourth with 71 (and two interceptions) and Page was fifth with 64 as well as a team-high six sacks. Outside linebacker Clifton Crews finished sixth on the team with 49 tackles and a pair of sacks, just ahead of CB Darrius Morrow, who had 43 tackles and seven PBUs and Pearson, who had 40 tackles and team-highs of four interceptions and 11 PBUs. Linebacker Pat Moore (30 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 4.5 sacks) also returns, as does Jones (18 tackles, 2 TFL).