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Arizona football opponent preview: Southern Utah

Get to know the Wildcats’ Week 3 opponent

Southern Utah v BYU Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats host the Southern Utah Thunderbirds in Week 3 of the 2018 season. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. MST on Sept. 15.

Let’s get to know the Thunderbirds.


Southern Utah University is a member the Big Sky Conference of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The Thunderbirds have emerged as a legitimate player in the FCS ranks as they enter the 2018 season ranked 28th.

The Rundown

  • Returning Starters: 10
  • 2017 Record: 9-3
  • Head Coach: Demario Warren (15-8, third season)

The Stats

  • 2017 Offense 33.6 points per game, 20th in FCS
  • 2017 Defense 28.0 points allowed per game, 80th in FCS
  • 2017 Conference record: 7-1, tied with Weber State for first place

2017 Recap

The Thunderbirds delivered a strong 2017 season, finishing 9-3 and making an appearance in the FCS playoffs. Head coach Demario Warren has done a tremendous job creating a strong football reputation for a school that has not been known for one. This was the Thunderbirds’ first nine-win season since joining the Big Sky conference in 2012.

Offensive Outlook

The strength of the offense is the line. This is a unit that is returning six players who started at least one game last season. The names you need to know are center Zach Larsen (third-team all-FCS in 2017), tackle Marquez Tucker (second-team all-conference) and guard PJ Nu’usa (third-team all-conference).

Southern Utah will return a strong running game with James Felila and Jay Green. James Felila earned second team all Big Sky honors in 2017.

This may end up being a run heavy offensive scheme with the turnover at quarterback from Patrick Tyler to an inexperienced group. Whomever earns the starting job will have plenty of protection and seasoned help in the back field.

Defensive Outlook

Former SUU defensive coordinator Rod Chance accepted a position as a defensive analyst with Oregon over the summer. The good news is Warren was Southern Utah’s defensive coordinator prior to being promoted to head coach. Warren will assume the position of defensive coordinator for the 2018 season.

The Thunderbirds are returning a few key pieces on the defensive side of the ball in inside linebacker Chinedu Ahanonu (second-team-all Big Sky), defensive tackle Sione Lapuaho, defensive end Bishop Jones, defensive tackle Lehi Afatasi and defensive end Tevita Loamanu.

In the secondary, safety Kyle Hanneman and cornerback Jalen Russell are the key returning pieces to keep an eye on. Hanneman did not play in 2017 due to injuries. Russell earned Freshman All-American honors, according to Phil Steele.

3 Players to Watch

Zach Larsen, C

Last season as a sophomore, Larsen started in all 12 games at center. He was named to First Team All-Big Sky and received various FCS All-American honors from the likes of Phil Steele and STATS. As a junior in the 2018 season, he is the leader of the Thunderbirds’ talented and experienced offensive line.

Chinedu Ahanonu, LB

The senior linebacker suffered a torn ACL last season which limited his appearances to seven games. In those seven games, Ahanonu recorded 70 tackles and nine were tackles for a loss. His production was outstanding during his sophomore season when he recorded 152 tackles with 8.5 for a loss. He is healthy and will be ready to go week one.

James Felila, RB

Felila was SUU’s leading rusher last season, with 699 yards and eight touchdowns. We could have also listed co-running back Jay Green, who was nearly as productive in 2017. But Felila gets the nod as he led the team in rushing.