SUU football enters the 2022 season coming off a disappointing year that saw the Thunderbirds finish 1-10 in 2021. It marked the fourth-straight losing season for the school and the second time in as many seasons that it finished with just one win.

The Thunderbirds, however, get a fresh start in 2022 when a new era begins under recently hired head coach DeLane Fitzgerald in the school’s first season in the Western Athletic Conference. Though a newcomer at the school, he comes to Cedar City with plenty of coaching experience and high expectations.

“We’ve revamped our roster. We completely revamped the safety position, the wide receiver position, the running back position and got some things going there that are pretty positive.” — SUU coach DeLane Fitzgerald

That’s because Fitzgerald is no stranger to turning programs around. He led a Southern Virginia team to its second-ever winning season in 2013 with an 8-2 record. From there, he took over at Frostburg State, where he guided the Bobcats from 18 wins during the eight years before his arrival to 62 over the next eight, including four seasons with 10 or more wins. His impact on Frostburg State was unprecedented. He left the school as the winningest coach in program history.

SUU is hopeful Fitzgerald can produce similar results in Cedar City. The Thunderbirds’ new coach is confident that he and his staff can make the necessary changes to turn things around.

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“We’ve revamped our roster,” he said. “We completely revamped the safety position, the wide receiver position, the running back position and got some things going there that are pretty positive.”

One of those positives is UNLV transfer Steve Jenkins at wide receiver. In three years with the Rebels he amassed 1,159 receiving yards. His best season came in 2021 when he led the team with 694 yards.

Starting under center for the Thunderbirds is Justin Miller, whose 2,416 passing yards were one of the few bright spots in a tough 2021 season. Miller has started 17 consecutive contests for SUU, giving Fitzgerald a seasoned quarterback.

Fitzgerald feels he has a strong offensive line, with top talent in redshirt sophomore Lyle Santos at right guard and Frostburg State transfer Brandon Dillard at right tackle. “Our right guard and right tackle can play with the best of ’em,” Fitzgerald said. “(The offensive line) will have as big an impact, or bigger, than anybody else, just nobody will know that they’re doing it because they’re playing offensive line.”

On the defensive side of the ball, the Thunderbirds will be anchored by senior defensive ends Zach Strand, who also followed Fitzgerald from Frostburg State, and Francis Bemiy. Strand was named Mountain East Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2020, while Bemiy, who made the All-WAC preseason defensive team, has the tools to play in the NFL, according to Fitzgerald.

SUU bolstered its defense at the safety position this offseason through transfers Mitchell Price arriving from BYU, Tre Caine from UNLV and Josh Dunn from Frostburg State. Fitzgerald believes Dunn might be the most talented player on his defense.

“(He) played for us last year at Frostburg and had 20 or 30 tackles as a true freshman,” Fitzgerald said. “He runs around at safety and outside linebacker and he’s 6-212 and can run like a deer.”

“The win-loss record doesn’t matter to me right now,” he said. “If we line up and we are competitive and we play well, we’ll win our fair share of games.” — DeLane Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s confidence doesn’t stop with his defense and offense, however, believing he has a great group of specialists going into the season as well. The SUU head coach feels that redshirt senior punter Jake Gerardi could be another NFL-bound player.

Fitzgerald is also high on the groundwork he and his staff have laid with the incoming freshmen. “Our recruiting class is the sleeper group in the country,” he said. “They’re going to be very, very good in four or five years.”

The Thunderbirds will begin their 11-game 2022 season at home against St. Thomas before facing a tall task against Utah in Salt Lake City. Along with its game against Utah, SUU will play two other in-state games, both against fellow WAC foe Utah Tech with the initial matchup coming at home and a second on the road. 

Fitzgerald is less focused on the outcomes of games than he is on his team competing. “The win-loss record doesn’t matter to me right now,” he said. “If we line up and we are competitive and we play well, we’ll win our fair share of games. … Being competitive 11 straight games will be successful for me.”

Fitzgerald believes that this team will be just the beginning of something great at SUU.

UNLV wide receiver Steve Jenkins runs after a catch during game against San Diego State, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Las Vegas. Jenkins transferred to Southern Utah and will help bolster the Thunderbirds’ receiving corps in 2022. | Chase Stevens, Associated Press