Coming off a season that saw Southern Utah football win more games (five) than it had in each of its four prior seasons, the Thunderbirds have a lot to be optimistic about heading into their 2023 campaign. 

The Thunderbirds will be competing for the first-ever United Athletic Conference championship as inaugural members of the new league. 

“We’re capable of winning the conference,” SUU coach DeLane Fitzgerald said. “If we’re healthy at the end of September … we’ve got a good shot at things in October and November.”

Part of that is due to the fact that Fitzgerald feels the culture he has tried to foster at SUU is starting to take form as he begins his second year at the school. 

“The players and I have adjusted to each other,” he said. “I think that it’s been really, really good. I know exactly what to expect out of them and when to expect it. And they know what my expectations are and when to expect things out of me. 

“Our players … have adjusted to our system and what we want and what our work rate is and … what our expectations are on the field, in the weight room, and in the classroom. I can’t emphasize it enough: We are in a lot better place right now than we were 365 days ago. Just with the way things were scheduled, it may take a while for people to realize that.”

That’s because the Thunderbirds begin their season on the road against two FBS Power Five schools — first against Arizona State and then BYU. Things remain difficult for SUU in Week 3 when it travels to northern California to compete with No. 16 FCS ranked UC Davis. 

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The Thunderbirds will finally play their home opener in their fourth contest, staying in Cedar City for five of six games. 

“There’s an advantage (playing) here,” Fitzgerald said. “Being at home is always better than being on the road.”

Redshirt senior quarterback Justin Miller has made the most of that advantage, having started 28 straight games running the Thunderbirds offense, and getting one last go at it this season. The veteran quarterback will return to the field coming off an All-WAC First Team performance a year ago. 

“We’ve got the best quarterback-receiver tandem in the conference,” Fitzgerald said. “We bring back our top three receivers — Tim Patrick, Isaiah Wooden, Ethan Bolingbroke.”

All three of those wide receivers have plenty of experience, each going into his senior season this year. 

Heading up SUU’s run game is redshirt sophomore Braedon Wissler, who led the school in rushing a year ago. Pushing Wissler for playing time are two transfer running backs — Targhee Lambson from Snow College and Landon Freeman out of the University of Sioux Falls. 

Blocking for Wissler, Lambson and Freeman is an experienced offensive line led by redshirt junior Lyle Santos who was named a team captain last season and started contests at both right guard and center for the Thunderbirds. The line will get an added boost from returning 2021 starter Austin Leausa.   

Rounding out the offense is junior tight end Francisco Calderon with redshirt sophomore Jacob Moffitt and redshirt freshman Joshua Acord in the wings. Fitzgerald is optimistic about that group, saying that they have made the most improvement of any position from spring to fall.

On the opposite side of the ball, Fitzgerald is high on senior defensive tackle Robert Horsey, believing he has pro potential. He will be joined on the line by junior defensive tackle Payton Payne who played alongside Horsey at Frostburg State. 

Behind the defensive line is an experienced linebacker group. Redshirt senior Aubrey Nellems, junior Trent Whalen, junior Josh Dunn and sophomore Kohner Cullimore each appeared in 10-plus games at the second level of the SUU defense a season ago.

Fitzgerald says that the school “revamped” the secondary this year, bringing in a handful of transfers that he feels improved the school’s backfield. Redshirt junior Dean Jones from BYU, redshirt sophomore Jehvonn Lewis coming over from Pitt and redshirt junior Lacarea Pleasant-Johnson out of UNLV headline a few of those transfers.

The Thunderbirds have a competition ongoing between redshirt freshman Tyler Graham and true freshman Reid Harris at kicker while Alyas Vigil will take over punting duties after the graduation of 2022 WAC Special Teams Player of the Year Jake Gerardi. 

Despite a difficult schedule to start the year, SUU is optimistic it can get things rolling this season.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see any quit in our players and I think you’re going to see each week … a very, very competitive football program,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got a chance to be competitive week in and week out.” 

2023 schedule

  • Date | Opponent | Time | Location
  • Aug. 31 (Thurs.) | at Arizona State | 8 p.m. MDT | Tempe, Ariz.                    
  • Sept. 9 (Sat.) | at BYU | 1 p.m. | Provo             
  • Sept. 16 (Sat.) | at UC Davis | 8 p.m. | Davis, Calif.               
  • Sept. 23 (Sat.) | vs. Western Illinois | 6 p.m. | Eccles Coliseum                      
  • Sept. 30 (Sat.) | vs. Central Arkansas | 6 p.m. | Eccles Coliseum   
  • Oct. 7 (Sat.) | at Tarleton State | 5 p.m. | Stephenville, Texas        
  • Oct. 21 (Sat.) | vs. Austin Peay | 6 p.m. | Eccles Coliseum 
  • Oct. 28 (Sat.) | vs. Abilene Christian | 1 p.m. | Eccles Coliseum      
  • Nov. 4 (Sat.) | vs. Lincoln University | 1 p.m. | Eccles Coliseum  
  • Nov. 11 (Sat.) | at Stephen F. Austin | 3 p.m. | Nacogdoches, Texas  
  • Nov. 18 (Sat.) | at Utah Tech | 7 p.m. | St. George