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Utah Opponent Preview: Southern Utah

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Utah opens the season on Thursday against Southern Utah University

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Southern Utah is coming off one of their best seasons ever, winning the 2015 Big Sky Championship and getting two players into the NFL. The team faces a few challenges heading into 2016. They need to replace their head coach and starting quarterback, not to mention defensive standouts James Cowser and LeShaun Sims.

Southern Utah is led by first year head coach Demario Warren. He replaces former coach Ed Lamb, who left to take an assistant positon at BYU. Warren has been with SUU the past eight seasons serving as the defensive coordinator the past two.

Southern Utah will be starting a brand new quarterback this season with the graduation of last season's starter Ammon Olsen. The Thunderbirds entered fall camp with a six man competition for the starting position, but the race has cleared up considerably since the start of camp. 6-6 235 lb sophomore McCoy Hill has been getting the majority of first team snaps and appears likely to be the starter against Utah on September 1st.

Hill is a Sandy, Utah native and graduated from Jordan high school. He began his collegiate career at BYU, but transferred down to Cedar City this year in search of a better opportunity. During two seasons at BYU, he appeared in just one game against Savannah State in 2014, throwing 2-2 for 27 yards and also rushing for 27 yards. Hill has a good arm and a nice touch on his deep throws. At 6-6 and 235 lbs, Hill is a big kid, built in the mold of Ben Roethlisberger. While not a true duel threat, he moves well for his size and has surprising escapability.

So far through the fall, the offense has struggled, lacking explosive plays. At running back Jarom Healy has been somewhat of a bright spot, having a few long runs, but the offense for the most part has looked lackluster which could pose a big issue against a stout Utah defensive line and experienced Utah secondary.

Defensively the Thunderbirds replace star cornerback LaShaun Sims and defensive end James Cowser, both on NFL rosters now. Senior corner Josh Thornton has stepped into the leadership void and taken it upon himself to be a leader for the defense. Opposite Thornton, walk on Jarmaine Doubs has made the most of his opportunity and is listed at the top of the depth chart at the other corner position. SUU was really looking forward to having JUCO transfer Sylvester Winston at the corner position, but he failed to qualify academically and will not be with the team this season.

The defensive line is experienced with lineman Sione Fukofuka and Fesi Vaivaka both pushing 30 years old. Fukofuka was born in Tonga and was a rugby player before SUU coaches convinced him to give football a try when he attended SUU in 2012. Vaivaka ran into some legal troubles following high school and took some time away from college before returning later in life. He has used his remaining eligibility to become one of the best run stoppers in the Big Sky. Joining them on the line are other lineman Taylor Pili and Robert Torgerson.

Southern Utah has become one of the better FCS teams in recent years, but this year appears to be somewhat of a rebuilding year for the Thunderbirds. Replacing a head coach, quarterback and several starters on the defense is never an easy task, especially when going against the 2nd rated defensive line in the country. Warren and the Thunderbirds should be able to have a good year, but it will be tough sledding in their first game against Utah.