The Southern Utah University football team held its annual spring training Saturday afternoon, and a handful of upsets sparked the Thunderbirds on both sides of the ball.
Outgoing starter Justin Miller accepted the challenge of perhaps grabbing the inside lane for the QB1 spot before the fall, while Jessie Campbell showed great playing ability with a pair of long touchdowns.
A trio of freshmen on the defensive side of the ball turned heads not just on Saturday but throughout Spring Prom.
After a 1-10 season and led by a revamped coaching staff, the fundamentals of rebuilding may be starting to take shape.
“We’re two hundred percent more physical than 15 practices ago,” head coach DeLane Fitzgerald said. “So I’m excited about the physical level and the fact that we’re competing. The first two practices at the spring ball, there wasn’t much competition, and now we’re fighting against each other and we are actually fighting.
Miller seizes the opportunity
Incumbent starting quarterback Justin Miller had a golden opportunity to put himself firmly in the starting quarterback position in Week 1 against St. Thomas.
Miller had been locked in a two-way battle for the starting spot with Western Kentucky transfer Grady Robison, but Robison pulled his hamstring during Friday practice and was sidelined. spring game.
With Robison out of sight for the afternoon, Miller, a redshirt junior, took the majority of first-team shots on Saturday.
Head coach DeLane Fitzgerald said if his team were to play a game next week, both quarterbacks would see action.
Miller completed 10/20 passes for 158 yards and a pair of touchdowns and a rushing score.
“It was an amazing battle and Coach (Blair) Peterson was awesome about it,” Miller said. “Right off the bat he said we were going to split the reps (and) we weren’t going to name a starter this spring. It took a lot of the pressure off both of us, knowing we can still be friends and compete with each other. with others without having any contempt for each other.
His last pass was intercepted by first-year linebacker Kohner Cullimore. Miller was late getting the ball out and kicked behind his target.
Miller passed an open Brennon Hutchings late in the session on a seam road and was bitten by a pair of drops.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of a person and the quality of a quarterback Justin Miller,” Fitzgerald said. “He is extremely stable, he is mature. He’s a married returned missionary who does a really good job of being an adult and acting like an adult on the football field.
Miller had nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions in 2021.
Rand Jensen, Jackson Berry and Jonny Parkinson combined to go 6/18 for 43 yards.
Jessie Campbell shows flashes
Jessie Campbell had missed time with minor injuries throughout the spring and hadn’t shown much shine as a perimeter playmaker, despite key receivers Brandon Schenks and Ethan Bolingbroke being out for wounds of spring camp nurses.
Bolingbroke and Schenks combined for 93 catches, 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago.
The redshirt freshman made sure to make some plays on Saturday afternoon.
Early in the showcase, Miller couldn’t hit a well-covered Campbell.
The next play, Miller went straight back to Campbell, who found himself behind second Damaje Yancey for a 40-yard touchdown strike.
“He’s a burner. He can run,” Miller said. “When he leaves, just put it on for him and he’ll pick it up.”
Campbell then grabbed another touchdown, this time landing a reception down the middle and blasting away from a pair of Thunderbird defenders.
“I started off a little insecure,” Campbell said. “I had a screen and I dropped it and the next game was the bomb so I just had to stay focused and just win.”
His wide receiver’s explosive plays were a pleasant surprise for Fitzgerald.
“Jessie didn’t do anything this spring and today he decided he wanted to play,” Fitzgerald said. “Today mom and dad are in the stands and there’s a crowd and he wanted to play today… There’s going to be a huge overhaul to our receiving corps this summer.”
The Mater Dei High School graduate had five catches for 125 yards and a pair of scores.
‘Incoherent’ ball carriers
Fitzgerald didn’t mince words when it came to his running room.
During Saturday’s practice, Fitzgerald said he was unimpressed with his running back group of Isaiah Williams, Tosh Wright and Jordan Jefferson, saying the trio were “incoherent”.
“I’m not overjoyed with any of the three running backs we’ve had this spring,” he said.
The freshman coach noted that Wright looked better on Saturday.
“He’s been playing really slow this spring,” Fitzgerald said. “Today he came out and played at game speed. The other two young men are inconsistent, and we had problems with one of them blocking passes.
Williams carried 11 times for just 29 yards, but managed to hit scores from one yard and 12 yards out.
Jefferson had ten carries for 69 yards and two catches for 25 yards.
The redshirt freshman was sliding out of the backfield for the Thunderbird offense and showed an ability to miss defenders at his sidelines.
Wright, meanwhile, had five carries for 17 yards.
Williams and Jefferson offer two different styles. Williams is a taller back at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, while Jefferson tips the scales at just 5-foot-8, 180.
Young bright spots in defense
Fitzgerald said he plans to sign all 25 NCAA-max freshmen for scholarships and will also add about 20 extras.
“We will have more freshmen this fall than any other Division I program in the country,” Fitzgerald said. “We will be the youngest team in Division I this year.”
During spring training, a trio of freshman defensemen stood out against Fitzgerald.
Nose tackles Rylen Su’a-Filo and Wyatt Dawe made the difference.
Su’a Filo had a TFL on Saturday. Freshman defensive tackle Joe Tongamoa had four tackles.
Linebacker Kohner Cullimore also impressed.
“We had no expectations for those three,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s their first semester at our university and our football program (and they’ve) done a really good job.”
Freshman defensive tackle Joe Tongamoa had four tackles and two tackles for loss in the spring game.
Junior safety Rodrick Ward led SUU with six tackles and two pass breakups.
Expected defensive stars Francis Bemiy and Zach Strand have been left out of the spring game for precautionary reasons.
Sean Ellertson is a sports reporter for the St. George Spectrum & Daily News. To continue supporting his work, please subscribe to The Spectrum. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanEllertson.