First, the good news for Southern Utah State College:
- The Thunderbirds have over 80 players trying out this year, including 35 lettermen. Six starters return to the offense and six to the defense.- Coach Jack Bishop says the quality of players he is getting continues to improve.
- Last year's two top rushers return, along with touted Dixie College transfer Kelvin Minefee.
- The Thunderbird program is getting stronger.
And now the bad news:
- While the Thunderbirds get stronger, so does their schedule. It will be an interesting year. It could also be a disastrous one.
- SUSC must replace the school's all-time total offense leader, quarterback Chad Richard.
SUSC is coming off a 5-6 season in which the Thunderbirds led the Western Football Conference in total offense.
Offense, again, won't likely be a problem. Thane Marshall returns after becoming only the third player in SUSC history to gain over 1,000 yards rushing. Joining him is Jim Andrus, the No. 2 rusher a year ago. Meanwhile, Kelvin Minefee, who broke O.J. Simpson's junior college record with 31 touchdowns at Dixie, makes the rushing game something to take seriously.
"We feel really good about our running backs," said SUSC Coach Jack Bishop. "No question that Minefee is a great one. We're strong in that position."
The biggest concern - or at least the bulk of the publicity - is at quarterback, where the Birds must replace Richard. Sophomore Brad Matthews and transfers Steve Hutchings and Rick Carter are vying for the spot.
Matthews is a good runner who plays the sprint-out well while Carter is probably the better passer. Either Matthews, a backup to Richard a year ago, or Carter, a transfer from Mount San Antonio College, will probably fill the position.
"You don't really replace Richard," said Bishop, "but our guys appear ready to make that transition and we feel we can fill his shoes."
Returning to the offense are tight end Ron Clement and wide receivers Scott Mosher and Mark Courtney, the team's three top receivers a year ago. The line, too, is experienced with starters Randy Bostic, Mike Cafferelli and Dave Ontiveros. SUSC shored up its line with transfers Oscar Fakahua and Wayne Sears and redshirt Everett Kelepolo.
"We have as strong an offensive line as we've had here," said Bishop.
The defense will be led by the T-bird secondary, as four starters return. Bishop said the linebacker spots are manned by good, but fairly unproven players. How they respond will be the key to the defense.
Herky Marxen, a second-team all WFC selection, returns to handle kicking duties. He kicked two field goals longer than 50 yards last year.
The SUSC schedule is murderous. The Thunderbirds' non-league slate involves teams with a combined 44-14-2 record last year. That will include games against Division I-AA NAU; I-AA national playoff participant Weber State; RMAC champion Mesa (ranked No. 2 in NAIA Divison I); NCAA Division II's No. 2-ranked Angelo State; and New Mexico Highlands (ranked No. 10 in NAIA Division I).
The schedule also includes 1987 NCAA Division II national runnerup Portland State.
"We face a tremendous challenge, taking on this kind of schedule," said Bishop. "However, this is a very talented football team we have here at SUSC and we're excited about the opportunity to play opponents of this caliber."
SUSC took a major step in exposure this year by creating its own sports radio network. Games will be aired on stations in Utah, Nevada and Arizona.
Bishop views this year with guarded optimism. "I think our biggest worry is that we really are on track as a football program. Yet, with that schedule, we just hope we are able to show what we really can do."
Bishop said with the first four games against NAU, Angelo State, Mesa College and Weber, "we're looking at a survival mode before the league games even begin."