Southern Utah quarterback Cody Stone, shown being taken off the field last season, is back to lead the Thunderbirds' offense.</I>

On the front cover of Southern Utah's football media guide, an SUU logo is shown with hot metal being poured into the Thunderbird cutout with the words "Forging Success" along the bottom guide.

Anyone familiar with forging steel knows it's a process that strengthens the metal through intense heat and pressure. And it's exactly the same process SUU players have been going through in the offseason to erase the stain of a winless 2007 campaign.

The Thunderbird football program started anew in December, when former BYU linebacker Ed Lamb was hired as the head coach. From there, he changed the attitude of the program, starting with offseason workouts.

"I just ask my players to compete in everything they do," Lamb said. "We always make sure they're competing, and we hold them accountable for what they do. Everyone's watching them; their numbers get posted on the board. Always trying to get better every day has helped our kids.

Pumping iron should help SUU out this year. Reports out of Cedar City say most players have put on an average of 15 pounds of muscle through the offseason.

Something else that makes iron stronger is when you mix the melted steel with a little bit of ash. For the Thunderbirds, years of losing have burned the program to the ground, but the negativity and mess of the past has only helped Lamb develop stronger attitudes in his athletes.

"It's easy to disassociate yourself from a bad season when you're not the one who coached them," Lamb said. "We understand we're not the favorite in the conference, and that's fine. Kids at this level tend to think of the better teams and D-I programs, 'That's out of my league, it's out of my reach'.

"It's absurd to think that. My athletes are just as good a s anyone else's, and we'll show that by outworking people."

Offense

The base of any good offense in college football always starts at the offensive line, and that's where SUU is strongest, returning three of the five big men on the line. Senior center Jeremy Vilardo (6-1, 265) and junior guard Stephen Boyer (6-3, 280) both started for SUU in 2007, while senior tackle Jeff Janes (6-2, 240) has played in every game the last two years.

Junior quarterback Cody Stone comes back to lead the offense after finishing last season's campaign as the starter. Stone completed 53.4 percent of his passes last year for 1,262 yards.The glaring negative on Stone can be that he tries to do too much with the ball, as he threw twice as many interceptions (15) as touchdowns (7).

Brett Parry, who came off of an LDS mission right before spring ball, has challenged Stone during the summer, and is listed as the backup.

Stone will throw the ball to an exellent corps of receivers. Nick Miller (5-9, 175) is the best of the bunch, finishing second on the team in receptions and total yards, hauling in 35 for 433 yards last season. Tysson Poots (6-3, 205) and Mike Logan (5-11, 175) should also battle for touches.

Lamb said fans shouldn't expect a specific offensive system, but called it a "simple, yet sound" system with multiple sets and looks in each formation.

"It's not our way to define ourselves as this or that," Lamb said. "We'll go with multiple sets on offense so other teams can't take advantage of us. We'll make fundamental corrections based on what we see out there."

Defense

If there's one thing you can say about the T-Birds' defense, aggressive is the key word. Lamb says the team will continue with that aggression, but instead of playing the traditional zone defense, Lamb has been coaching his defensive backs on the finer aspects of man coverage.

Linebacker Robert Takeno is a two-time all-conference defensive player and anchors the unit for SUU. In front of him are senior defensive linemen Aaron Fernandez, Austin Curtis and junior Chad Westwood, whom Takeno told reporters could be some of the best linemen in the country.

The T-Birds have as much speed as you'll find at the I-AA level in the secondary, which is why Lamb is switching to more man-on-man coverage. Senior corner DeWayne Lewis was a finalist in the 100-meter dash at the NCAA championships this past season, and BYU transfer Tico Pringle has track experience as well.

Special teams

Lamb said the key to victory is success on special teams. SUU returns kicker Steve Pulver and punter Trevor Ward, and both have made the preseason all-conference list.

"It starts with the special teams," Lamb said. "If you can play the field position game, you can steal lots of yards and give yourself a better advantage to win the game."

Fans are cautiously optimistic in Cedar City, and you can be that way when there's no where to go but up. But Lamb says the team has more expectations than to just have a winning season: he wants a conference championship, and eventually, a berth in the I-AA playoffs. And like the iron when it cools and is forged, it only gets stronger.

"We're not the most experienced team out there," Lamb said. "We're not going to outsmart people, either. But we want to outwork them."


E-mail: nnewman@desnews.com