CEDAR CITY — A brand-spanking new conference, the return of an award-winning veteran quarterback, a preseason FCS all-American defensive tackle and perhaps the best offensive line in school history.
There's a lot to be giddy about at Southern Utah University for the 2012 football season.
The Thunderbirds begin their inaugural season in the Big Sky Conference — their 50th season as a four-year institution — after making the transition from the Great West on Thursday at 6 p.m. against Utah State at Romney Stadium.
The residuals from the new conference affiliation, both from a fan-interest and recruiting standpoint, have been noticeable in several aspects.
"I think that our fans, the ones that are savvy to what's going on, are really excited about not only this year, but I think the big excitement (is) long term, consistent, regional rivalries," said Southern Utah coach Ed Lamb, who is entering his fifth season pacing the sidelines in Cedar.
"Well, recruiting, it's been great. I think that recruits have a little more of handle on things than fans do. A lot of our fans actually think we're moving up a division," Lamb continued. "Whereas recruits are pretty savvy that the Great West Conference was a good conference and one that we played excellent competition. The Big Sky is such a better geographical fit for us."
Senior Brad Sorensen, a towering quarterback that easily pans the field, returns after earning first-team all-Great West as a sophomore and the Great West Offensive Player of the year in 2011. With 6,306 career passing yards and 37 passing strikes, he's on the verge of becoming the all-time leader in SUU history in both categories.
"He's put in a tremendous offseason. I think his footwork and his ball security (are) much improved," Lamb said. "His ability to take total command of the offense — in the past he (hasn't) been very good at audibling. I think the last step for him was to understand the whole offense and all the tools that are available to him."
Easton Pedersen and Fatu Moala, two rangy possession receivers, labor the hashes. In 2011, they combined for 49 receptions for 674 yards. Transfers Griff McNabb (Utah) and C.J. Morgan (Wyoming) are also expected to contribute significantly in both the passing attack and return game.
However, the focal point of the offense is in the trenches. Lamb described the five up-front as "athletic" and "the best offensive line that we've ever had."
The strength resides in the interior with converted fullback-center Dylan Fox and the two guards, Zach Brackus and Gavin Farr.
The Thunderbirds will be steadily effective offensively in 2012, but defense, with a depth chart swarmed with inexperience, is a major question mark.
"We're likely going to learn some tough lessons early in the season," Lamb explained.
There is one exception in three-year starter Cody Larsen at defensive tackle. After earning first-team all-Great West with 26 tackles (13 solo), six sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss in 2011, Larsen is labeled as a preseason FCS All-American.
Southern Utah has posted consecutive 6-5 records and is 25-24 all-time in season-openers, but has dropped seven straight. The 'Birds have an 0-2 record against the Aggies, with both games played in Logan, but expect to give USU a run for its money this time.
"(Utah State) is the hottest team in Utah … (and) was just a couple points away from being a 9- or 10-win team last year," Lamb said. "I think they're very well-coached; they're athletic and strong. They have a lot of momentum on their side.
"Our guys fully intend to win. I think that they have an excellent expectation that they're going to compete against a very good Utah State team."
T-BIRD TIDBIT: On Thursday, Larsen will literally play every snap against his brother, Tyler — a Remington watch-list candidate-center for Utah State. Does mom wear red and dad wear blue? And how do they cheer for sacks and pancakes?