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Michael Albans, AP
Southern Utah wide receiver Fatu Moala (8) catches a touchdown pass in front of Montana cornerback Anthony Goodwin (1) during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Missoula, Mont., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012.
SUU had lost 17 of the previous 19 games against Big Sky opponents. In the last two years, we are 7-4 against Big Sky teams. We are making great strides. —Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb

The Southern Utah University football team is still adjusting to a big change.

The Thunderbirds made the leap into the Big Sky Conference a year ago and finished in the middle of the 13-team pack. This season, with that year now under their belts, the men on the SUU roster return with experience and expectations.

“We have a lot of veteran leadership,” said head coach Ed Lamb, “and we’re very excited to have that.”

Lamb said returning some experienced players, men who have a hands-on understanding of what it means to play in a larger conference like the Big Sky, is crucial to the success of the program.

“The challenge for our team is the Big Sky is a long race,” Lamb said. “It’s an eight-game schedule; it’s got to be eight games of consistent effort.”

Heading into the season, the coaching staff spent time focusing on enthusiasm and sustaining the necessary energy. Whatever Lamb is doing, it seems to be working. When the BYU graduate took over at SUU in 2008, the team was in the midst of a 19-game losing streak. Since that time, the Thunderbirds have recorded winning seasons in 2010 and 2011 as well as a record of 4-4 and a tie for fifth place in their inaugural Big Sky campaign.

“SUU had lost 17 of the previous 19 games against Big Sky opponents,” Lamb said. “In the last two years, we are 7-4 against Big Sky teams. We are making great strides.”

Working in the Thunderbirds’ favor will be the load of sophomores they have back to anchor the defense. The team has nine players returning to the starting lineup on the defensive side of the ball and eight of them were just freshmen a year ago.

James Cowser, a Davis High graduate, is one of those key players. A 6-foot-4 sophomore defensive end, Cowser led the Big Sky in sacks last season with 7 1/2, along with 61 tackles.

Zak Browning is another sophomore who returns to lead the defense. At 5 foot 11, the linebacker led the team with 116 tackles and led the nation’s freshmen with 11.6 tackles per game a year ago. Browning was named the Big Sky's freshman of the year for 2012.

Sophomore Miles Killebrew “is the leader of our secondary, which returns all four starters” said Lamb. A 6-foot-3 player from Henderson, Nev., Killebrew recorded 69 tackles last season.

“I have seen both physical growth and maturity; they all came back bigger and stronger," Lamb said of his young players. “They have come in expecting to be starters, and they are working hard with that mindset.”

On offense, the team is suddenly a few years older. Senior offensive linemen Gavin Farr, a Northridge High alum, is a three-time all-conference selection. Farr “has great leadership on the line," Lamb said. "He is the best offensive lineman we have had.”

Calling the signals will be junior college transfer Aaron Cantu, who comes to Cedar City after a two-year stint at East Los Angeles College in California.

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“He is a very charismatic leader,” Lamb said. “He stepped into his new role and the team has really rallied around him.”

Finally, the Thunderbirds’ core of upperclassmen wide receivers includes Kearns native senior Fatu Moala, senior Griff McNabb and junior Easton Pedersen, a Lone Peak graduate.

With all of the players on his roster, particularly the depth of Utah-based talent, Lamb said he was fortunate to arrive at SUU at the right time. Now the Thunderbirds are working toward not only making the leap into the Big Sky Conference but also becoming competitive at the top of the standings.

Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.