There's something about Southern Utah's defensive players and pro scouts — they seem to like to hang out with each other.
This year, players like LB Mike Needham and D-linemen Chance Bearnson, Taylor Pili and Robert Torgerson are all being noticed. We're not saying they'll all be drafted, but don't be surprised when they're all in NFL camps next year, and maybe one or more of them will hear their names called on draft day.
What is it about Cedar City, Utah? Is there a special well in town that these defensive standouts drink from?
Two years ago, when the Thunderbirds went 8-4 and made the FCS playoffs, they had defensive standouts like Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims, who ended up being NFL Draft picks. And James Cowser was projected to be drafted, didn't end up getting taken, but still made a 53-man roster as a free agent. All three are still plying their trade in the pros.
This past spring, Josh Thornton's name was brought up often after he had an outstanding pro day, and he was on the roster of the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens before being released a few weeks ago. He's a free agent as we speak, but could be on a roster by next week. One never knows.
"I think people just overlook the state of Utah and the talent it has," Needham told HERO Sports. "A lot of good players go to Utah and BYU and Utah State but a lot of us mature a bit later, and we've grown and matured here at SUU and we've been coached to be men. Most of us are just Utah kids."
Southern Utah's defense has held firm in the offense-happy Big Sky Conference for the past month. In the past two weeks, it has pinned former Big Sky frontrunner Weber State down to 16 points, and the next team up? Eastern Washington — on a five-game winning streak. And anybody who knows the Eagles knows holding that program to 28 points is like holding others to 14. And don't forget the impressive win over one of the Missouri Valley's rising playoff contenders, Northern Iowa.
The T-birds now find themselves on a three-game winning streak heading into a three-game stretch against Big Sky teams that all have sub-.500 records at this point. Then the season finale could help settle a topsy-turvy Big Sky when Southern Utah plays host to the only current undefeated team in the league — Northern Arizona.
First things first though. The top seniors on this defense know they need to handle the next three opponents who are combined 7-14. They've already handled some of the top teams in the league.
"I don't think its a specific person, it's more of the way we scheme things here," Bearnson told HERO Sports, when asked why SUU was so tough on defense in 2015 and appears heading in that direction in 2017. "Each person who is recruited here is very talented and we work together as a whole. I couldn't get the plays that come to me without the rest of the D-line setting it up. And if I'm not filling my role, all of them will be pissed off at me. Everybody has to do their 1/11th. You need to do your job and then some, and I think that's the culture our defense has."
Collective talent or individual prospect talent — either way, something is working and it appears this team may be back to its 2015 form.
"We still have to prove ourselves each day, we still have to earn it," Bearnson said. "We're good, but we haven't proven anything yet.