AP Photo
July 18, 2016

(STATS) - Not so fast, the cupboard isn't bare at Southern Utah.

The defending champions may not be the popular pick when the Big Sky football polls are released Tuesday, but people in the conference still recognize the strong talent in the Thunderbirds' program even after they graduated some dominant players and lost their head coach.

In the nation's largest FCS conference, the Thunderbirds could be picked closer to where they were in last year's preseason coaches and media polls than where they finished - with their first Big Sky title.

Southern Utah had the most selections Monday on the Big Sky preseason team with five - seniors Steven Wroblewski (tight end), Mike Sharp (wide receiver) and Tate Lewis (punter), as wells as juniors Chance Bearnson (defensive tackle) and Mike Needham (linebacker).

"Honestly, we did lose some key guys," Lewis said. "They were great for our team last year, but most of the guys that we had last year are back. I think it just comes down to us recognizing that and realizing we still have a great team and we can still do great things. That's what we should expect."

New Thunderbirds coach Demario Warren, promoted from defensive coordinator after coach Ed Lamb left for BYU following eight seasons, faces plenty of challenges as his team tries to replace quarterback Ammon Olsen and defensive stalwarts James Cowser, Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sim, among others.

But Warren returns a strong nucleus, led by Needham, a first-team All-Big Sky choice last season when Southern Utah won the conference title with a 7-1 mark and finished 8-4 overall with a No. 18 national ranking.

"I just feel like as long as we have that belief and everyone is on board," Lewis said, "we'll do a great job."

Northern Arizona and Weber State tied for the second-most preseason selections with four each. Those two teams, along with Southern Utah, Eastern Washington, Montana, North Dakota and Portland State are all part of what should be a wide-open title race in the 13-team Big Sky.

Eastern Washington senior wide receiver Cooper Kupp, the 2015 STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year, and Montana senior defensive end Caleb Kidder were named the Big Sky's preseason offensive and defensive players of the year.

"What is important to me," Kupp said, "is that I'm giving my best day in and day out. As long as everyone else on the Eastern Washington football team walks off the field their last time playing and is able to look back and say, 'I gave everything I had this season. I gave my very best,' everything else that comes with that - statistics, team success, all the stuff - is going to come with it."---=

BIG SKY CONFERENCE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TEAM=

Offensive Player of the Year - Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington

Defensive Player of the Year - Caleb Kidder, DE, Montana

Offense

QB - Case Cookus, Northern Arizona

RB - *John Santiago, North Dakota

RB - Chad Newell, Montana State

FB - *Joe Protheroe, Cal Poly

TE - Steven Wroblewski, Southern Utah

OG - Cameron Young, Weber State

OG - J.P. Flynn, Montana State

C - Blake Porter, Northern Arizona

OT - Jacob Julian, Northern Arizona

OT - Calvin Steyn, Weber State

WR - *Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington

WR - Mike Sharp, Southern Utah

WR - Emmanuel Butler, Northern Arizona

Defense

DE - Caleb Kidder, Montana

DE - Davond Dade, Portland State

DT - Chance Bearnson, Southern Utah

DT - Chuntony Johnson, Northern Colorado

OLB - Mike Needham, Southern Utah

OLB - Mac Bignell, Montana State

ILB - Emmett Tela, Weber State

ILB - Manoah Pearson, Sacramento State

CB - Xavier Coleman, Portland State

CB - Taron Johnson, Weber State

S - Cole Reyes, North Dakota

S - Yamen Sanders, Montana

Special Teams

PK - Jonathan Gonzales, Portland State

P - Tate Lewis, Southern Utah

RS - Ellis Onic II, Northern Colorado

ST - Hakeem Diggs, Northern Colorado

* - unanimous selection

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