It’s not every day a coach with “NFL” and “BCS champion” on his resume opts to join an FCS program, but that’s what the Southern Utah University Thunderbirds will be getting this season in new associate head coach/offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.
After being relieved of his duties as offensive coordinator of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers last August, the Orem native and former BYU head coach moved back to a home in St. George he had purchased a few years ago.
SUU head coach Ed Lamb heard Crowton was in the area, a lunch appointment was arranged and the one-time Chicago Bears and LSU Tigers offensive coordinator was brought aboard in January.
“I think there’s some instant credibility anytime that a guy with as much experience as he has walks in the door,” Lamb said, “but it really only took a day or two before our players began to make their own opinions about his level of honesty and how hard he was going to work at making them better.”
Though the monetary budget and the overall team depth is less than what he’s seen at bigger programs, Crowton insists the football is the same at SUU.
“It’s the same intensity in our weight room, it’s the same intensity on the football field, it’s the same desire to win and the same pressure to win as any place I’ve been,” he said.
The marriage seems to be a good one, at least for the Thunderbirds. A season ago, they were in the bottom third of the Big Sky in most major offensive statistical categories as they employed a system predicated upon ball control.
In Crowton, they’ll get a coach who has earned the reputation as one who is able to build fast, high-octane offenses, and Lamb feels his team has the personnel to continue that trend in 2014.
“We needed to get more dynamic,” said Lamb, who will be in his seventh year at the helm in Cedar City. “I just think we have more tools this year, and Gary’s gonna be the benefactor of that and I think he’s gonna help us get to the next level.”
Crowton has become particularly well-known for helping quarterbacks succeed, though the player who will be SUU’s main signal caller remains to be seen. Senior Aaron Cantu is the incumbent, but Lamb said BYU transfer Ammon Olsen has outplayed him during camp and the job is still up for grabs.
Lamb is particularly excited about his wide receivers. Chris Robinson has thrived in Crowton’s offense, and four wideouts who have returned from LDS missions will see time.
“I think never in the time I’ve been here have we had this much depth where we feel like we’ve got this many guys that can be starters and winning players,” he said.
As for the defensive side of the ball, SUU is hoping it’s business as usual in 2014. A season ago, that unit was essentially the statistical opposite of the offense, as it was in the top third of the Big Sky in most categories.
Leading the way will be defensive end James Cowser. The junior from Fruit Heights is the top returner in the Big Sky in both sacks and tackles for loss and is on multiple award watch lists.
“I focus on my assignment and I focus on my part, and then the accolades just come,” he said. “That kind of stuff just comes naturally. I think people get rewarded for effort and hard work, and I think it shows on the field. If I can keep those basics in mind and do my part and just work hard, I think good things will happen.”
The Thunderbirds, who were picked to finish sixth in the Big Sky, open the season Saturday against FBS opponent Nevada in Reno. They will commence conference play Sept. 27 at home against Weber State and play four teams ranked in the preseason FCS Top 25.
“I’m so ready,” Cowser said. “Camp being at the tail end, games being so close, it’s just that antsy time.”
Ryan McDonald is a part-time reporter at the Deseret News. He is a recent graduate of the University of Utah, where he was sports editor of the campus newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwmcdonald.