Graduating to the NFL: Six T-Birds Sign with Pro Teams

Published: May 05, 2016 | Read Time: 4 minutes

LeShaun Sims in the SUU 2015-16 Football SeasonLeading up to the 2016 NFL draft, Matt Miller, an expert with Bleacher Report, tweeted, “Southern Utah will have more players selected than Texas.” In fact, SUU produced as many draft prospects as Texas and Michigan combined during this year’s NFL combine. The small town of Cedar City will now be known for more than its natural beauty and Shakespearean theatre, but also it’s success on the gridiron because of these once no-star recruits.

The success the University is now seeing started six years ago when its football coaches recruited six high school students who didn’t have the build, history or strength to excel on the field.

These half-dozen Thunderbirds hushed the critics when they signed with NFL teams in 2016 and made SUU history as the school's highest-signed group of players to the NFL: Miles Killebrew (Detroit Lions), LeShaun Sims (Tennessee Titans), James Cowser (Oakland Raiders), Anthony Norris (Denver Broncos), and Ammon Olsen and Brock Miller (Indianapolis Colts).

Killebrew explained that you wouldn’t have recognized him four years ago stepping out of Foothill High School in Las Vegas, Nev., with only one collegiate offer.

“I only weighed 180, and wasn’t lifting weights - I was scrawny,” described Killebrew, who went in the fourth round as the 111th overall pick to the Detroit Lions. “But [former SUU Head] Coach Ed Lamb took a risk recruiting me because he saw potential. The coaches saw the potential in all of us. They knew we had something special.”

Killebrew, a 6-foot-2 217-lb. safety, was analyzed by NFL experts and said to be a “tightly bundled muscle hammer” with “bad intentions behind his strikes.” And one NFL Network researcher, Mark Dulgerian, said, “Killebrew is a strong safety who may line up as a hybrid linebacker...either way, he’s an enforcer who could have an instant impact on [Detroit’s] special teams coverage teams.”

In response to this, Killebrew joked, “I would rather be a hammer than a nail,” as he conducted a conference call with national reporters while he drove to the SUU Commencement ceremonies where he received his bachelor’s degree in engineering.

Following the draft, he said, “As great as today is, [Detroit Lions] coaches agree we are looking forward to every day stepping from this point. I mean, I am a Detroit Lion. I get to go work every day as a Lion. That’s incredible.”

Sims, much like Killebrew, started playing football at Andre Agassi Prep in Nevada, and left the high school as its first student to land a college athletic scholarship and now is its first to enter the NFL. 

This 6-foot 200-lb. cornerback first caught SUU coaches' attention at a high school game when Demario Warren, current head coach but then defensive coach, saw NFL-like size, speed and physicality when Sims chased down a receiver that appeared destined for the end zone and tackled him at the 1-yard line.

“It showed the character he had,” Warren told reporters. “He was going to compete no matter what the situation was. He had the speed to catch him, but also he wasn’t one of those kids that was going to let the guy score and give up on the play."

As for Sims, Dulgerian praised the Titans draft choice and said, “The Titans picked up an ascending cover corner who checks off all the boxes athletically. He’s a year or two away from being a legitimate contender for a starting role.”

After the NFL draft ended April 30, the excitement continued for Southern Utah athletics when Cowser signed as an undrafted free agent with the Oakland Raiders. Cowser was first drawn to the school when defensive line coach Ryan Hunt told the Davis High product that he believed he had a special talent.

“He was relentless; he never stopped, and I could see the upside with this burst and suddenness,” explained Hunt to reporters in the days leading up to the draft. “He actually played defensive tackle; he played inside more than he did defensive end. There’s a lot of carry-over with that athleticism.”

Cowser went on to become the career leader in the Football Championship Subdivision in sacks and tackles for loss. Joining him as undrafted free agents are Norris (tight end) to the Denver Broncos, and Olsen (quarterback) to the Indianapolis Colts. Brock Miller (punter), a 2013 graduate, will report to the Colts’ mini-camp.

While each NFL signee is fighting now for his pro team, each recognizes that once a T-Bird, always a T-Bird, and each knows he is carrying the University with him.

“They gave me an arena to just grow and to learn and to have brothers with me,” Killebrew said of SUU's football coaches to reporters before the draft. “Just for that alone, I would say I want to bring [SUU] along; I want to bring [it] notoriety. I want people to know my experience.”

With such an incredibly strong 2016 draft class, SUU coaches know that the success won’t stop with these men, who were cornerstones for SUU’s football program. And three years from now scouts will no longer ask what a player from SUU is like.

“I want scouts to think ‘Hey, there are great football players in Cedar City. There are great guys out there who we can trust representing our brand and our locker room, but above all else they can play ball.' That’s what scouts will be saying because of this 2016 draft class,” said Sims.

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