Utah State Aggies Defensive Preview

Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE

Utah State's defense was an enormous part of last season's success. As the Aggies move to the Mountain West, can it be a factor once again?

Defensive Line

Last year's Utah State line was completely loaded, stacking a ton of bodies up against the run, en route to the 13th-ranked rushing defense in the country. They managed to get after the passer (20 sacks from players on the line), but it really was that run-stopping effort that made a significant difference and set them apart from previous iterations. Despite teams attempting 493 rushes against the Aggies, they still managed to hold opponents to just 1,479 yards. And the best news? All but one of last year's primary contributors are back. Just a sophomore, Jordan Nielsen only stands to improve at defensive end, and he'll pair with senior Connor Williams to form a lethal end combo in this 3-4 setup. At noseguard, AJ Pataiaki'i is a big stopper weighing in at 307 pounds, though he'll be pushed to get some more penetration behind the line of scrimmage this year.

Depth Chart Projection:

DE: Nielsen | B.J. Larsen

NG: Pataiali'i | Travis Seefeldt

DE: Williams | Paul Piukala

Linebackers

Linebacker -- both inside and outside -- may be the deepest position on this roster. And again, of last year's main contributors, the Aggies really only lost two (Bojay Fillimoeatu and Cade Cowin), and they're at least two-deep at all four linebacker spots. On the inside, Zach Vigil and Jake Doughty look to continue their superb play, especially Vigil who showed himself to be a force in the pass-rush (5.5 sacks), while also getting additional penetration against the run (another four TFLs). Outside, Kyle Fackler has become a severe agitator to opposing teams, creating havoc on the edge, while also snagging three interceptions. His counterpart at the other outside spot, Michael Okonwo, is young (just a sophomore), but his speed showed itself to be a factor in limited action last year, and will be an asset as he ascends into a starting-type role.

Depth Chart Projection:

OLB: Fackler | Terrell Thompson

ILB: Zach Vigil | Travis McMillian

ILB: Doughty | La'Bradford Harold

OLB: Okonwo | Nick Vigil

Secondary

Here's where the depth at linebacker is sure to come in handy. Utah State has plenty of bodies to fill roles in the secondary, however, they also lost a ton of experience from last season at both safety and corner. With Will Davis's departure, it's now Nevin Lawson's show to run at corner -- no easy task. In last year's system, Davis was the coverage guy, while Lawson was free to roam, blitz and knock down passes in traffic (10 break-ups last year). There's little proof any other cornerback on the roster can truly blanket receivers like Davis, so expect an adjustment period early in the season as they attempt to determine who fills that role best. At safety, things are a bit more settled, but given the high number of big plays allowed last year (23 passing plays of 30 or more yards, and 15 of 40 or more), that may not be a good thing. Of all the returning safeties, none are necessarily great ball hawks, and nearly all of them are more likely to be in the backfield than stopping deep passes. That could be a problem this season, and it's likely going to take time to change that mindset among the large group of returning players at both safety spots.

Depth Chart Projection:

CB: Lawson | Quinton Byrd (nickel back)

CB: Devonta Glover-Wright | Ladale Jackson (nickel back)

FS: Maurice Alexander | Frankie Sutera

SS: Brian Suite | Cameron Sanders

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