Break ups are hard. Just ask Matt Wells, Utah State Football's Head Coach who has been watching Sleepless in Seattle and eating Ghiradellis by the boxful since June 28th. On that Sunday, Coach Wells dismissed receiver Bruce "Jo Jo" Natson for a violation of team rules, the third offense in an up and down relationship with Jo Jo that was heading into its fourth year. Now Wells and the rest of Aggie Nation are left wondering what went wrong, what could have been, and what's next.
Jo Jo's raw explosiveness is a big part of what makes it so hard to let go. Coming out of Boyd H. Anderson High School in Florida, Natson arrived in Logan to a team on the rise. He played 12 games as a freshman and earned his first start against Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the school's first bowl win since 1993. This was the first of three straight bowl wins, with Natson featuring in each.
Watching Jo Jo play was an Antman experience. When I saw the previews for Marvel's summer blockbuster I remember thinking there is no way any amount of overdone special effects can make me believe that a man the size of an insect is capable of saving the world. But a helmet and pads were Jo Jo's supersuit. On the field, the qualities that would seem to restrict him instead enabled him. His small frame became elusive, shrinking through cracks in the defense to explode in a burst of speed that would carry him to the end zone.
Natson made us see the advantage in being small, and used his superpowers to become one of the most dynamic players in the nation. His total yardage may not be eye-popping, but You Don't Know Jo is the only player in the FBS to have multiple rushing, returning, and receiving touchdowns in the past two seasons. For the majority of last season, Natson was the lone spark plug on a sometimes anemic offense. In a Mountain West road game against Wyoming that had big ramifications for the Aggies title hopes, Jo Jo shimmied and shook his way to the game's only two touchdowns: an 80 yard punt return TD, and a 66 yard carry to paydirt.
The loss of Jo Jo is hard to swallow, but as with any break up, there comes a point when enough is enough. It's been a month and a half and the Aggie faithful are ready to throw open the drapes, buy a new suit, and start living again. The best remedy to any break up is to get back in the game, and while you will never replace what you lost, what you find may be better than you can imagine. Luckily Coach Wells has a pool of potential rebounds.
Sometimes the best new relationship is the rekindling of an old flame. Past relationships end for a variety of reasons: distance, timing, and of course gruesome season-ending injuries, just to name a few. Natson's prowess in the passing game will be missed, but the aerial game will instantly improve with the return of Chuckie Keeton, coming off of last season's well documented knee problems. While many are aware of Chuckie's return, another returnee from season ending injury may turn some heads this year.
Brandon Swindall finished his sophomore campaign (2013) with a team-high six touchdown receptions. His junior season was limited to the Tennessee debacle and one play against Idaho State before he went down with a season-ending tear to his Achilles tendon. At 6'4 205 pounds, Swindall is the anatomical opposite of 5'9 Jo Jo, but has potential to replace his explosive impact in the passing game. Look for Swindall to be a breakout star and big redzone target for the Aggies in 2015.
A New Spark
When you're stuck in a rut, go chase something new and exciting. Devonte Robinson looks like he could be the bright new spark in the Aggie rushing attack. While Jo Jo added most of the explosion to the ground game last year, let's not forget Devonte Robinson's 59 yard touchdown run against New Mexico. While the rest of Robinson's numbers are limited, he carried the ball 19 times for 211 yards and 3 touchdowns in his JUCO career. Expect him to add some flair to the Aggie rushing attack via sweeps and reverses.
Hanging with the guys
Who needs a relationship when you can just eat wings and kick it with your boys? The return game is where Jo Jo's game will most sorely be missed and it will take the whole crew to replace him. Over the last two years, Jo Jo Ma orchestrated some spectacular returns and will go down as arguably the most dangerous returner in the history of Utah State, and maybe the Mountain West. Last season he averaged 11 yards per return and returned two to the house, his longest being that 80 yarder against Wyoming. To put that in perspective, the eight punts that were returned by Aggies not named Jo Jo went for a net total of 4 yards and 0 touchdowns.
The position looks to be punt return by committee until a consistent starter is locked down, and that will be alright for now. Hunter Sharp (will miss first two games), Kennedy Williams, and Jalen Davis all showed chops returning kickoffs last year, with Williams getting the most reps. While Natson's output likely won't be matched, the return game is in capable hands heading into the season.
A New Day
Wells and new OC Josh Heupel will continue game-planning for a life without Natson, and the early season gauntlet of Utah, Washington, and Colorado State provides a strong incentive for Utah State to move on quickly. The Aggies have suffered losses to key players in each of the last two seasons and have rallied to put together one of the most consistent winning teams in the nation, a team that guns for championships each year. Jo Jo may be gone, but for now, Utah State is zeroed in on their goal of winning their first conference title in the Mountain West.
Utah State is prepared for a life without Natson, but after the season ends, winter sets in, and the bleak days of the college football offseason return, we may just remember the one that got away. We might imagine what could've been had things worked out. We might put on our #9 jersey as we check the internet for recruiting news, scouting the next generation of playmaking Aggies. We may even youtube some of Natson's more explosive moments, his game changing punt returns and supersonic jet sweeps. We'll think back to the slot receiver who made us believe, and hope that wherever he is he's breaking ankles and making highlights.
After all, I hope that we can still be friends.