Alright, alright, alright! We're getting dangerously close to the beginning of the college football season! I've procrastinated like mad, but it is officially time for my yearly pre-season analysis of our boys in Aggie blue. I'll be breaking this up into two parts: 1- analyzing each position on the roster, and 2- analyzing the schedule. Let's get right to it!
Team break-down by position:
Quarterback- Kent Myers finally has the reins to himself; it's time to see what the guy can do! He may be the most underrated QB in the conference, flying under the radar after a stellar season in 2015 during which he was splitting reps with former star QB Chuckie Keeton. Last year, Myers completed over 60% of his passes, threw 16 TD's to just 3 INT's, and had a passer rating of 151.55 (better than any other returning QB in the conference). He added another 40 ypg rushing, higher than any other returning QB in the conference with the exception of UNM QB Lamar Jordan. His dual-threat potential, combined with another year of growth and maturity, position him to have a breakout year. And his backups are talented, hungry, and eager to hit the field; this may be the deepest QB rotation USU has ever had.
Running Back- Devante Mays claimed the starting spot on the depth chart last year with some dominant performances, including three 100+ yard rushing games. More of a Robert Turbin than a Michael Smith, Mays provides the strength to grind it out on the ground. An improved o-line should provide the boost he needs to tab many more 100 yard games this season, and he should easily eclipse the 1,000 yard mark. Mays is backed up by LaJuan Hunt, who offers the speed to match Mays' power, and gives the Aggies an effective 1-2 punch in the run game. Justen Hervey and Tonny Lindsey round out the RB stable, and both are talented enough to challenge Hunt for reps.
Receivers- Losing seniors Hunter Sharp, Devonte Robinson, and Brandon Swindall was a tough hit for the receiving corps. Fortunately, due to injuries and other misadventures, underclassmen got plenty of action last year, and are now ready to step into the spotlight. Last year showed us the potential of talents such as Andrew Rodriguez, Braelon Roberts, and Zach Val Leeuwen. This year they are joined by Kennedy Williams, who shifted over from RB for this season, Jaren Colston-Green, who has stood out during spring ball, and Ron'Quavion Tarver, a JuCo transfer who may be this year's "who is that and where did he come from?!" player in the MWC. Despite the turnover, I expect this year's corps to be an overall upgrade from last year; combined with consistency at the QB spot from Myers, I expect an extremely dangerous air attack this season.
Tight Ends- Chris Copier was dismissed from the team over the offseason, which is a hard blow, however with Wyatt Houston returning, along with Dax Raymond and Landon Horne, I see no reason for concern. I expect to see the TE's used more for run blocking and pass protection than in receiver sets, but there is enough talent in the group that they should continue to get four or five touches per game.
Offensive Line- Last year, the line was thin, talent wise. The backups were not up to speed, and it showed during the course of the game. This year, there are half a dozen players capable of claiming the two open spots left by Taani Fisilau, who graduated last year, and Tyshon Mosely, who was dismissed from the team during the offseason. I expect the lineup, including returning starters Austin Stephens, Jake Simonich, and Austin Albrecht, to bring on a rotation of Sean Taylor, Jarom Ioane, Brandon Taukeiaho, Preston Brooksby, Viliamu McMoore, KJ Uluave, and Demytrick Ali'ifua. With depth no longer a concern, USU should be able to keep players fresh; I anticipate USU owning the trenches on both sides of the ball.
Defensive Line- This was a position with lots of questions marks at the end of the 2015 season, with Jordan Nielsen, John Taylor and David Moala leaving the program. The questions were amplified by the losses of Eric Berntsen, who left the team on his own, and Brady Holt, who was involved in a tragic car accident and is still in the midst of a long-term recovery. Fortunately, the issues were largely put to rest this spring and summer with the return of giant leader Travis Seefeldt, who came back from his own car accident last year. With Ian Togiai and Ricky Ali'ifua anchoring the ends, the opposing o-linemen had better fasten their seatbelts, because this train will be hard to stop. Likely backups include Edmund Faimalo, Siua Taufa, and Adewale Adeoye on the ends and Gasetoto Schuster and Chris Unga supporting Seefeldt.
Linebackers- The one major hole in the Aggies lineup this year, all four starting linebacker roles went up for grabs after junior Nick Vigil unexpectedly declared for the NFL draft at the end of last season. Replacing four NFL caliber linebackers is no easy challenge. There are a few names Aggie fans will recognize from last year's backups: Alex Huerta, Chase Christiansen, Brock Carmen Leki Uasike, and Chasen Andersen (former head coach Gary Andersen's son) will look to lead a young group. Former TE Dalton Baker is moving to LB to add depth and experience, former Aggie BJ Larsen's brother Derek Larsen has shown great promise, and looks to challenge for a starting role as well. Despite the new names, I don't expect a huge drop off (if any) from this year's LB group. USU has become well known for reloading at this position, and for putting NFL talent on the field, which I do not anticipate a deviation from this year.
Defensive Backs- Daniel Gray and Jalen Davis are my picks to start at CB, and with the talent these two bring, you will be hard-pressed to find a better CB duo in the conference. Devin Centers returns at FS, leaving SS as the only position requiring someone to fill in. Happily, BYU transfer Dallin Leavitt looks to step right into that role, and has proven playmaker ability. This is one of the strongest groups on the field, and should help alleviate concerns about the inexperience at the linebacker position.
Punter- Aaron Dalton returns at punter, and should continue to provide excellent service at his position, averaging 41.3 ypk.
Place-Kickers- Local products Brock Warren and Jake Thompson, both seniors, should continue to share responsibilities at the PK position. Warren appears to be the more consistent of the two, making 8 of 11 field goals last year, with Thompson making 3 of 6.
Kick/Punt Returners- Kennedy Williams and Andrew Rodriguez should continue to provide explosive returns for the Aggies. Rodriguez averaged 10 ypr last year, and made Phil Steele's two-deep all-conference team.
Offense in review: With eleven players returning with starting experience on the two-deep rotation, this offense should be clicking this year; a stronger, deeper offensive line, continuity and stability at the quarterback position, solid strength from the running backs, and decent depth from the tight ends, the only question is whether the receivers will step up to the plate and pull their weight. If they can produce one or two star playmakers, this offense could challenge Boise for the most explosive air offense in the conference, and could match SDSU's ability to punish on the ground. I optimistically anticipate the highest scoring Aggie offense of the past multiple decades.
Defense in review: Seven players return with starting experience, and multiple others had serious playing time last year. A powerful line and a loaded defensive back group offset concerns about a young linebacker corps. Additionally, Coach Wells apparently felt good enough about the LB group to not worry about bringing in JuCo transfers to the mix, which is hopefully a sign that we might experience a pleasant surprise similar to what we felt when doomsdayers predicted in 2011 that no one could replace Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher. You may recognize the no-names that filled those voids: Jake Doughty, Zach Vigil, and some freshman named Kyler Fackrell. All things considered, I anticipate many raised eyebrows at the production levels this defense will show on field. According to SBN's Bill Connelly, they averaged a Def. S&P+ ranking of just under 19th nationally over the past four years, including rankings of 12th in 2012 and 5th in 2013. This year, they may not be at the level of the 2012 or 2013 teams... but then again, they might. And that is an encouraging thought.
Special Teams in review: With all the main special teams positions returning their starters, this area should be a strength for USU, giving opponents long fields and dangerous returners every time they see the field.
Look for my USU Football Preseason Preview, Part Two, coming soon, and post in the comments the following:
-What position are you most worried about?
-What player are you most worried about?
-What position are you most excited for?
-What player are you most excited for?
-Obviously, comment whatever else you want re: my homer-ism, accuracy or lack thereof, etc. Comment on!