Gary Andersen says he always knew he’d be back. He even has the house to back it up. Andersen and his wife, Stacey, never sold their house in Logan when he took the head coaching position at Wisconsin and later Oregon State. In his own words, he meant retirement, but it doesn’t matter now, because last December he was introduced - or err...reintroduced - as Utah State University’s head football coach.
Andersen’s return has been met with a mix of surprise and enthusiasm from Aggie fans, players, and others around the country. The hiring process after Matt Wells left for Texas Tech was, to say the least, interesting. Depending on who you believe, Andersen was a booster favorite to take the job and pressure was applied to the USU Athletic Department to get him back. Other sources, including the public statement by USU Athletic Director John Hartwell, seem to indicate he was always top of mind for the hiring committee. By most accounts, Andersen wanted the job and was a serious candidate throughout the process.
The history of coaches returning to a former program is a history of mixed results. Andersen could potentially become a Chris Ault figure, or even maybe a Bill Snyder. Both enjoyed successful second stints at a former school, and are considered to be the best coaches ever at Nevada and Kansas State, respectively. In a best case scenario, Andersen’s second USU term would see him leading the Aggies to conferences championships and New Year’s Day bowl games.
For every Snyder and Ault, there is a Bill Walsh (Stanford) or a Mark Whipple (UMass). Coaches can struggle to adapt to different circumstances or elevated expectations when they return after a successful first go-around. And expectations will certainly be high for Andersen. When you are credited with turning around a program that had suffered through thirty years of mediocrity, they always will be.
In Andersen’s own words at his introductory press conference, his dream is to achieve consistent double-digit win seasons in Logan. Coming off an impressive 11-2 campaign with returning playmakers on both sides of the ball, it isn’t hard to imagine immediate success for Utah State. However, there are some challenges that Utah State will have to solve to repeat what was accomplished last year. So, what will Gary Andersen need to do this year to start on the road to second term success?
Play to His Strengths
During his initial stay in Logan, Andersen fought to build depth on his rosters and find playmakers that could win him games on both sides of the ball. There were some gifts left over from the Brent Guy era (Bobby Wagner and Robert Turbin come to mind), but the build up of talent took nearly four full years to come to fruition. Another challenge was finding position coaches and coordinators that could successfully develop talent as well as coach it.
In 2019, Utah State boasts a considerably better depth chart than a decade earlier, and has All-American and All-Mountain West talent scattered throughout the two-deep. The coaching staff assembled to lead the Aggies is impressive enough that one might guess Andersen will be forced to replace many of them in the coming years as they leave for bigger and/or better opportunities.
On offense, Andersen is fortunate enough to come into the best quarterback situation he has ever had at any job. Jordan Love is an All-MWC caliber player that is considered by some as one of the best QBs in the nation. There is also depth behind Love, which is great for a program that is accustomed to playing two, three, or even four quarterbacks in any given season. Mike Sanford -- most recently at Western Kentucky as head coach -- is a young, capable coordinator that will almost definitely get another shot at the top level of the sport one day.
If Andersen likes his offense, he will love his defense. He returns All-American David Woodward as well as All-MWC DE/OLB hybrid Tipa Galeai. Those two alone are enough to make most MWC coaches nervous, but there is also significant depth and experience returning on the defensive line. Andersen created all-conference defenders out of seemingly thin air at USU previously, and no one would be surprised to see him make something out of all the depth he has at his control now. Before Andersen left Utah, he made sure to bring linebackers coach Justin Ena with him as his new DC. Add in Frank Maile sticking around as Assistant Head Coach, and the defense will have all it needs to dial up exotic and effective packages.
The biggest difference in former Aggie teams and this iteration is the special teams play. Dominik Eberle was a Lou Groza finalist two years ago and followed it up with a solid junior season. Aaron Dalton was granted a sixth year of eligibility and will bring consistency to the punting game. But the piece de resistance of the Aggie special teams? That would be Savon Scarver, who earned consensus All-American honors last year as a sophomore. Utah State lost several games under Andersen because of special teams play (BYU, Colorado State, Wisconsin, and others come to mind), and this vastly improved unit could be the boost Gary needs to get over the hump and get to a New Year’s Six bowl.
Cover His Weaknesses
As mentioned above, Andersen has a talent for finding diamonds in the rough. He will need to work a little magic to get his team back to an 11-2 clip, especially with a more difficult schedule.
Speaking of the schedule, let’s review for just one minute. USU faces perhaps it’s most difficult schedule in the past ten years, headlined by an October visit to Baton Rouge to play LSU. Road games against Wake Forest, Fresno State, and San Diego State will challenge the Aggies, as will hosting Boise State and BYU. Winning eight games against this schedule could very well be more impressive than winning ten regular season games a year ago. That’s not how the casual viewer will see it, unfortunately, and anything less than ten total wins may be perceived as a drop in quality.
The major issues with the Aggies are all on the offensive side of the ball. After an excellent year both running and passing the ball, USU will be asked to replace four starters on the offensive line and most of their receiving yards. Gerold Bright and Jordan Nathan are returning starters that will be expected to provide yardage in the rushing and receiving games, respectively, but others will need to step up. The aforementioned Scarver will likely start as an outside wide receiver, and it never hurts to have Jordan Love throwing to you.
The defense will have question marks in the secondary. Youth and inexperience will be present for both the safety and cornerback groups, and whomever is picked to fill the two-deep will need to grow up quickly as the Aggies start against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem on August 31st. The defensive line has a few playmakers on the smaller side, so depth will be crucial to making sure they are not overworked and potentially sidelined injuries.
Whatever happens with the Aggies this year, Andersen will almost certainly be at the center of the story. A good season (8-9 wins) could set him up for a successful tenure, while a great season (10+ wins) could be seen as the start of a MWC dynasty (he’ll need to beat Boise, of course). On the flip side, a disappointing season will likely bring out the doubters early and make his supporters start to wonder if it was unwise to run it back with Coach A. One thing is guaranteed; the Aggies will be one of the most compelling stories in the Mountain West in 2019.