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Utah State Season Preview: A Tale of High Expectations

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Transition on offense and in the coaching staff, but a stud QB and solid D can keep USU afloat

NCAA Football: Utah State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, the Utah State Aggies entered the year expecting better success than they had in the prior season. Coming off of a 6-7 year that included a bowl loss to New Mexico State (NMSU’s first bowl appearance and first bowl win in 57 years), the Aggies knew they had the capability to do more.

Well, they certainly did more. They finished the season 11-2; a season that included a near upset of Michigan State in Week 1, a dominant rivalry win over BYU, a demolishing of North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl, and a win short of a Mountain division title.

On their way to 11-2, the Aggies put up astonishing numbers on offense. The unit was led by QB Jordan Love, who tossed for 3,567 yards and 32 TDs. He had big targets in Ron’Quavion Tarver, Jalen Greene, and Dax Raymond. The run game was dominant as well with Darwin Thompson leading the way and Gerold Bright right behind him. One of the keys to the offensive explosion was an experienced and gritty offensive line led by C Quin Ficklin. Utah State’s offense broke all sorts of school records and put up numbers that matched powerhouses like Alabama and Oklahoma.

While all of that is well and good, the Aggies now turn the page and look ahead to the upcoming season. There are myriad questions to be answered about this squad, mainly revolving around all the changes to offensive personnel and the coaching staff. The defense looks to be the stronger side of the ball this season, while the special teams will be just as consistent as last year.

Those are some pretty general statements about the team, so why don’t we take a deep dive into this years Utah State Aggies football team:

OFFENSE:

The offense is led by two stellar players: QB Jordan Love and RB Gerold Bright.

Love is the unquestionably best player on the offense, and arguably the whole team. He’s got great arm strength and can use his feet to get into the end-zone. The upcoming campaign will be the biggest test of his collegiate career so far, as he loses his top four receivers from last season and will be working behind an offensive line that returns just one player with starting experience. If there ever were a time for Love to best show that he can make plays with his arm and his legs, this season is it. He’ll have new hands to throw to, but they aren’t without talent. Savon Scarver and Jordan Nathan are looking to be receivers #1 and #2 for the season. They’re solid in the return game, which we will talk about later. Being an every down receiver is nothing like the return game, however. It has yet to be seen if they can become those first options for Jordan Love. If not, there’s always the possibility of Utah transfer Siaosi Mariner making a case for himself as the top option.

The running game certainly lost a great talent in Darwin Thompson, who was dynamic and explosive last year for the Aggies. He was rewarded for his talents with his selection by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2019 NFL Draft. This year it will be Thompson’s 2018 backup, Gerold Bright, who takes over the starting role. Utah State is without a doubt elated to lose a player like Thompson only to have a high caliber back like Bright take over the #1 RB role. Most will compliment Bright for his running ability, he had 888 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs last year, but his contributions to the passing game will be key for the offense as a whole. Bright caught 22 passes for 232 yards and three scores in 2018. Behind him, freshman Enoch Nawahine looked great in the spring and may find himself backing up Bright this season, but not without some big competition from sophomore Sione Fehoko and/or BYU graduate transfer Riley Burt.

Check-down passes, outlet passes, and screens to Bright will probably become more prevalent in the offensive scheme this year as the coaching staff tries to make do with an almost entirely inexperienced offensive line. The lone returning starter from last season is sophomore T Alfred Edwards. The Aggies unfortunately will have to rely on some new blood to hold the line, as 12 out of the 18 offensive lineman listed on the USU roster are either redshirt freshmen or true freshmen. There are a few upperclassmen, like Demytrick Ali’Ifua and Ty Shaw, who will probably get the starting nod on the line.

DEFENSE:

Just like the offense, the defensive side of the ball is led by the two high end talents: the attacking Tipa Galeai and linebacker/leader David Woodward.

Galeai is sometimes listed as a linebacker, but without a doubt his greatest skill is the ability to get to the QB. He’s the leader of the Aggies defensive line. Senior NG Christopher Unga is the big piece on the interior of the line. The 6’1” 300 lb. big man can clog up run lanes and take on double teams to free up space for his teammates. Unga and fellow NG Ritisoni Fata will be getting most of the reps on the interior this fall, as most of the other players listed as interior linemen are freshmen. There may be a small depth problem on the inside, but on the outside, the Aggies are stacked. Galeai is there, alongside the big, bruising Fua Leilua. Behind them are guys like Dalton Baker, Justus Te’i, and Devin Andersen. All of these guys, along with others not mentioned, can make an impact on defense in one way or another. While the linebacking core may have the name with Woodward there, it seems as though the defensive line (especially on the ends) will be Utah State’s area of strength this season.

Speaking of the linebackers, let’s see what we can expect from that unit in 2019. Woodward leads the way as the captain of the defense. He was the team leader in total tackles last season with 134, the next closest being Chase Christensen with 99. The biggest problem is depth, as Woodward is the only linebacker returning with serious field time. He’ll have new, but talented teammates by his side, so expect a lot of snaps for guys like Kevin Meitzenheimer, Eric Munoz, Maila Magalei, and maybe even talented incoming freshmen Christian Lavalle and Jaymason Willingham.

The last line of defense, the secondary, is an intriguing subject for the upcoming season. The Aggies lose big talents in Gaje Ferguson and Aaron Wade. However they do still have Ja’Marcus Ingram, DJ Williams (a guy many have said is primed to put himself into the national spotlight this year), Chase Nelson, and Shaq Bond. So there may be key losses, but there’s still a good amount of talent here. We may see a slight drop off in production from this unit, but if Bond can come back from his injury with a vengeance, Williams can live up to the hype he’s getting, and the others can hold suit; this will be a stellar coverage corps once again.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

K Dominik Eberle is back after a solid season, going 22/28 on all field goals and a perfect 75/75 on extra points. P Aaron Dalton returns after missing all of 2018 with a back injury. Last year Taylor Hintze was his fill-in and did a great job, with 11 punts inside the 20 and an average punt distance of 40.2 yards. The Aggies return (no pun intended) arguably the best kick returner in the country in WR Savon Scarver. He was an All-American at the position last year and will look to continue dominating the return game. However, coaches might look to filter in other options to return kicks this year, as Scarver is positioned to be receiver #1 in the offense with all of the losses from last year. WR Jordan Nathan was the primary punt returner last year and all signs point to him doing the same this year along side his increased role in the offense.

COACHING STAFF:

Bringing back Gary Andersen as Head Coach was met with mixed reviews from most media outlets. Most cases of old coaches being brought back to the helm don’t end well. There are exceptions however, and Andersen has a great opportunity to become one of those exceptions. He inherits a great roster with a talented quarterback and loaded defense; that’s great to hear when you think back to Andersen’s last great Aggies team in 2012 that featured both a talented QB (Chuckie Keeton: 3373 pass yds, 35 total TDs) and a loaded defense (42 sacks, 14 INTs, 15.3 PPG). Utah State really nailed the coordinator hires, as they brought in Mike Sanford and Justin Ena to man the offense and defense respectively. Sanford was fired as the HC at Western Kentucky after two years in Bowling Green. Ena was the linebackers coach at Utah.

OVERALL OUTLOOK:

It’s almost needless to say that fans of Utah State football are excited for the upcoming season and expect a good amount of success from their team. Can you blame them? After years of mediocre play, Gary Andersen came in and made the Aggies really fun. GA leaves, but then Matt Wells comes in and does much of the same. The people of Logan, Utah have gotten a taste of the fun and excitement of 10+ win seasons and now they want more. Attaining that goal will be quite difficult this season, even with the talent on this roster.

Conference games against Nevada, Fresno State, Boise State, and San Diego State will be tough enough as it is, now add in the non-conference games against Wake Forest, LSU, and BYU and you’ve got yourself one of the most difficult schedules in all of the G5.

I’ve already gone in-depth on the Aggie’s schedule, so if you’d like to know more about that specifically, I advise you to click on the tweet below:

Would it be a crime to say the Aggies could pull off 10 or more wins once again? No, you won’t be held in contempt if you do. However, it’ll take a decent amount of blessings from the football gods to get to that level.

Hey, the Aggies almost pulled off the upset of Michigan State in East Lansing last year, who’s to say they can’t finish the job against a P5 team this year?

College football is weird. Let’s get weird.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming Utah State season? Let us know in the comments!

Follow Alex on Twitter @thesportswizard and follow the Mountain West Connection @MWCConnection.