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Utah State 2020/2021 Non-Season Season Preview

A reflection of what the 2020 may have looked like for the Aggies and what potential 2021 Spring season might bring

NCAA Football: Utah State at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 fall camp was set to begin as the Utah State Aggies prepared for the 2020 season but an announcement from the Mountain West has clarified that there will be no fall sports in 2020. Previously, the season was going to begin with an anticipated home opener against Washington State, but that game was canceled along with the trip to Washington on September 19th due to the decision of the PAC 12 to only hold conference games because of COVID 19. The season opener then became Southern Utah and that game was in question when the Mountain West delayed the season until September 26th before postponing all fall sports on August 10th.

The Mountain West intends to play football in the Spring if possible so instead of a fall football preview, think of this as a Fall Preview of what would have happened and a look into a Spring football preview.

There was some concern when Matt Wells left for Texas Tech but previous Utah State coach Gary Anderson who coached from Utah State from 2009-2012 returned after head coaching stops at Wisconsin and Oregon State. His first year back with the Aggies did not go as well as he might have wanted it to. The Aggies were picked to finish second in the Mountain Division after finishing the 2018 season 11-2 and achieving their first top 25 finish (#22) since 2012. The Aggies finished the 2019 season at 7-6, losses to two mountain division rivals Air Force and Boise State before losing to Kent State in the Frisco Bowl. This would have been Gary Anderson’s second fall with Utah State and the Aggies were looking to improve from last season and take the next step with an offense that was inconsistent last season, even with the loss of Jordan Love.

Offense

Reasons for optimism (even going into the Spring): Jordan Love is gone but there is still talent at quarterback. While no official announcement has been made by Utah State, Jason Shelley might be the guy to win the starting job. Shelley, a transfer from Utah, is going into his redshirt junior year but did not see the field often last season, completing just 6 of 11 passes and throwing for 43 yards and a touchdown. In 2018, Shelley threw for 1,162 yards on 98 completions (160 attempts) and threw five touchdowns. If Utah State decides to go with someone else at quarterback, it is possible that they choose to go with a freshman, maybe even redshirt freshman Cooper Legas. According to 247 Sports, he was a three star recruit ranked as the 39th best dual-threat quarterback in the nation and the 19th best overall prospect in Utah, throwing for 9,770 yards and totaling 12,780 total yards and 124 touchdowns in his high school career. While the statistics are not eye popping for Shelley, he is more experienced than the other quarterbacks on the roster and this may give him the upper hand.

Utah State also has 10 running back on roster but lacks experience at one of the most grueling positions to play in football. A likely candidate to replace graduated Gerold Bright at running back is Jaylen Warren, who rushed for 569 yards and 5 touchdowns on 112 attempts. Graduate transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole may contribute in this role as well. The health of Bright and Henry-Cole and the offensive line will be important factors for Utah State to succeed in the running game this season. John Gentry, a freshman out of Houston, Texas could also make a splash in the running game. Gentry is rated as a three star recruit per 247 sports and had offers from Arkansas, Utah, Colorado State and Hawaii. He helped North Shore win the Texas state championship in 2018 and 2019 and after Boise State’s George Holani put up impressive numbers as a freshman and won the Mountain West Freshman of the Year award, it is not impossible to think that Gentry could play a similar role with the Aggies if he is called upon.

The Aggies bring in a stable of wide receivers (15 total) and the group should be more experienced than last years, one of the reasons that Utah State was inconsistent on offense. Junior receiver Deven Thompkins was named to the Hornung Award watch list, which is given to the most versatile player on either side of the ball. Thompkins had 536 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns in 2019 on 40 receptions. Seniors Jordan Nathan and Savon Scarver also return at the receiver position. Nathan had 56 receptions, 581 yards receiving and a touchdown last season and Scarver had 271 yards receiving but no touchdowns with 24 receptions. Senior Taylor Compton is also back and had 121 yards receiving and no touchdowns on 14 receptions. While there appears to be some depth at the receiver position in terms of number of receivers, it is clear that production of this group will need to go up if the Aggies want to be more successful on offense in 2020.

The offensive line is expected to be a strength for Utah State this season as they do have experience. Redshirt sophomore offensive guard Karter Shaw, who started all 13 games for the Aggies and allowed only one sack and posting 39 knockdowns. Redshirt sophomore offensive guard Heneli Bloomfield is considered to be a very good pass protector and still has room to improve. He played in 13 games last season and made four starts, posting 17 knockdowns with 7 of them coming on a career night against Nevada. There is also sophomore Andy Koch, who only appeared in three games due to injury. There is Junior Alfred Edwards who started 12 games for the Aggies last season and totaled 7 knockdowns and a senior leader from the 2019 group, Demytrick Ali’fua, who started 13 games at center and finished the season with 33 knockdowns. This group is far more experienced than the 2019 group that lost a lot of starters and should benefit from the year of experience in 2019.

Cause for concern: No Jordan Love and lack of depth at running back. If injuries started to affect the Aggies, especially at running back, there would be a deeper cause for concern because other than Jalen Warren and Devonta’e Henry-Cole, there is not a lot of experience. The same could be said for quarterback as Jason Shelley is the player with the most experience. Henry Colombi has departed for Texas Tech and the backups behind Shelley are very unproven. The Aggies scored 29.2 points per game last season and converted just 42% of third downs. The aggies also only rushed for 1979 yards for the season. If these numbers do not increase, there is cause for concern with the Aggies keeping up on offense, especially with games at Boise State and Nevada and a home game against Air Force.

Key stat: 26 turnovers. The Aggies lost 8 fumbles and had 18 interceptions in 2019, which ranked 121 in the FBS. In order for the Aggies to be more consistent on offense and take advantage of what looks to be a talented receiving group, Utah State must limit the turnovers, especially the interceptions. If the aggies can do this, the Aggies should have more success in sustaining drives and keeping games close.

Wildcard: Sophomore receiver Justin McGriff. McGriff comes out of ASA Miami and had 360 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns on 25 receptions. According to 247 sports, McGriff is the third-highest rated commit in Utah State history. McGriff’s presence on the field will be significant this year as he adds needed experience to a receiving group that is already talented. He is listed at 6’6” and 220 lbs, which will give Utah State a bigger target to throw to, which is something they did not have in that position last season. The combination of Savon Scarver, Jordan Nathan and Justin McGriff could be difficult to defend.

Defense

Last season, the Aggies ranked 103rd in the FBS in total defense. Over the course of the season the Aggies allowed 5727 yards and the Aggies also ranked 6th in the Mountain West in scoring defense, giving up 30.7 points per game.

Reasons for Optimism: The Aggies return just 5 starters on defense, but they do have a strong group of safeties and cornerbacks. Senior safeties Troy Lefeged and Shaq Bond, considered to be one of the best safety duos in the Mountain West, are two of the 5 defenders returning. Lefeged led the conference in tackles in 2019 with 109 and forced 3 fumbles and forced 4 pass break ups, adding two sacks along the way. Lefeged is not only a force when it comes to pass coverage, he is also a stout run stopper, which should help a young Aggies defensive front. Shaq Bond plays deeper coverage and while not as hard of a hitter as Troy Lefeged, Bond has a nose for the football. In 2019, Bond had 83 tackles and had 3 interceptions, which led the team, along with 8 deflections and a forced fumble.

Junior linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer, who was key to the defense last year, also returns after posting 89 tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass breakup, 1 forced fumble and two sacks. What is impressive about Meitzenheimer was that those stats were put up in his first year starting and he is bound to get better. While redshirt junior Andre Grayson missed quite a few tackles in his first season starting, he still had 47 tackles, 6 pass breakups and 2 forced fumbles and after a year of starting he may also make some big plays. There are also newcomers to the Aggies defense that could make a big difference.

The other two returning starters on defense are sophomore defensive lineman Hale Motu’apuaka and senior linebacker Eric Munoz, and both should be significant factors in improving a run defense that game up 201.9 yards a game. Motu’apuaka played in 12 games and finished with 13 tackles and 0.5 tackles per loss as a freshman. Munoz played in eight games and started the last four and had 36 tackles with 2.0 tackles for loss and two interceptions. Caden Anderson could also play a key role on the defensive line as he played in all 13 of the Aggies games and finished the season with 19 tackles and had 0.5 sacks.

Even though the Aggies already have Troy Lefeged and Shaq Bond, they still managed to grab graduate transfer CJ Pollard, a safety from USC. In three seasons with the Trojans, Pollard had 30 tackles, 3.5 of them for a loss and 0.5 sacks. While these numbers may not stand out, Pollard still has experience and the Aggies pass defense will need that experience to do better than the 86th ranked passing defense (allowing 238.6 passing yards per game) from a year ago.

Cause for concern: With only 5 starters returning on defense, that certainly means concern for depth. If Troy Lefeged or Shaq Bond was to go down with injury, there is not much experience behind them. There could also be some cause for concern in the Aggies implementing a new defense, a 3-4 scheme rather than a 4-3 defense, and there could certainly be a learning curve for both players and coaches. There are also not many players that stand out on the defensive line and this could be a cause for concern for a defense trying to do better than last year in limiting rushing yards. Utah State must do better in not allowing big plays to happen and with a defense that returns very few players, this may also be a concern.

Key Stat: 440.5 yards allowed per game. Utah State struggled to make tackles last season and this resulted in a lot of big yardage plays. In order to improve on that number, Utah State must become sounder in tackling. The Aggies allowed almost 6 yards per play and will look to improve on that number as well heading into the season.

Wildcard: Freshman defensive lineman Poukesi Vakauta (bonus the last name is really fun to say!). The Aggies need help up front to stop the run32 and to put pressure on the quarterback and Vakauta might very well be able to contribute. He is rated as a three-star prospect by 247 sports and had offers from Utah State, Hawaii, Houston Baptist, Kansas State and Liberty. Even if he doesn’t make big plays right away, he may be a helpful force upfront and become better with the more experience he gets.

2019 Utah State Schedule (Postponed Indefinitely)

Sept. 3 Washington State (CANCLED)

Sept. 12 Southern Utah (SEASON OPENER) (Postponed?)

Sept. 19 Washington (CANCLED)

Sept. 26 BYE

Oct. 2 BYU (Postponed?)

Oct. 10 San Diego State* (Postponed)

Oct. 17 Boise State* (Postponed)

Oct. 24 New Mexico* (Postponed)

Oct. 31 Nevada* (Postponed)

Nov. 7 Wyoming* (Postponed)

Nov. 14 Fresno State* (Postponed)

Nov. 21 Colorado State* (Postponed)

Nov. 28 Air Force* (Postponed)

*conference game

-home games in bold

Thoughts: Utah State finished third in the Mountain Division last year and while third place in a difficult division is not bad, the two losses that Utah State took in conference to conference champion Boise State (56-21) and division runner up Air Force (31-7) did not look good. Due to COVID-19, the season has been pushed back indefinitely, and with the future plans the Mountain West has unknown and uncertainty on who the Aggies might play if Spring football happens, the easiest thing to do is to discuss the original 2020 schedule and how it might have gone down. The season would have opened up with an anticipated season opener against Washington State and there was also a trip to Seattle on September 19th to play Washington. The aggies would have had a break between the WSU and UW games with Southern Utah, a chance to focus on the good and the bad of the Washington State game.

The next game on the schedule after a bye week would have been BYU in early October, and the Cougars figured to be better than last years team that delivered a beatdown to Utah State in 2019. Playing at LaVell Edwards is never easy and the schedule would not have been any easier with a home date against San Diego State and then a trip to Boise State, who has won the Mountain Division title three years running. There was a break against New Mexico and then Utah State would have played five games that could be difficult: at Nevada, at Wyoming, vs. Fresno State, at Colorado State and vs. Air Force.

If Utah State is to seriously contend for the Mountain Division this year, they likely would have needed to win four of those five and maybe even beat San Diego State or Boise State. The last team to win the division with two losses was Wyoming in 2016, so Utah State certainly had a challenging road ahead to go to the conference title game for the first time since the game was introduced in 2013.

2019 Prediction: Many websites, to include Athlon Sports and College Football News predicted that the Aggies would not win 11 games as they did in 2018 but that they would still compete for the Mountain Division title. Some of Mountain West Connections own writers also believed that the Aggies would continue to compete for the division but would not have as much success as 2018. That prediction was spot on as going into the game against Boise State in late November, the Aggies were tied with the Broncos and Falcons atop of the Mountain Division, yet they did not have 11 wins, they had 6 going into the game against the Broncos and 7 by the end of the bowl season to give them a 7-6 record.

Out of conference, the Aggies lost to Wake Forest, who had a respectable season and LSU, who won the national title. The aggies would go on to lose in their bowl game against Kent State. Things could have gone much worse for a Utah State team that lost a lot of talent, but they still managed to compete for a division title.

Best case scenario: Utah State pulls off a massive victory over Washington State and beats Utah State before losing in Seattle. Boise State and Air Force lose to Wyoming, Air Force beats Boise State and Utah State has one loss in conference play and beats Air Force in the season finale to secure the division title. In the process Utah State beats BYU, San Diego State, New Mexico, Nevada, Fresno State and Colorado State and has a lone loss in conference play to Boise State on the road.

Worst case scenario: Utah State gets crushed by Washington State, escapes Southern Utah and falls in Seattle. After a bye week, the Aggies also fall to BYU in Provo. Utah State once again falls to Boise State and Air Force, adds at least one more conference loss and fails to win the division once again. The Aggies lose back to back games against San Diego State and Boise State before beating New Mexico. They return to the road and go 1-2 against Nevada and Wyoming and beat Fresno State and Colorado State before losing at home to Air Force and finishing between 4th and 5th in the Mountain Division.

What probably would have happened/might happen in the Spring: The truth is probably closer to the worst-case scenario in both the fall and the Spring. In the fall, tthe Aggies likely would have lost to Washington State (though it may have been close) and struggled against Southern Utah and Washington. While it is plausible for Boise State to lose at Air Force and Wyoming and for Air Force to lose to Wyoming and Utah State, the Aggies must also win conference games at a high percentage. The three game stretch against BYU, San Diego State and Boise State is tough competition and may result in two losses for the Aggies as two of the three games are on the road. Back to back road games against Wyoming and Nevada will not be easy either, especially since Wyoming seems posed to be good. Throw in a tricky Air Force team to end the season and Utah State could be looking at three conference loses and a fourth to fifth place finish in the Mountain Division. Utah State likely goes 6-6 (4-4) in conference play. The Aggies would be competitive but lose close games that would have mattered in the race for Mountain Division Champion. This may have been enough to get into the New Mexico bowl against Louisiana Tech.

This is still plausible for the Spring if Mountain West decides to play conference only football in Spring of 2021 as the Aggies will still likely play Boise State, San Diego State, Wyoming and Air Force, four challenging opponents that will likely be near the top of the standings in their respective divisions. If fall sports end up be played in the Spring, expect Utah State to be in the race for division champion for a majority of the season.