Utah State has wrapped up their Spring game with the offense putting up 795 yards (412 rushing, 383 yards passing) and the defense forcing four turnovers, returning two of those turnovers for scores. So, how has Utah State developed since the end of last season?
This shouldn’t come as a very surprising statement but Utah State really struggled on offense last season. In the first couple games, Utah State was unable to produce a player that passed for over 100 yards. Jason Shelley began the year as the starter and in the first three games passed for 92 yards, 88 yards and 96 yards respectively. The first game that Shelley passed for over 100 yards in was in a 35-16 loss to Fresno State, passing for 144 yards.
That would end up being Shelley’s final game as he was then dismissed from the team. Andrew Peasley took over as the starter after the dismissal of Shelley and went 1-1 through two games. In the first game, Peasley threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Aggies to their first win over New Mexico. The second game wasn’t as good, a 35-7 loss to Air Force in which Peasley went 17-32 and passed for 123 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. It is unclear who Blake Anderson will go with as the starter when Fall comes but both Peasley and Cooper Legas saw significant snaps and were both able to make big plays.
The running game was another area that Utah State struggled in. In the same game that the Aggies had someone pass for over 100 yards, they were finally able to get a rusher over 100 yards as well as Jaylen Warren ran for 136 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Jaylen Warren led the team in rushing during the 2020 season, rushing for 252 yards and three touchdowns on 39 attempts. Andrew Peasley was the second leading rusher on the team, going for 195 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Devonta’e Henry-Cole was the only other player to rush over 100 yards, going for 180 yards on 41 attempts.
In order to have more success this season, the Aggies need to find a more consistent running back to take snaps. Elelyon Noa looks like he could be that guy, rushing for 112 yards in the Spring game with a long of 42 yards. John Gentry could also be an impactful contributor as he went for 63 yards with a long of 22 yards. Devonta’e Henry-Cole has some experience behind him and he could be someone who Utah State plugs into the offense as could Calvin Tyler Jr, who rushed for 50 yards with a long of 31.
The past two seasons one of the areas that Utah State has really struggled with that has been costly is the receivers group. The Aggies didn’t have a single player get over 100 yards in a game and through the first four games, Deven Thompkins was the leading receiver. Only three players totaled over 100 yards the enitre season in Deven Thompkins (214 yards), Justin McGriff (185 yards), and Derek Wright (122 yards). If Utah State wants to improve off of the past two seasons and compete for a division title this season, those numbers need to improve. The Aggies cannot afford to be one dimensional against teams such as Boise State Air Force, and Wyoming the must win games in the division.
The receivers group totaled six touchdowns throughout the season, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel heading into next season. Firstly, the Aggies were able to spread the ball out more when Peasley took over the starting job. Secondly, the receivers were able to make plays in the Spring game. Deven Thompkins led the team with 129 yards and had a long catch of 51 yards. Passing game coordinator and receivers coach Kyle Cefalo has expressed great enthusiasm about the group of receivers this year and has said that the group comes with a great attitude to practice everyday. There are 11 returning receivers on the team this season and nine of those players have played in games before. This certainly seems like a stronger group and they are bound to get better with more experience through practice.
The offensive line struggled a little last season after widely being considered one of the better groups in the Mountain West but will have an opportunity to improve this season. The Aggies averaged 4.4 yards per rush and averaged 4.79 yards per pass. Better protection up front will not only allow for more time to get passes off and make room for the running backs to get going. Consistency is going to be a key to Utah State doing better on offense this season.
One of the most important things about the passing game is the communication between the quarterback and the offensive line. If there isn’t adequate communication then problems such as gaps in the line start to form and plays that could have been big ones turn into negative ones. Boise State is going to have a ferocious defensive line this season and the Aggies meet the Broncos at the end of September, so there needs to be a good form of communication for Utah State to build off of before that big game.
One of the biggest problems Utah State had last season was giving up big plays at inopportune times. The Aggies gave up a total of 156 first downs, gave up 1,348 yards rushing, and 1564 yards passing. The Aggies gave up 224.7 rushing yards per game and 260.67 passing yards per game. The Aggies would give up an average of 485.3 yards per game but would only put up 275.8 yards per game themselves. Utah State opponents went 19-24 in the Red Zone and scored a total of 28 touchdowns against the Aggies. Utah State forced just two interceptions for 11 yards last season, and the Aggies also lost nine fumbles. Opponents forced Utah State into five interceptions but the Aggies did force five fumbles. The statistics show that the Aggies need to be more consistent defensively, especially getting outgained by over 200 yards per game, but there is certainly hope after the Spring game exhibition the defense put on.
The Aggies forced four turnovers, scoring on a 59 yard fumble return by Xavion Steele and a 36 yard interception by Cash Gilliam. Gilliam had five tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, two pass breakups, and an interception. Safety Luke Marion led the team in tackles with 10 and also had a forced fumble. Safety Ajani Carter had eight tackles and linebacker Jaymason Willingham had seven tackles. Xavion Steele had four tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass breakup, an interception, and a fumble recovery. Highly awaited transfer Justin Rice had three tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup. Defensive end Byron Hobbs-Vaughns had three tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, and a blocked kick. Defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka had two sacks and two tackles for loss. Safety Shaq Bond registered four tackles as did linebacker Simon Thompson. Jaden Smith had three tackles and an interception.
The important takeaway from the Spring game is that the defense made some very big plays, and it wasn’t one player making all the plays, but contribution from various players. This build depth and will be significant when injuries are factored in as the season moves forward. The more depth Utah State has on the defensive side of the ball the more legitimate of a run they can make at their first division title since 2013. Four turnovers is a big number to force and returning two of them for scores is a good sign of a defense that is actively getting better with each practice.
That about wraps up what is so far known about the team and as summer training begins and fall camp draws closer by the day, the answers to the questions of who will start at quarterback and what players can stand out and make plays both in the receivers group and the defensive units will become more clear. Blake Anderson has been busy getting his guys up to speed this Spring and the beginning of the season will ultimately prove how ready the Aggies are to improve and get back to competing for the division title.