Blue Ribbon Preview: Utah State
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Utah State followed its breakout 2011 season with some terrific news in May: The program will join the Mountain West Conference in 2013.
"It's great to be solidified," coach Gary Andersen said. "It's great to be able to recruit into that environment, which is a stable environment."
For one more year, however, the Aggies will remain in the gutted WAC -- giving them their last and best chance to win the league title. Louisiana Tech and Utah State are the two favorites.
Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii moved to the Mountain West this year, following Boise State's 2011 exit.
"It's become a lot more evenly matched," Andersen said. "The margin of the teams in this conference top to bottom from four years ago is drastically different. ... We're fortunate to have the quarterback position solidified. A lot of other teams in the conference are a little up in the air."
The Aggies are coming off a 7-6 campaign that culminated with a gut-wrenching loss to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Aggies' first bowl appearance since 1997.
They got there with five straight wins to close the regular season, all by a touchdown or less.
Andersen hopes that success provides a launching pad for his team -- and that the bowl loss provides a little inspiration.
"As a head coach, it was very gratifying to see them be able to finish some games and see the kids reach levels of success that some of them who had been in the program for five years hadn't been close to getting," he said. "It was a great experience to have that. Now the key is to grow from it. The expectation level from the kids as far as getting a taste of it, I think their expectation level has gone up.
"Now the challenge is for them to realize how hard it is to get back. ... If you're going to be a consistent winner, you have to find a way to not make every game come down to the wire.
"... We want to get in position to win a championship. When you win a bowl game, you win a championship. We want to get that done."
The Aggies enter the season with two major changes on their coaching staff.
Quarterbacks coach Matt Wells replaces Dave Baldwin as offensive coordinator. Baldwin left for Colorado State.
Wells plans to keep the same offensive scheme, which he calls a "power spread" attack -- one that features the run game and utilizes tight ends but also uses spread passing concepts. Andersen hired former UNLV head coach Mike Sanford to join the offensive staff and provide a veteran sounding board for Wells.
"We're going to spread it out and play up-tempo and try to be as aggressive as we can," Wells said.
On defense, Andersen hired Dave Aranda from Hawaii as coordinator after a one-year experiment. Andersen, the former Utah defensive coordinator, ran the defense himself last season after thinking he was not involved enough in the games.
He quickly learned that there are consequences to trying to be a coach/coordinator, too. He turned over some of the coordinator duties to his staff in the last third of the season.
"The bottom line is I think it's important for me to take care of the kids in the program first," Andersen said. "I refuse to take a step back from that to be a coordinator. Maybe I'm not smart enough to do both of those. I guess I'm not. I'll continue to focus on the most important thing that we do other than take care of the kids, and that's recruiting."
Like Wells, Aranda will keep the scheme -- a 3-4 system that is only a year old. The system features a lot of flexibility in personnel and alignment. Aranda will add his spin in passing situations -- zone blitzes and unorthodox pressures.
"I was looking for a guy I felt could just get the kids every single day working and grinding and being focused," Andersen said. "We don't need a bunch of tweaks in our scheme. Dave Aranda has done that exactly. They're excited to play for him. He brings a different angle than my old-school ways. I'm more of a grease-board guy; he's more of a computer guy. It's the way kids learn. It's been a fresh way for them to look at things."
Head Coach: Gary Andersen (Utah '86)
Record at School: 15-22 (3 years)
Career Record: 19-29 (4 years)
• Bill Busch (Nebraska Wesleyan '88) Associate Head Coach/Special Teams/Safeties
• Mike Sanford (Usc '78) Assistant Head Coach/Running Backs/Tight Ends
• Matt Wells (Utah State '96) Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Dave Aranda (California Lutheran '99) Defensive Coordinator
• Jovon Bouknight (Wyoming '06) Wide Receivers
• Kevin Clune (Cal State Fullerton '00) Linebackers
• Frank Maile (Utah State '07) Defensive Line
• Kendrick Shaver (Missouri State '02) Cornerbacks
• T.J. Woods (Azuza Pacific '02) Offensive Line
The Aggies will have a returning starter at quarterback -- they're just not sure which one.
Sophomore Chuckie Keeton (6-2, 198) started the first eight games last season and earned national acclaim for his gutsy effort in a near upset at Auburn, his first game as a true freshman.
He was injured at Hawaii, though, and senior Adam Kennedy (6-5, 222) stepped in to lead the Aggies to a comeback win that night -- the beginning of the five-game winning streak that sent the team bowling. Kennedy started the last five games.
Keeton will enter fall camp as the slight favorite.
"Just because of last fall camp," Andersen said. "If we started today, Chuckie would take the first couple snaps and Adam would take the third. ... Those two kids are going to fight for the job just like a year ago.
"... A lot of people look at it as a controversy. We look at it as a great situation for us because these two kids have handled it tremendously. They're very close friends. They both understand there's a spot for them to succeed in football games in this program."
Keeton is more of a scrambler, rushing for 293 yards and four touchdowns last year. He completed 60.9 percent of his passes and posted a rating of 137.41.
Kennedy is more of a pocket passer but is sneaky quick. He rushed for 239 yards while completing 69.1 percent of his passes for a 169.04 rating.
"Chuckie gives you a little bit more of a dynamic kid out on the edge, especially when the play breaks down," offensive coordinator Matt Wells said. "Adam's a strong pocket passer, he's accurate, and he's a little bit better runner than you think."
The Aggies' offense will have a different look this year because of the loss of two tailbacks to the NFL -- fourth-round pick Robert Turbin (Seahawks) and seventh-round pick Michael Smith (Buccaneers). Those two combined for 2,775 yards and 34 touchdowns last season.
"It's going to be really interesting to see how it all boils down," Andersen said.
Senior Kerwynn Williams (5-9, 193) is the starting tailback. He has been a record-setting kickoff returner and productive third option out of the backfield. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry last year (542 rushing yards) and rushed for 147 yards in the season finale at Boise State in 2010.
"Kerwynn is a better runner than you think inside the tackles," Wells said, "but he's dynamic out on the edge. ... He's a tremendous young man and I think he'll have a breakout senior year."
Sophomore Joe Hill (5-11, 186), who made only seven carries last season, emerged as the No. 2 tailback in spring ball. He'll be chased by a host of other candidates in fall camp.
"Everybody always has a surprise, and Joe Hill was ours on offense," Wells said. "The light kind of came on. He played well, he played fast, he caught the ball well. He'll be a good addition to the running back corps."
Wide receiver Matt Austin (6-2, 200) returns as a sixth-year senior. That's a big boost for the receiving corps because Austin led the team with 34 catches for 465 yards and six touchdowns last season and is the group's leader.
"Matt made three game-winning catches for us last year," Andersen said. "To get him back was great. He's a tremendous mentor for the youth in our program. He'll be a coach one day, there's no question about it. His ability to make plays in contested spots is really special."
Said Wells: "When the ball is in the air, he's aggressive. He does a great job of high-pointing the ball. He's a leader for us. He's a physical, physical blocker."
Junior Travis Van Leeuwen (6-3, 192), who made 15 catches last year, gives the Aggies another experienced option at receiver. He missed spring ball with an injury.
Senior Chuck Jacobs (6-0, 178), who made seven catches last year, moved from outside to the slot and looked like a starter in spring ball.
"That was a very productive move for us," Wells said.
Depth is an issue, and the Utah State coaches are hoping for immediate help from their recruiting class to fill out the rotation.
The Aggies like to use as many as four tight ends in their ever-changing formations, and they have at least three good ones this year. Senior Kellen Bartlett (6-2, 250), who redshirted with an injury last year, is the starting H-back. Junior D.J. Tialavea (6-4, 265) moves from H-back to the inline tight end spot, and coach's son Keegan Andersen (6-2, 236), a sophomore, is a promising backup.
"I think they'll be an integral part of the offense," Wells said. "All three of those guys will have a role. I'm really excited about those guys and what they can do."
Three starters return on the line, but only one will be in the same spot as last year -- junior center Tyler Larsen (6-4, 308). The All-WAC honoree already has started 25 games.
"He's a great one," Andersen said. "He's physical. He leads the troops. He's very durable. He's got to be one of the best centers in the country."
Senior Oscar Molina-Sanchez (6-5, 297) moved from left tackle to right tackle and junior Eric Schultz (6-4, 304) moved from right tackle to right guard in the spring. Sanchez has 20 career starts; Schultz has 19. Schultz can also play center.
Just like at wide receiver, the coaches hope to get some help from their recruiting class to fill out the depth chart.
"I like our O-line," Wells said. "I think we have a chance to be better athletically at tackle."
Senior end Al Lapuaho (6-3, 289) is the only returning starter on the line, but five other letter winners return to give the Aggies some experience.
Lapuaho made 31 tackles but just 2.5 for loss last season.
"Al's a talent," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "We got some good players at Hawaii -- good D-linemen. Al is in that mold. He's a little snappier than some of those guys."
Junior Connor Williams (6-3, 266) stepped up as the other end in spring ball. He made 28 tackles last year, three for loss.
"He's one of my favorite players on defense," Aranda said. "He's physical, he's tough, he can play all three spots up front."
At nose, senior Havea Lasike (6-1, 295) and sophomore Elvis Kamana-Matagi (6-2, 296) are competing for the starting spot. Lasike made 17 tackles last season. Kamana-Matagi missed spring ball but is expected to push in fall camp.
Redshirt freshman Travis Seefeldt (6-2, 296) could also be a factor, but he was inconsistent in the spring.
"The nose spot is so critical because we want to get knock back, and we want to command a double team," Aranda said.
The Aggies lost two of the WAC's best linebackers in Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher, who finished 1-2 on the team in tackles. They combined for 247 tackles, 15.5 for loss, five sacks and three (of the team's four) interceptions last season.
The two new inside linebackers will probably be sophomore Tavaris McMillian (6-2, 231) and junior Jake Doughty (6-0, 227). McMillian made 45 tackles as a part-time starter on the outside and Doughty made 26 last year, so they have decent experience. Doughty is a former walk-on.
"I really feel it's the next round of the guys we just lost," Aranda said. "Doughty is going to be very head's-up, like Kyle Gallagher. He's a very effective blitzer. Any time we rush Doughty, good things generally follow. He's good in coverage. He has a good feel for space.
"McMillian is very talented. I'm not going to say he's the next Bobby Wagner (147 tackles), but he's very athletic, he can rush when we ask him to rush, he can cover ground in the pass game." Junior Zach Vigil (6-2, 226) is the third inside linebacker, serving as the backup at both spots.
On the outside, redshirt freshman Kyler Fackrell (6-5, 236) used an impressive spring to emerge as the favorite for one starting spot.
"He's a super talent," Aranda said. "Football comes easy to Kyler. The issue with him is getting him to strive for it and work for it, which he did this spring. That was the cause of the jump for him. ... It's a real high ceiling for Kyler."
Senior Bojay Filimoeatu (6-2, 256), who made 41 tackles and was second on the team with 11 tackles for loss last year, is the other outside linebacker. He started at end last year.
"He adds toughness," Aranda said. "He is the leader, I think, of our defense."
"[Court] makes plays because of flat effort and toughness," Aranda said. "He fights and scraps for plays."
Thompson was injured in the spring and could push the starters in camp. He is one of the team's fastest players.
"He flashes across the screen when you watch tape," Aranda said.
"He plays at a different speed. Some of our best players are at that outside 'backer spot. Our base defense only has two of those guys playing. That's where I come in and try to find ways to get all three of those guys on the field."
This should be the strength of the defense. Three starters return and there's so much depth the coaches are talking about playing as many four cornerbacks at a time.
Senior Jumanne Robertson (5-11, 181) and junior Nevin Lawson (5-10, 184) are returning starters at the corners. Lawson finished fourth last season with 73 tackles and second with 12 pass breakups, plus an interception; Robertson was fifth with 48 tackles and first with 12 breakups.
They're backed up by junior Will Davis (6-0, 192) and senior Terrance Alston (5-10, 175), who will play the nickel position.
"The corners are amazingly talented," Aranda said. "I have not been around a group from say, one to four that are as talented as our corners. ... That allows us to get into some personnel groupings where we try to lock people down."
Senior McKade Brady (5-11, 198) returns at free safety. Sophomore Brian Suite (6-3, 207) is the projected starter at strong safety but he missed the spring, providing opportunity for converted corner Cameron Sanders (5-10, 177).
"Brian is as talented as they come -- long and lean and he can run," Aranda said. "We're working to get him where he can be healthy because he is a special talent.
"[Sanders] was one of the good finds of camp. He never played safety. Cameron got better and better as the spring went on. He's going to be battling there."
In addition to the instability at the kicking spots, the Aggies will have some changes in the return game. Williams, one of the nation's most active kickoff returners, probably won't be back there much this year because of his value at running back. Receivers Jacobs and Reynolds probably will handle kickoff returns with Jacobs and Austin, another receiver, expected to take punt returns.
The Aggies need to do a better job covering kicks. They allowed 25.7 yards per kickoff return, including two touchdowns, and 8.5 yards per punt return last year.
Junior Nick Diaz (5-7, 197) and junior Josh Thompson (5-9, 185) will compete for the kicker job for the second straight year. Thompson handled the chores last year and was 6 of 10 on field goals, with a long of 43 yards. He was 57 of 58 on PATs.
Diaz was the kickoff specialist in 2010.
"Right now, Diaz would be the kicker," Andersen said.
Sophomore Jacob Haueter (5-11, 210) returns as the kickoff specialist.
Bennett averaged 43.8 yards per punt in 2011, with a long of 67 and 15 over 50 yards. He stopped 21 of 58 punts inside the 20-yard line.
The Aggies are hoping to get some immediate help from the 2012 recruiting class, particularly at wide receiver, defensive line and offensive line. They signed 19 players and added three returning LDS missionaries.
Offensive lineman Joe Summers (6-3, 300) and nose guard AJ Pataialii (6-2, 290) were late additions to the recruiting class out of Snow (Utah) Junior College. They join the team this summer and are expected to compete for starting jobs.
Dwayne Lorick (6-5, 230) of West Hills (Calif.) College and Alex Wheat, Jr. (6-5, 210) of Palomar (Calif.) Junior College will have an opportunity to join the rotation at wide receiver.
The class includes three quarterbacks -- DJ Nelson (5-9, 180) of Logan, returning missionary Jeff Manning (6-5, 180) of Logan and Michael Chislock (6-4, 195) or Huntington Beach, Calif.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The Utah State program has been considered a rising threat in the WAC for several years, and the second half of last season was the fulfillment of that expectation. But some of the lower-half teams in the WAC have risen for a year and been unable to sustain it. Utah State hopes to prove it can be that rare team that emerges from obscurity to become a consistent winner.
The margin for error, as it was last year, probably won't be wide. The Aggies are still building depth in their program, as evidenced by the reliance on junior college recruits, and must deal with the loss of some of the most productive players in school history at running back and linebacker.
But with the talent at Andersen's disposal, and the taste for success the Aggies enjoyed last season, it will be a surprise if this team isn't bowl eligible again.
BLUE RIBBON: WAC PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2012 season for each WAC school. Take a look: