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Thursday, May 15, 2008
Breaking down the WAC

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

Is Fresno State the team to beat this season? Who will be the starting quarterback at Boise State? What will life after Colt be like for Hawaii? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Boise State Broncos

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Idaho State
Sept. 13 Bowling Green
Sept. 20 @ Oregon
Oct. 1 Louisiana Tech
Oct. 11 @ Southern Miss
Oct. 17 Hawaii
Oct. 24 @ San Jose State
Nov. 1 @ New Mexico State
Nov. 8 Utah State
Nov. 15 @ Idaho
Nov. 22 @ Nevada
Nov. 28 Fresno State


2007 overall record:
10-3

2007 conference record:
7-1

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Ian Johnson, OT Andrew Woodruff, CB Kyle Wilson, DE Mike T. Williams, LB Kyle Gingg
Key losses
QB Taylor Tharp, OT Ryan Clady, OG Tad Miller, DL Nick Schlekeway, S Marty Tadman
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Ian Johnson* (1,041 yds)
Passing: Taylor Tharp (3,340 yds)
Receiving: Jeremy Childs* (1,045 yds)
Tackles: Kyle Gingg *(94)
Sacks: Mike T. Williams* (6)
Interceptions: Dallas Dobbs* (3)

Spring answers

1. Loaded at the skill: There are questions at quarterback and along the offensive front, but there are plenty of playmakers if merely adequate answers appear. Running back Ian Johnson will look to bounce back after a fairly disappointing junior season, and there's good depth behind him with sophomores D.J. Harper and Jeremy Avery. Things also are solid at receiver, even if leading receiver Jeremy Childs doesn't come back (and most indications are he will). Sophomores Titus Young and Austin Pettis, along with seniors Vinny Perretta, who missed much of last season with a shoulder injury, and Julian Hawkins give the Broncos the best depth at the position in the WAC.

2. Begin with the ends: Word is senior Mike T. Williams and sophomore Ryan Winterswyk could turn in monster seasons at defensive end. They should substantially increase the 11.5 sacks they combined for a year ago. Winterswyk, particularly, earned high praise despite moving to the strongside end.

3. Bronco kicks: The school is touting sophomore kicker Kyle Brotzman as a potential All-American. Fair enough, considering the Lou Groza Award semifinalist connected on 16 of 18 field goals with a long of 47 and was perfect on 66 PATs in 2007. He also, by the way, averaged 44.5 yards per punt, though the hope is sophomore Brad Elkin will step into that job full time this year.

Fall questions

1. Experience or youth at QB?: It appears the four-man race at quarterback has narrowed to two, with senior Bush Hamdan and freshman Kellen Moore essentially even at the end of spring (and sophomore Mike Coughlin and junior Nick Lomax not completely out of it). It might not bode well for Hamdan that he wasn't able to pull away from Moore, a flashier player who learns quickly.

2. Will the OL keep up?: It's almost never easy to replace four starters on the offensive line, particularly when that includes the departure of a first-round pick at left tackle in Ryan Clady. This will be a very young group flanking guard Andrew Woodruff, the only returning starter, with two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore topping the depth chart.

3. Stop the run?: While the final numbers weren't terrible, the Broncos played spots of atrocious run defense last year -- see Nevada's 396 yards on the ground and East Carolina's 322 in the Hawaii Bowl. All three linebackers are back, but coaches did some shuffling, placing sophomore Derrell Acrey into the starting lineup in the middle and demoting Dallas Dobbs to the second team behind him. Most pressing is a pair of vacancies at tackle, with no standouts emerging during the spring.

Fresno State Bulldogs

2008 Schedule

Sept. 1 @ Rutgers
Sept. 13 Wisconsin
Sept. 20 @ Toledo
Sept. 27 @ UCLA
Oct. 04 Hawaii
Oct. 11 Idaho
Oct. 25 @ Utah State
Nov. 01 @ Louisiana Tech
Nov. 07 Nevada
Nov. 15 New Mexico State
Nov. 21 @ San Jose State
Nov. 28 @ Boise State


2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners
QB Tom Brandstater, OT Bobby Lepori, TE Bear Pascoe, SS Moses Harris, DT Jon Monga
Key losses
C Ryan Wendell, LB Marcus Riley, DE Tyler Clutts, DB Damon Jenkins
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Ryan Matthews* (866 yds)
Passing: Tom Brandstater* (2,654 yds)
Receiving: Marlon Moore* (694 yds)
Tackles: Marcus Riley (132)
Sacks: Tyler Clutts (7.5)
Interceptions: Three tied with one apiece

Spring answers

1. No dogging this offense: With eight starters and plenty of experienced reserves back from an offense that averaged 33 points and 419 yards per game a year ago, Fresno State should score in bunches. This should be a balanced unit, and new coordinator Doug Nussmeier figures to take the bridle off quarterback Tom Brandstater, particularly with the return of Chastin West from a knee injury -- he was the leading receiver in 2006 -- and emergence of Seyi Ajirotutu.

2. What's the rush: Three starters are back in the secondary, but their job will be a lot easier if there's a good outside pass rush, which must endure without leading sackman Tyler Clutts. Ends Wilson Ramos, a returning starter, and Ikenna Ike were productive this spring -- Ike had two sacks in the spring game -- while sophomore Chris Carter showed a good burst and should work his way into the rotation.

3. Alive and kicking: There's a void at kicker, but touted redshirt freshman Kevin Goessling looked like a more than adequate replacement for Clint Stitser, showcasing a good and reliable leg. He connected on 4 of 7 kicks from beyond 40 yards in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. Fronting the seven: If there is an area of concern, it's replacing four members of the front seven, including Clutts and WAC Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Riley, who led the Bulldogs with 132 tackles -- 15.5 coming for a loss -- from his outside linebacker post. Ben Jacobs is back at middle linebacker, but things are fairly fluid at the two outside posts with sophomore Nico Herron, freshman Kyle Knox, sophomore Nick Bates and juniors Quaadir Brown and Ryan Machado (who sat out spring) in the mix. And incoming freshman Ricky Pemasa could work his way into the rotation. Moreover, there's not a lot to depth at tackle.

2. Center of attention: Sophomore center Joe Bernardi has suffered through three knee surgeries over the past four years and his career is in jeopardy. If he can't return, either Richard Pacheco or Adam McDowell, both seniors, will step in. McDowell, who's started nine games at guard over the past two years, may own a slight edge, though neither asserted himself during spring drills.

3. Can the Bulldogs break through in the WAC?: Don't be surprised if Fresno State surprises Rutgers, Wisconsin or UCLA -- or even all three -- to start the season. The Bulldogs have 12 wins versus BCS conferences this decade, more than any other non-BCS program. But they also haven't managed to win even a share of the WAC title since 1999. With Hawaii and Boise State rebuilding, the Bulldogs look like the class of the field -- and deserving of a preseason ranking. But can they bring as much intensity to conference games as they do against the big boys?

Hawaii Warriors

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Florida
Sept. 7 Weber State
Sept. 13 @ Oregon State
Sept. 28 San Jose State
Oct. 4 @ Fresno State
Oct. 12 Louisiana Tech
Oct. 17 @ Boise State
Oct. 26 Nevada
Nov. 1 @ Utah State
Nov. 8 @ New Mexico State
Nov. 22 Idaho
Nov. 29 Washington State
Dec. 6 Cincinnati


2007 overall record:
12-1

2007 conference record:
8-0

Returning starters
Offense: 4, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
C John Estes, LB Solomon Elimimian, LB Adam Leonard, DE David Veikune, K Dan Kelly
Key losses
QB Colt Brennan, WR Davone Bess, WR Ryan Grice-Mullen, WR Jason Rivers, OG Hercules Satele, DT Mike Lafaele, CB Myron Newberry
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Kealoha Pilares* (388)
Passing: Colt Brennan (4,343)
Receiving: Davone Bess (1,266)
Tackles: Solomon Elimimian* (141)
Sacks: David Veikune* (7)
Interceptions: Adam Leonard*, Myron Newberry (4)

Spring answers

1. Hello my name is …: So much seems new. New coach, new quarterback, new receivers, new systems. There's also coming off a first BCS bowl game … and its embarrassing outcome. From the outside, it would appear that the Warriors have lost their momentum as the sun sets on the greatest run in program history. But new coach Greg McMackin seemed to stick his finger in the enthusiasm leak during spring. Count on defiance and an "us-against-the-haters" mentality fueling Hawaii in 2008.

2. Getting defensive: The offense started learning this spring, but the defense seems to be figuring stuff out on its own -- it should rank among the best in the WAC again, even with the departure of six starters. McMackin believes the front seven will be as good as any in the conference, led by linebackers Solomon Elimimian and Adam Leonard and end David Veikune. While there are three new starters on the line, they combined for 11.5 tackles for a loss last year and played extensively.

3. No worries with the feet: Both first-team WAC kicker Dan Kelly and punter Tim Grasso are back. Kelly wasn't always consistent a year ago but he performed well under pressure, while Grasso likely will need to improve on his 39.7 yard-per-boot average with the offense scoring fewer points.

Fall questions

1. Life after Colt: This should have been senior Tyler Graunke's job to lose, but he had some off-field issues and that gave athletic junior Inoke Funaki an opportunity to top the depth chart this spring and he took advantage, evening the race by the end of the session. Funaki, particularly, was far better in the spring game running a system that put the quarterback under center half the time as opposed to the pure, run-and-shoot shotgun. And the plot here could thicken when junior college transfers Greg Alexander and Brent Rausch report in the fall.

2. Who gives … and who receives?: The Warriors' top four receivers are gone. That's a crew that combined for 4,671 yards and 44 touchdowns last year, so that's really saying something. The cupboard isn't bare. Slots Aaron Bain and Mike Washington and Greg Salas and Malcolm Lane on the outside looked good this spring, but it's hard to imagine the firepower will approach last year's group.

3. Where was this schedule last year?: Last year -- with justification -- Hawaii's schedule was widely mocked and cited as the primary reason the Warriors went undefeated in the regular season. Well, if they played Florida, Oregon State, Washington State and Cincinnati -- as well as Fresno State and Boise State on the road -- then an undefeated mark would have earned them a No. 1 ranking. This is a brutal schedule by any measure and a hard way for a new coach to say hello to a nervous fanbase.

Idaho Vandals

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ Arizona
Sept. 6 Idaho State
Sept. 13 Western Michigan
Sept. 20 @ Utah State
Sept. 27 @ San Diego State
Oct. 4 Nevada
Oct. 11 @ Fresno State
Oct. 18 @ Louisiana Tech
Oct. 25 New Mexico State
Nov. 1 San Jose State
Nov. 15 Boise State
Nov. 22 @ Hawaii


2007 overall record:
1-11

2007 conference record:
0-8

Returning starters
Offense: 11, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Deonte' Jackson, C Adam Korby, TE/H-back Eddie Williams, S Shiloh Keo
Key losses
LB David Vobora, LB Brandon Ogletree, S Chris Smith
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Deonte' Jackson* (1,175)
Passing: Nathan Enderle* (1,787)
Receiving: Max Komar* (445)
Tackles: David Vobora (148)
Sacks: Siua Musika, Jonathan Faraimo* (4)
Interceptions: Shiloh Keo* (4)

Spring answers

1. Enderle prevails: Coach Robb Akey waited until he'd seen all the film of spring before announcing that sophomore Nathan Enderle emerged as the starting quarterback over sophomore Quin Ashley. Both played fairly well, but Enderle's game experience -- he started nine games in 2007 -- and superior passing skills won out over the more athletic Ashley.

2. Ready to run: The entire offensive line and 1,000-yard rusher Deonte' Jackson return, so the Vandals should be able to run the football while they search for playmakers in the passing game. There's also good depth behind Jackson, a sophomore, with freshmen Corey White and Princeton McCarty. The undersized McCarty -- he's just 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds -- shined in the spring game with four touchdowns and 124 yards rushing.

3. The ends are tight: Tight end/H-back Eddie Williams leads a five-deep list at tight end. Williams started spring where he left off last season and led all receivers with five receptions for 107 yards in the spring game. He was the second-leading receiver last year with 29 receptions for 363 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for 81 yards on nine carries with three scores.

Fall questions

1. Rebuild the D: The bad news is only four starters are back on defense, and that doesn't include leading tackler David Vobora, a first-team All-WAC selection last year, or any of the starting linebackers, for that matter. The good news is even with Vobora, the Vandals surrendered 443 yards and 37 points per game, so maybe an injection of new talent is just what the unit needs. With better depth up front, the coaches will be able to adopt a preferred 4-3 scheme, which should help a pass rush that was nonexistent a year ago.

2. Where's the fancy?: The top seven pass receivers return, but none will scare a defense -- Williams is probably the offense's best weapon. Enderle completed only 44 percent of his passes last year with a 10-18 touchdown-to-interception ratio. While much of that falls on him, it also suggests his receivers had a hard time separating from defensive backs and getting open. Sophomore Eric Greenwood had a nice spring, hauling in seven passes for 95 yards in the spring game, so maybe he can add some pizzazz.

3. Moving up?: After winning only one game and getting shut out in conference play in 2007, it would seem there's only one direction to go: up. Akey is a high-energy, high-optimism coach, which would seem like a perfect antidote for a program that's fallen hard in recent years. It further seems there's enough experience here -- and a far more forgiving schedule than usual -- to win a few more games and climb out of the conference basement.

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Mississippi State
Sept. 6 @ Kansas
Sept. 20 Southeastern Louisiana
Oct. 1 @ Boise State
Oct. 12 @ Hawaii
Oct. 18 Idaho
Oct. 25 @ Army
Nov. 1 Fresno State
Nov. 8 @ San Jose State
Nov. 15 Utah State
Nov. 22 @ New Mexico State
Nov. 29 Nevada


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Patrick Jackson, WR Phillip Livas, FS Antonio Baker, LB Quin Harris, P Chris Keagle
Key losses
OT Tyler Miller, DE Chris Pugh, DT Josh Muse, CB Tony Moss
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Patrick Jackson* (950 yds)
Passing: Zac Champion (2,221 yds)
Receiving: Phillip Livas* (504 yds)
Tackles: Antonio Baker* (118)
Sacks: Chris Pugh (6)
Interceptions: Tony Moss, Weldon Brown* (4)

Spring answers

1. Run before gun: Whoever earns the job at quarterback, the running game should be there to help him. Three starters are back on the offensive line as well as a couple of spot starters, and the young talent, particularly redshirt freshman Kris Cavitt, showed well this spring. Meanwhile, there's depth in the backfield with Daniel Porter, William Griffin and Myke Compton raising eyebrows behind returning starter Patrick Jackson, who sat out spring with an undisclosed "nagging" injury.

2. Got my 'backer: There's some nice talent at linebacker, led by senior Quin Harris, a second-team All-WAC pick a year ago. Brian White ran a blocked field goal back 71 yards for a score and grabbed an interception in the spring game, while Jay Dudley was earned kudos for his spring effort. Brannon Jackson returns in the fall after sitting out 2007 and spring with a knee injury.

3. Isn't that special: Start with the best punter in the WAC -- Chris Keagle, an All-American candidate -- and then consider punt returner Phillip Livas, kick returners Patrick Jackson and Weldon Brown and finish with competent senior kicker Brad Oestriecher. That's quality skill across the board. Consider Keagle's ability to drop sand wedges inside the 20 -- 26 of his 76 boots fell dead there -- and he could end up as one of the Bulldogs' most valuable players.

Fall questions

1. Taylor made?: The biggest question is: Does Georgia Tech transfer Taylor Bennett immediately take over at quarterback? The answer: The general feeling is he will. The Georgia Tech starter in 2007, Bennett -- accurately -- didn't see himself as the right fit for new Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson's spread option attack. He passed for 2,136 yards and seven touchdowns last season. He's immediately eligible to play while pursuing a master's degree, but it will be interesting to see if Ross Jenkins or Steven Ensminger, an Auburn transfer, puts up any resistance to him taking over.

2. Perimeter game: Phillip Livas is a scatback-type playmaker but the receiving corps didn't blow anyone away during the spring. Josh Wheeler is back after missing 2007 with an injury, while Michael Mosley converted from quarterback to receiver. Phillip Beck, Brian Jackson and Shane Womack are experienced but combined for only five touchdowns last year.

3. On the defense: Six defensive starters -- including three-fourths of the line -- need to be replaced. Particular pressure is on Randy Grigsby and newcomers Eric Harper and Kwame Jordan to apply pressure from the ends.

Nevada Wolf Pack

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Grambling State
Sept. 6 Texas Tech
Sept. 13 @ Missouri
Sept. 27 @ UNLV
Oct. 4 @ Idaho
Oct. 11 New Mexico State
Oct. 18 Utah State
Oct. 26 @ Hawaii
Nov. 7 @ Fresno State
Nov. 15 San Jose State
Nov. 22 Boise State
Nov. 29 @ Louisiana Tech


2007 overall record:
6-7

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 5, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
RB Luke Lippincott, QB Colin Kaepernick, WR Marko Mitchell, C Dominic Green, DE Mundrae Clifton, LB Joshua Mauga
Key losses
TE Adam Bishop, DT Matt Hines, LB Ezra Butler, LB Nick Fuhr
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Luke Lippincott* (1,420 yds)
Passing: Colin Kaepernick* (2,175 yds)
Receiving: Marko Mitchell* (1,129)
Tackles: Ezra Butler (93)
Sacks: Nick Fuhr (6)
Interceptions: Ezra Butler (3)

Spring answers

1. A four-man hello: New defensive coordinator Nigel Burton got to know his young defense this spring, while his young defense got to know the 4-3 look that Burton will adopt this fall. The move was precipitated by some lousy play in 2007 with a 3-4 look that coach Chris Ault said was "unsound" at times (the Wolf Pack actually made the switch to a four-man front midway through the season). That unit surrendered over 32 points per game and was particularly vulnerable to the pass.

2. QB offensive: Sure, there's uncertainty at quarterback between Colin Kaepernick, the WAC Freshman of the Year, and junior Nick Graziano, who lost his starting job because of a foot injury, but whoever emerges will lead an experienced offense that should put up some big numbers. With Luke Lippincott and four returning starters on the line, whoever plays quarterback should get good support from the ground game.

3. Hope for the D: While the secondary remains a huge question mark, a number of front seven players stepped up, most notably end Kevin Basped and redshirt freshman linebacker James-Michael Johnson. Basped will need to develop into a pass-rushing threat in order to make life easier for the secondary.

Fall questions

1. Who's The Man behind center?: On the one hand, it's always nice to have two experienced, capable quarterbacks. On the other, most offenses don't play two at a time. Moreover, Ault has said he's no fan of playing multiple guys at the position, though he just might next fall. Graziano missed spring while still rehabbing his foot but he'll be healthy in time to rejoin the competition. Most feel Kaepernick, who produced a sterling 19-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, owns a lead and the job is his to lose.

2. Secondary concerns: The Wolf Pack's defensive backfield is a huge concern. It was terrible last year and only strong safety Uche Anyanwu returns. The latest recruiting class included eight defensive backs, including three junior college transfers. If the newcomers don't provide answers, Nevada is going to have to score a lot of points to win.

3. Next step?: Nevada went to its third consecutive bowl last season for the first time in school history. And then it was soundly whipped by New Mexico in a bowl that few have even heard of. The point is: Are the Wolf Pack satisfied with merely inhabiting the middle tier of the WAC behind Boise State, Fresno State and Hawaii? Or can they break through and challenge for the conference championship?

New Mexico State Aggies

2008 Schedule

Sept. 4 Nicholls State
Sept. 13 @ Nebraska
Sept. 20 @ UTEP
Sept. 27 New Mexico
Oct. 11 @ Nevada
Oct. 18 San Jose State
Oct. 25 @ Idaho
Nov. 1 Boise State
Nov. 8 Hawaii
Nov. 15 @ Fresno State
Nov. 22 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 29 @ Utah State


2007 overall record:
4-9

2007 conference record:
1-7

Returning starters
Offense: 8, Defense: 7, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Chase Holbrook, WR Chris Williams, OLB La'Auli Fonoti, S Derrick Richardson
Key losses
OT Mike Martinez, RB Justine Buries, LB Dante Floyd
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Justine Buries (629 yds)
Passing: Chase Holbrook* (3,866 yds)
Receiving: Chris Williams* (772)
Tackles: Dante Floyd (124)
Sacks: Dante Floyd (4)
Interceptions: Davon House* (4)

Spring answers

1. Joe Lee isn't Dunn: New Mexico State's defense was terrible last year, surrendering 36.2 points and 429.9 yards per game. Enter veteran coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, who suffice it to say, will never be accused of running a passive defense. His 3-3-5 scheme will feature an array of funky blitzes that might confuse opponents -- and yield more than a handful of big plays. But the Aggies probably need to blitz to create any pressure because the line is thin.

2. Chasing weapons: Quarterback Chase Holbrook will put up big numbers no matter what because he plays in a pass-happy scheme, but it looks as if he's going to have a lot more weapons next fall, particularly if Chris Williams stays healthy the entire season. A.J. Harris, Kenneth Buckley and Wes Neiman, a threesome that combined for nearly 1,500 yards receiving in 2007, are back, but new blood also looks poised to make a mark. Speedy redshirt freshman Julius Fleming, who sat out last year with a knee injury, looked good this spring, and newcomers LaVorick Williams and Marcus Anderson also have the speed to stretch the field.

3. Just for kicks: Kyle Hughes appears poised to take over the kicking duties after a good spring. He transferred from Hargraves Prep where he didn't miss a PAT and connected on 10 of 11 field goals with a long of 51. Last year, Paul Young was 12 of 18 for the Aggies -- with a long of 41. Also, Hughes gets much more depth on kickoffs, which was a big problem last season.

Fall questions

1. Learning on the fly: How long will it take the players to digest Dunn's defense? Does it fit with the present personnel? Will it be feast or famine and nothing in between all season? It's hard to imagine the defense being much worse than last year, but the larger issue is how much better will it be? One thing is for sure: There's not a lot of depth, and injuries -- like the one that befell cornerback Chris Wood (shoulder) -- could be catastrophic.

2. Protectors needed: While the three interior offensive linemen are back, both tackles need to be replaced. That's critical because so much depends on Holbrook getting time to throw and staying healthy. Sophomores Kyle Smith and Patrick Blount emerged from spring as the leaders on the left and right sides, respectively.

3. Is this the year?: New Mexico State hasn't been to a bowl game since 1960. Those 48 years of frustration represent the nation's longest drought. The offense should be able to score, and if the defense is at least reasonably proficient using Dunn's schemes, a bowl breakthrough is not beyond the realm of possibility -- particularly if the Aggies manage to stay healthy.

San Jose State Spartans

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 UC Davis
Sept. 6 @ Nebraska
Sept. 13 San Diego State
Sept. 20 @ Stanford
Sept. 28 @ Hawaii
Oct. 11 Utah State
Oct. 18 @ New Mexico State
Oct. 24 Boise State
Nov. 1 @ Idaho
Nov. 8 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 15 @ Nevada
Nov. 21 Fresno State


2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
4-4

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 6, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
WR Kevin Jurovich, CB Christopher Owens, DL Jarron Gilbert, DE Carl Ihenacho, K Jared Strubeck
Key losses
QB Adam Tafralis, OL John Booker, LB Matt Castelo, LB Demetrius Jones, CB Dwight Lowery
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Jacob French (331)
Passing: Adam Tafralis (3,022 yds)
Receiving: Kevin Jurovich* (1,183)
Tackles: Matt Castelo (141)
Sacks: Carl Ihenacho* (5)
Interceptions: Christopher Owens* (6)

Spring answers

1.Not Reed-ing yet: While some might have been eager to pencil in California transfer Kyle Reed as the quarterback to replace the underrated Adam Tafralis, Reed suffered a fractured foot that derailed his chances during spring practices. Reed may yet be heard from when he returns in the fall, but Myles Eden, the backup the previous two seasons, stepped to the fore with a solid performance.

2. A Trojan horse: The defensive line looked good, with some folks betting it might be the program's best in years. The big new name is USC transfer Jeff Schweiger, who was dominating at times at end. His emergence, in part, is why Jarron Gilbert, All-WAC in 2007, moved inside to tackle. Carl Ihenacho, the Spartans leading pass rusher a year ago, is the other end. Also, there's good depth and experience here.

3. Nothing Coye about Francies: Schweiger wasn't the only Pac-10 transfer raising eyebrows. Coye Francies, formerly of Oregon State, proved himself worthy of replacing standout cornerback and punt returner Dwight Lowery.

Fall questions

1. Where's the run?: The Spartans couldn't run a lick last year -- they averaged just 2.61 yards per carry -- and it's unclear whether they will improve much in 2008. First reason, the line couldn't get a push. Second reason, there's no go-to running back. James Callier and Dominique Hunsucker top the depth chart at spring's end, but neither will remind SJS fans of Gerald Willhite.

2. Bootless: Know what would help a defense that could potentially be fairly stout? A good punter. Problem is one hasn't emerged. Kicker Jared Strubeck filled in this spring, but coaches would much prefer that redshirt freshman Shaheen Pourfallah or incoming JC transfer Philip Zavala wins the job.

3. Whither Tomey?: Coach Dick Tomey turns 70 in June. That brings up two questions: (1) How much longer will he coach; (2) Does he want another shot at a big-time program or is he content restoring and maintaining respectability at San Jose State? If the Spartans make a charge this fall, his name could pop up over some BCS vacancies.

Utah State Aggies

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 @ UNLV
Sept. 6 @ Oregon
Sept. 13 Utah
Sept. 20 Idaho
Oct. 3 Brigham Young
Oct. 11 @ San Jose State
Oct. 18 @ Nevada
Oct. 25 Fresno State
Nov. 1 Hawaii
Nov. 8 @ Boise State
Nov. 15 @ Louisiana Tech Nov. 29 New Mexico State


2007 overall record:
2-10

2007 conference record:
2-6

Returning starters
Offense: 6, Defense: 9, Kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
TE Rob Myers, C Ryan Tonnemacher, LB Jake Hutton, LB Paul Igboeli, DE Ben Calderwood, PK/P Peter Caldwell
Key losses
QB/P Leon Jackson, WR Kevin Robinson, OG Shawn Murphy, DE Carl Singleton
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Derrvin Speight* (504 yds)
Passing: Leon Jackson (1,576 yds)
Receiving: Kevin Robinson (640 yds)
Tackles: Jake Hutton* (102)
Sacks: Carl Singleton (6)
Interceptions: James Brindley* (3)

Spring answers

1. Who's The Man?: The quarterback competition between senior Sean Setzer, junior Jase McCormick, sophomore Diondre Borel and redshirt freshman Ben Longshore didn't completely resolve itself, but Setzer appeared to emerge with a slight lead over McCormick by the end of spring practices. Both Setzer and McCormick showed flashes that the passing game could improve after the departure of Leon Jackson, whose career could be charitably summed up as uneven. Setzer looked good in the spring game, completing 10 of 12 passes for 86 yards with a touchdown and interception, while rushing for 20 yards on six carries.

2. Run to pass: While 124.9 rushing yards per game doesn't sound like much, it was the Aggies' best total since 1999. Three starting offensive linemen, the top two tailbacks and four of the top six rushers return -- and Derrick Cumbee, a converted linebacker, looked good in the spring game with nine rushes for 69 yards. That might help while the passing game works out the kinks as a receiving pecking order establishes itself behind TE Rob Myers. That crew includes Otis Nelson, Xavier Bowman and Stanley Morrison.

3. Defensive moves: Just because nine starters return on defense doesn't mean there's no room for tinkering and new blood. Early returns on a couple of position changes -- De'von Hall switched from linebacker to safety and Roy Hurst moved over to cornerback from safety -- were good. Moreover, a pair of incoming junior college defensive linemen -- Casey Davis and Magnum Mauga -- were impressive, with Davis emerging from spring as a first-team tackle.

Fall questions

1. Will it all come together?: Utah State ranked among Division I-A's worst on both sides of the ball last year, which is no surprise for a team that finished 2-10. So the biggest question is will this year's mixture of experience and new blood translate to more wins? Can the Aggies build on a pair of late-season victories from 2007? They need to, otherwise fourth-year coach Brent Guy might find himself in trouble.

2. No throw, no go: Setzer may own a slight lead at quarterback, but he still needs to prove his mettle during preseason practices. The passing offense has been terrible in recent years and finished ranked 116th in the nation last season. Whoever wins the QB job, he'll need more weapons than Myers, and no one as of yet has stepped up as the obvious replacement for WR Kevin Robinson>.

3. Where's the pressure, D?: With nine starters back and some new faces ready to contribute, the defense should improve on the 34 points and 450 yards per game it surrendered a year ago. But, just like the offense, the question is by how much -- and will that improvement be enough to turn the scoreboard in the right direction a few more times? A good place to start: quarterback pressure. One sack per game just won't cut it.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.