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AGGIES' COACH IS `LUCIFER,' BUT PLAYERS STILL LIKE HIM

They nicknamed him John "Lucifer" Smith because their new coach is a taskmaster.

They could have nicknamed him "Prince of Darkness," too, because during the first week of August practices he had them out there at 6 a.m., when there wasn't enough light for quarterbacks to see receivers.But as different as John L. Smith and his assistants are from the old Charlie Weatherbie "Sunshine" regime that recruited most of the players still on the Utah State football team in 1995, it seems that the players who are left have already decided they could walk through walls for the new staff.

Defensive back Markell McCain, who was a senior last year but suffered a second-game ankle injury and chose - before Weatherbie left for Navy and Smith came in - to sit out the rest of 1994 and apply for an extra year of eligibility in '95 - finds himself very high on the new staff and what it's already accomplished.

The team's attitude, he says, "is unbelievable. It has taken a 180-degree turnaround.

"Coach Smith is so positive, and his staff is so positive, and hard-working," marvels McCain. "He expects a lot out of a player, but he gives a lot to a program. It can't do anything but help a program," McCain says.

"It makes you want to play for him."

Smith expects his players to go at every play - practice or game - like it's their last. "Do it with enthusiasm and get better," he says.

Assistant head coach Art Valero, who spent five years with Smith at Idaho, explains that the new Aggie philosophy is to conduct practices at game tempo so that actual games don't present something new. With everyone going full-speed in practice all the time, he says, injuries tend to be avoided because there aren't a few players working harder than others.

McCain also says, "I never heard one coach express `team' so much."

Smith has his players believing they're all important, and there are very few positions on the team that aren't up for debate. Some starters from last year have been working at second-team positions, but they're working hard enough they're threatening to become starters again - no easy accomplishment for the ego.

Whether any of this will immediately translate into a winning team is hard to guess. USU was 2-4, 3-8 last year when it started with 105 players and attrition trimmed the squad to 63. If the all-out philosophy fails, well, there are only about 80 players on the team. "It's no secret we're very, very thin as a team," says running back Abu Wilson, who will definitely start if he's healthy - one of the few sureties on the club.

The Aggies have been picked to finish anywhere from fourth through eighth in the 10-team Big West Conference by preseason magazines. Big West media picked them to be fifth, and Big West coaches chose them to be seventh. Smith says seventh is a bit high, but in the next breath he's talking titles.

The first four games should provide some clues. The Ags start out Sept. 2 at Arkansas State, which expects to be improved over last year's 0-6, 1-10 record but is still picked to be 10th by just about everyone.

Indians' coach John Bobo expects an improved defense - but what will happen when USU rookie junior quarterback Patrick Mullins starts that game, as he's projected to do? Will he have the chance to ease into this offense that could be very explosive with Wilson's running and the extremely good receiving corps of Kevin Alexander, Jalonn Harrison and Shawn Turner? The Aggie offensive line should be better than last year's that had QB Matt Wells, currently Mullins' backup, running for his life. And the small stature of the Aggie defense shouldn't matter much against the Indians.

USU has six home games this season, a rarity, and a fairly favorable schedule sees the Ags hosting conference contenders Northern Illinois (Oct. 14) and Nevada (No. 4) while not having to play the other expected contender, Southwestern Louisiana.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

'95 USU schedule

Date Opponent Time

Sept. 2 at Arkansas St.5 p.m.

Sept. 9 Boise St. 7:05 p.m.

Sept. 16 Southern Miss 7:05 p.m.

Sept. 30 at San Jose St.2:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 Colorado St. 7:05 p.m.

Oct. 14 N. Illinois 6:05 p.m.

Oct. 21 at N. Mexico St.6:30 p.m.

Oct. 28 at Utah 12:05 p.m.

Nov. 4 Nevada 12:05 p.m.

Nov. 11 at UNLV 2 p.m.

Nov. 18 Pacific 12:05 p.m.

Radio: KVNU AM-610 and KVFM-944.5

Tickets: 797-0305