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Ags begin spring football in Sun Belt

LOGAN — Utah State University will begin its fourth spring football season under Mick Dennehy as the Aggies begin play in the Sun Belt Conference in the fall after two years as a Division I Independent.

Dennehy will welcome 12 returning starters among 44 returning lettermen when the team takes to the practice field Monday, Wednesday and Friday before donning full pads for a Saturday workout.

Dennehy and his staff will have a number of areas of concern as USU lost six offensive starters off a unit that ranked seventh in the country in passing and was 38th in total offense last fall.

Gone from USU's potent offense are quarterback Jose Fuentes and wide receiver Kevin Curtis, as well as leading rusher James Samuel, who transferred to Weber State. Other starters USU will need to replace include tight end Casey Poppinga and three-year starters on the offensive line Jim Newton and Luis Trujillo.

"On the offensive side of the ball, it is going to be critical for us to make sure our quarterback situation is healthy and solid," Dennehy said. "Those three guys (Travis Cox, Bryan Black and Matt Crivello) all need to learn how to be a quarterback in our offense. I hope our competition is real close and it will make them better."

Cox is the only member of the threesome that has taken a snap at USU.

However, he hasn't taken very many after Fuentes threw for 3,268 yards a year ago. Cox played in five games in 2002 and hit five-of-nine passes for 11 yards in limited action. In two years, the junior from Hyrum is nine-of-16 for 23 yards.

Black, a freshman, and Crivello, a junior transfer, both redshirted last season.

"Travis should be the guy because he has had more reps and is further along," Dennehy said. "The one thing we need to realize through this whole thing is that we need that guy to be somewhere around where Jose was in the beginning of his career — not at the end. He set a standard that they can all strive for, but they need to be where he was early on."

Who the new quarterback will be throwing to is also a concern. USU lost not only Kevin Curtis, who had 74 catches for 1,258 yards, but also Gary Coleman, the team's second-leading receiver with 45 catches for 555 yards last season.

"We have questions in our wide receiver corp, but I feel really good with the group we have. (JC transfers) Barry Tolli and Raymond Hicks should step in nicely, but we need some other guys to step up. We need Chris Stallworth (17 receptions for 231 yards in 2002) to put the finishing touches on what has been a good career.

"If we can get some nice growth and development in the quarterback and wide receiver areas, then we will accomplish what we need to in the spring," Dennehy said.

The Aggies will have a new look on the defensive side of the ball as new defensive coordinator David Kotulski is moving the team from a 4-3 alignment into a 3-4 set.

Seven starters return from that side of the ball and the Aggies will regain the services of Nate Putnam, who missed last year with a shoulder injury.

Among the returnees are linebacker Robert Watts, who was second on the team with 85 tackles, as well as defensive end John Chick, who started all 11 games as a freshman last year and recorded 42 tackles.

Mark Estelle, who led the team with 13 passes broken up and Derrek Shank, who was third on the squad with 65 tackles, should anchor the secondary. Other returning starters include defensive end Justin Jackson (team-best 8.5 tackles for loss), defensive tackle Ronald Tupea, who has started 18 straight games, and linebacker Rodney Wilson, a two-year starter who had 47 tackles in 2002.

"Defensively, I would guess that going from a 4-3 to a 3-4, we will spend a good portion of the spring getting the kids in the right places," Dennehy said. "It is different, but it is not. The body types that we have recruited the last two years, don't exactly fit. The first half of the spring will be personnel evaluation and getting the kids in the right positions.

"We need to do a great job of teaching, working on fundamentals and not get too deep into the playbook," he added. "We need to rely on them getting a good grasp of our defense as a whole, getting them in the right places and playing hard and then I would be satisfied."

USU will also be looking to replace both of its kickers in four-year punter Steve Mullins and placekicker Dane Kidman, who booted 14-of-17 field goals last year. Waiting in the wings are sophomore Ben Chaet and freshman Justin Hamblin, who originally signed with Utah before going on an LDS Mission.

"That is an area we all feel good about in Ben Chaet, as both a punter and placekicker," Dennehy said. "Justin Hamblin will create some good competition."

Utah State will practice four days a week until April 7, when the Aggies will practice that Monday and Wednesday and hold the annual Blue-White game at Romney Stadium Friday, April 11, at 6:30 p.m. USU will also hold a scrimmage at Northridge High School in Layton on Friday, April 4, at 7 p.m.

Utah State, 4-7 last season, will open 2003 at Utah on Thursday, Aug. 28.

The Aggies will play three straight road games, also traveling to Nebraska and Arizona State, before opening the home season with a conference game against Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 27.