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USU football: seniors Austin Cheney, Jentz Painter are making the most of their opportunities at Utah State

Playing Division I football is something Austin Cheney always dreamed of doing.

Following a standout prep career at both Viewmont (Bountiful, Utah) and Borah High School (Boise, Idaho), Cheney took his talents to Southern Virginia University, a Division III school in Buena Vista, Virginia.

As a freshman in 2010 for the Knights, Cheney recorded 34 tackles and an interception. That was the only season Cheney spent at SVU, though.

After serving a two-year LDS Church Mission to Guatemala, Cheney made his dream of playing Division I football a reality by enrolling at Utah State.

“It was always a dream to play for a Division I program and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to walk on at Utah State,” said Cheney, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound senior cornerback. “Ever since I’ve been here, it’s just been a great environment with great coaches and great teammates. It’s been a lot of fun to play and work my way into a special teams role and help out that way.”

Like Cheney, Jentz Painter is another senior cornerback who began his career as a walk-on with the Aggies. The long journey has paid off for the native of Riverton, Utah, as he is a very valuable asset in the defensive backfield and on special teams.

“I started as a walk-on and didn’t get to play much, so it took a lot of effort to get into the mix of things,” Painter said. “Putting in hard work and effort got me to this point of where I am right now and I have a lot of opportunities to get on the field, make plays and help the team out any way I can. That’s what has meant the most to me, is seeing where I came from and where I’m at right now.”

Painter redshirted at Utah State in 2010, then served his LDS Church Mission in Russia from 2011-13. He returned to the Aggies in 2013 for his redshirt-freshman season but did not see any action that year.

However, since his sophomore campaign of 2014, Painter has not missed a game for the Aggies. He has played in 36 career games and recorded 25 total tackles, including 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, one interception and two pass breakups.

“Jentz has been here forever and has played a lot of football,” first-year cornerbacks coach Julius Brown said. “He’s a team guy and is an unbelievable special teams player. He knows his roles on defense and I just count on him to be a leader. He goes in and he knows his assignment. He’s great in the film room and is always trying to help out the young guys. He’s really a pleasure to be around.”

Just how long has Painter been associated with Utah State football?

Long enough to earn the nickname “Ginobili,” in reference to San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, who has been with that organization since the 2002-03 season.

“He’s the wily veteran and has been here forever,” Brown said. “He comes in, he knows his role, he makes his plays and he gets out of there, so we call him Ginobili.”

Through the first six games of his senior season, Painter has recorded six tackles, including 0.5 tackles for loss. In the Aggies’ game at Colorado State, the son of Kris and Nan Painter tallied a season-high two tackles, both of the solo variety.

Cheney is back playing after missing the entire 2015 season due to a torn ACL suffered while running down on a kickoff against Boise State on Nov. 29, 2014.

“I was running down and went to make a plant and it went out,” Cheney said.

As difficult as suffering the knee injury was for the son of Jim and Jana Cheney, it also proved to be a blessing in disguise.

“That is actually one of the ways I met my wife,” he said. “It’s been amazing and she is very supportive. Being a former athlete herself, she understands the time commitment and is very supportive.”

Cheney, who learned to speak Mayan while on his mission, is married to former Utah State women’s basketball player Elise Nelson. Being away from football was also a valuable learning experience for Cheney.

“It made me work harder and realize how fast it can be taken away from you, so if you do get that opportunity you take advantage of it, and just continue to work hard,” Cheney said.

Cheney played in nine games during the 2014 season, recording a career-best two tackles against San Jose State. He has played in seven of the Aggies’ 10 games this season but has yet to record any stats.

“I’m really proud of Austin, just coming from where he came from, being a guy who walked onto the team and has been scrapping year in and year out for a chance to play,” Brown said. “Now, he gets to his senior year and he’s a huge part of what we’re doing on special teams. He’s a key player on our special teams and is a kid who really takes his role to heart. He lives for it.”

That’s true.

“My goals are to help the team wherever I can and maybe widen my special teams production,” Cheney said.

The duo certainly helped the Aggies in a big way on special teams in Utah State’s 38-20 victory over Fresno State on Oct. 22. Painter came in untouched from the left side and blocked a punt by the Bulldogs. The ball bounced toward the goal line, where Painter again made a head’s up play by scooping it up to Cheney, who ended up scoring the go-ahead touchdown.

“After their first punt, I knew I was going to be open and I told coach that,” Painter said. “Sure enough, right after that, I came through untouched and blocked the punt. Then the ball was right there at the 1-yard line. I was kind of hesitating about what to do. Should I jump on it and have the ball at 1? And I thought, ‘Why just do that? Why not get the ball to my boy Cheney and get the touchdown?’ So, it was kind of a cool thing.”

Cheney, who earned academic all-Mountain West honors in 2014, is majoring in business administration. He is on track to graduate in the spring of 2017.

What memories will stick out the most to Cheney once he is done at Utah State?

“One of my favorite moments was when we beat BYU down in Provo in 2014 and then the teammates and friendships you make as you go through practices and workouts together, and building that camaraderie together,” Cheney said.

Painter, who is majoring in human movement science with an emphasis in exercise science, is on track to graduate in the spring of 2017.

Outside of football, school and family life – he is married to the former Audrey Wood – Painter enjoys ocean life and would “surf every day if I could.”

The first time Painter set foot on a surfboard was in Hawaii when he was 18 years old. He’s been hooked ever since.

“My younger brother and I really loved the ocean and saw how cool surfing was, so we decided to try it,” Painter said. “The most exotic place I’ve gone surfing was in Fiji and I surfed a famous wave called Cloudbreak.”

Though this is just his first season at Utah State, Brown is grateful for the opportunity he’s had to coach Cheney and Painter.

“Both of those kids are going to give you 110 percent; they’re going to give you everything they’ve got,” Brown said. “It’s fun to coach when you have guys like that who are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team.”