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The time is now for Aggie linebacker Alex Huerta

LOGAN — As Utah State's football practice came to a close Tuesday afternoon, new linebackers coach David Kotulski gathered his Aggies in close to share a few words of wisdom before they left Maverik Stadium for the day.

But in the case of Alex Huerta, the veteran coach pointed something out, then promptly removed his cap and playfully whacked the junior linebacker on the head, á la the Skipper letting his frustrations out on Gilligan.

Huerta accepted the drubbing with a smile on his face, then stopped Kotulski before he could walk away to clarify a couple of things.

"I got moved to a new position," Huerta explained afterwards. "So, I'm learning a new position, but I'm getting the hang of it. I've got guys that every time I mess up, I come off to the side, and I've already got guys jumping on me, saying, 'Hey, you're doing this wrong. Hey, you're doing that wrong.' And that's helping me out a lot."

Previously an outside linebacker, this spring Huerta has been moved inside to USU's Rover position in the Aggies' 3-4 defensive scheme. And not being in the right place at the right time was what led to Kotulski — who has been coaching college football since the Carter administration — to use whatever means necessary to make sure Huerta didn't make the same mistake again.

"He's getting on me about everything," Huerta said of Kotulski. "But I like that. I like hard coaching."

A Cache Valley native who grew up in Wellsville and played at Mountain Crest High School in Hyrum, it seems that 2016 might finally be Huerta's time to take on a major role for the Aggies.

After coming to USU as a preferred walk-on and then redshirting during the 2013 season, Huerta was poised to make a big impact on the program in ’14 before suffering an injury to his left shoulder a couple of weeks before the Aggies' season-opener at Tennessee.

"Alex did a nice job in spring ball, and then started out playing really well in fall camp," USU head coach Matt Wells said. "Then, unfortunately, he got hurt right there in the middle of training camp."

Huerta might have actually started the game at Neyland Stadium as a redshirt freshman, but, instead, he ended up having surgery for a "broken shoulder" suffered during a practice drill that ended with a big offensive lineman landing on his arm while his left hand was on the ground.

"It kind of broke the whole back part of my rotator cuff," Huerta explained, then added with a little chuckle, "But things happen."

The injury kept Huerta out of the entire 2014 season, along with spring ball in 2015. But while he was relatively healthy last fall, Huerta admitted, "my mind wasn't right coming back from the injury," and he never really managed to get back in the mix at linebacker last year. Of course, the Aggies also had standouts like Kyler Fackrell, Nick Vigil, LT Filiaga and Torrey Green anchoring a deep linebacker corps.

"Torrey was in that spot, and he was doing great," Huerta noted. "He's an incredible athlete, and all of those guys were just playing great.

"I got some reps on special teams, and some reps here and there on defense, but the guys that were ahead of me were just incredible athletes. So, I needed to work harder and get better and get back in the groove of things."

Although he ended up totaling just four tackles last season, Huerta will certainly be counted by Kotulski and new co-defensive coordinator Frank Maile to provide production and leadership this season. Vigil is gone after deciding to make himself eligible for the NFL draft, while Fackrell, Filiaga and Green all graduated.

That leaves very little experience returning at a position dominated in recent seasons by superstars like Fackrell, Jake Doughty and Nick and Zach Vigil.

"It was a cool experience rolling with guys like Jack and Zach and Fackrell and all of those guys," Huerta said. "They were incredible, and I learned so much from them. … And now I'm trying to carry on their legacy and what they taught me, and pass it onto younger guys so they can learn from it, too."

Although USU's defensive coaching staff has endured a lot of turnover during his tenure, Huerta noted that Maile, who spent the 2014-15 seasons as the defensive line coach at Vanderbilt, was actually an assistant when he first approached the Aggies about joining the program.

"I didn't have any offers out of high school, but I came up here and gave my highlight video to Frank," Huerta recalled. "I said, Hey, this is what I got. Please give me a chance.'

"Frank's a great guy, and he's a great coach. So, I just took advantage of the opportunity and it led to this. And I'm grateful for it. It's a blessing."

The second of Anibal and Amanda Huerta's six sons, Huerta said he didn't even think about playing football until he was a freshman in high school and his older brother, Fernando, approached their father about hitting the gridiron. Fernando ended up playing on the offensive line at Southern Utah, helping to inspire Alex to also play in college after helping Mountain Crest win four straight region titles.

"I came up here, worked hard and I was rolling with guys that were incredible athletes," Huerta said. "And now I have younger brothers that this is life for them, and this is the sport that they want to do."

According to Wells, that family and local connection is one thing that is going to help propel Huerta to bigger and better things during the 2016 season.

"I think Alex has got a good demeanor about him, and he's got a burning desire to play well here in front of his family and his friends," Wells said. "We're playing him inside right now because of some depth needs, but his football smarts give him a chance to be flexible where we use him. I think he's a guy that can flip back outside and there anytime.

"But he's played behind some really good players, including two potential draft picks, and sometimes you have to wait your turn a little bit. And I think the time for Alex is now."