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Ficklin at the center of Aggies' revamped O-line

LOGAN — Things seem to have a way of working out lately for Utah State center Quin Ficklin.

Take the Aggies’ bowl game invitation, for example. While most of Ficklin’s teammates spent most of their Christmas Day traveling by plane from Utah or places even farther away from Tucson, Arizona, Ficklin’s travel plans sounded far less hectic.

A native of Mesa, Arizona, Ficklin’s commute down I-10 isn’t much longer than the drive from Logan to Salt Lake City.

“Mine’s perfect,” Ficklin replied last week when asked how Utah State’s invitation to face New Mexico State in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl Friday afternoon had impacted his holiday season.

“I fly home on Wednesday, and I’ll have a regular week at home, have some workouts and eat some good food. Then on Christmas Day, I’ll wake up, have a regular Christmas — my niece will be there, she’s 2, so that will be fun — then I’ll drive over to Tucson.

“We need to report by 3 o’clock,” Ficklin continued, “so, I’ll leave my house at 12:30, 1 o’clock, and get there a little early.”

But that’s just the way things have gone for the junior lineman since arriving at Utah State last January after spending three years in the football program at BYU. A walk-on for the Cougars before and after serving an LDS Church mission in New York City, Ficklin seized an opportunity created by the graduation of three-year starter Austin Stephens and took over Utah State’s center position during spring practices.

That led to a scholarship, and the well-spoken Ficklin quickly became the leader of the Aggies’ completely revamped offensive line.

“It’s been absolutely a dream come true,” Ficklin said of the 2017 season. “I’ve always known I could play football at a high level as an offensive lineman, and then to have the opportunity to come here and being able to do that all season is my childhood dream. I couldn’t be happier with what I’ve been able to do here, my opportunities and the support of the staff and the university.”

Ficklin, who spent more time playing fullback for the Cougars last year than on the offensive line, came to USU on the recommendation of junior left tackle Roman Andrus. The two were friends and teammates at Brigham Young before and after their missions, although Andrus, at the time, was a defensive lineman.

But after playing at Snow College in 2016, Andrus signed with Utah State with the understanding that he would make the jump from the D-line to the O-line.

“The Aggies were the only ones that were looking at me seriously for the offensive line, for sure,” Andrus said. “They were the ones that put the idea in my head, and I just went with it.”

“… I hadn't played offensive line since Pop Warner, so it’s a totally different game when you get to this level.”

Andrus credits USU offensive line coach Steve Farmer with helping him make the transition, along with Snow’s O-line coach Rafe Maughan.

“He worked with me every single day for about a month after the season, kind of teaching me the very, very basics of it when I felt like it was a transition that I wanted to make.”

But Andrus and Ficklin aren’t the only Aggies to take an unusual route to starting on the offensive line this season.

Following the graduation of Stephens, Austin Albrecht and Jake Simonich, who all received All-Mountain West accolades in 2016, Utah State was left with just two returning starters: senior tackle Preston Brooksby and junior guard KJ Uluave. But with USU head coach Matt Wells’ hiring of new offensive coordinator David Yost, the O-line underwent an even bigger overhaul than expected.

While Brooksby, a native of Peoria, Arizona, has seen action in 10 of Utah State’s 12 games, Uluave has played in just one this season. Junior Sean Taylor, who redshirted last season after transferring from Laney College in California, missed two games due to injury but has started the other 10 at right tackle, while another JUCO transfer, Rob Castaneda, immediately took over at right guard and has started every game this season, including two at right tackle when Taylor was out.

Sophomore Moroni Iniguez, a Davis High product who played at Snow College last year, has also started every game at left guard. Redshirt freshman Demytrick Ali’ifua, the brother of former Aggie defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua, has added depth, playing in 11 games while starting at right guard against Colorado State and Wyoming. And Herriman High’s Ty Shaw has also been in the mix as Utah State’s new O-line has evolved, adjusting from working with senior quarterback Kent Myers to playing in front of redshirt freshman Jordan Love.

“None of us have had this thing given to us,” Ficklin said. “We’ve had to really overcome our individual, very unique, personal struggles to get to where we are. So, because we are so grateful for this opportunity as individuals, as a unit we’re grateful. And because of our gratitude, we work really hard and know how to have fun while we’re doing it.”

Ficklin added that the offensive line is comprised of “pretty sarcastic guys” who enjoy “chit-chatting” with the other team’s defensive line in the heat of battle.

“They hate that,” he said with a smile. “We’ll just ask them questions about how their day is going or where they’re from. I like getting to know them because it helps, for me, at least. The less I’m thinking about football in between plays, the better I play. It’s kind of weird. It doesn't make much sense.”

But then, the way the Utah State offensive line came together as a unit this season didn’t make a lot of sense, either. And yet, the rag-tag group of big men has played a pivotal role in helping the Aggies rebound from last year’s 3-9 season.

Not that Ficklin is satisfied with the 6-6 record the Aggies have heading into Friday’s bowl game.

“I’m pretty frustrated with our 6-6,” Ficklin declared. “There were games that we really should have won handily, and we didn’t. I’m excited that I’m only a junior, and we can come back next year and have a better year than .500. I’m not happy with that.

“But I am glad we have this bowl game, so we can end the season with a winning record. And that’s our plan. Tucson’s a great city, but there’s not much to do there. So, I want to go there and win a game. That’s my main focus. It’s not to go and have bowl activities. I want to win a game.”