Utah State’s football team held its 10th practice of the 2017 season Tuesday afternoon, and the defensive backfield has created great competition with the depth and talent it has at both cornerback and safety.
“I think we’ve had a lot of guys make plays,” said defensive backs coach Julius Brown. “There have been a lot of different guys stepping up to the plate and making plays. We’re getting our hands on a lot of footballs, so I’m encouraged. We’ve created a number of turnovers here in the first two weeks, but we have a long way to go in terms of communicating and making the simple play. We’re doing a good job of creating turnovers, but we’re giving up a lot of big plays, too. We need to get that cleaned up in the next week or so.”
Utah State returns a plethora of talent and depth in its defensive backend for the 2017 season, highlighted by senior cornerback Jalen Davis, who earned honorable mention all-Mountain West honors following his sophomore season.
“I think it’s all shaking itself out,” said Brown, referring to the team’s depth in the backend. “You have young guys, you have old guys and you have guys in the middle. Those kids know, in our room, everyone’s going to get an opportunity. We mix up the groups, and those kids are rolling through. Everyone’s getting a chance to show what they can do. One thing I tell them is to put it on film. They’re taking it to heart, they’re working hard as a group and I’m really encouraged with how close they’re starting to get with each other.”
In all, Utah State welcomes back seven returning letterwinners in the secondary from last season who have combined to play in 120 games with 61 starts during their careers. In fact, USU returns 85.7 percent of its interceptions and 60.6 percent of its pass breakups from a season ago.
In all, Utah State returns 14 defensive backs who were members of the program during the 2016 season, including five starters in Davis, senior CB Wesley Bailey, senior BS Dallin Leavitt, junior BS Gaje Ferguson and junior FS Jontrell Rocquemore. USU also welcomes back two other letterwinners in junior BS Aaron Wade and sophomore CB Cameron Haney.
“I think we’re having a good fall camp,” said Ferguson. “We’re definitely making a lot of improvements. We have a lot of guys who are competing for spots, which is making us all better as a group. We have guys moving around on the depth chart, and when you have that happening, it pushes everyone to be their best. That’s a good thing we have going on for us.”
The Aggies also return four redshirts in freshmen Baron Gajkowski, Braxton Gunther, Ja’Marcus Ingram and Zach Swenson, in addition to one more returner in sophomore Chance Parker.
Furthermore, Utah State added one new player to the secondary this spring in freshman Chase Nelson, while four new players joined the program this summer in junior Deante Fortenberry, as well as freshmen Andre Grayson, Jarrod Green and Zahodri Jackson.
Davis has the most returning game experience for Utah State as he has started all 36 games he has played in during his Aggie career, while Wade has appeared in 24 games and Rocquemore has played in 21 games with six starts. Haney played in 12 games last season and made one start, while Bailey appeared in 11 games and made six starts. Leavitt started all eight games he played in last season, and Ferguson appeared in eight games, making four starts.
Leavitt was Utah State’s most disruptive defensive back in 2016 as he ranked fourth on the team with 57 tackles, which included 2.0 tackles for loss, and led the team with three interceptions.
Overall, Davis is Utah State’s returning career leader in every defensive statistical category as he has accumulated 147 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 12.0 tackles for loss, six interceptions, 21 pass breakups and three forced fumbles during his 36 games played. As a junior, Davis recorded 35 tackles, which included 2.0 sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss, to go along with one interception and a team-best seven pass breakups.
Through two weeks of fall camp, Brown likes the direction this year’s defense is headed.
“The defense is playing with a lot of speed and guys are getting to the ball," said Brown. "This year, I think we have a couple (of) guys who are hungry. You have a couple (of) senior leaders in there along with some new guys who are hungry to go out and make a name for themselves. It’s exciting. I think we have to continue to communicate and get better in that area, but we’re making strides.”
Ferguson agrees with this year's good defensive direction.
“I think our unity is a lot better right now than I’ve ever experienced it being here at Utah State in my time. We play as a group and we swarm to the ball for the most part," he said. "We enjoy being around each other. We have better teammates and friendships out here from the captains and leaders all the way down to the freshman. I think we’re just a better unit."
Tuesday was the 10th of 24 practices for the Aggies leading up to their season-opening game at No. 10 Wisconsin on Friday, Sept. 1, at 7 p.m. MT, in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN.
Fans are invited to its last scrimmage as part of Family Football Fun Day at Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 19, at 2 p.m.
Defensive Player of the Day
Junior safety Gaje Ferguson is one of a handful of players vying for a starting spot at safety. On Tuesday, the Cache Valley native had five tackles and one interception to go along with two pass breakups.
Offensive Player of the Day
Junior wide receiver Ron’quavion Tarver continues to impress during fall camp and showcased his skills during Tuesday’s practice as he had eight receptions for 90 yards, including a pair of touchdown receptions.
Newcomer of the Day
Junior linebacker Suli Tamaivena has had a solid fall camp after transferring from Mt. San Antonio Junior College, and he had another solid practice on Tuesday as he recorded six tackles, including a pair of tackles for loss.
Doug Hoffman is the associate athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.