LOGAN — As fall camp wraps up in Logan, Utah State coach Matt Wells likes what he sees out of his team.
"I like where this team's at," Wells said after Utah State's last open scrimmage on Aug. 19. "I think we have a competitive bunch. I think we have some talent. It's just a matter of us putting it together and having the right kind of leadership and the right kind of chemistry and being able to overcome some adversity and overcome some injuries, which everybody around the country has to do at this time of year."
One thing Wells has at his disposal is plenty of returning starters. The Aggies return nine on offense, eight on defense, their field-goal kicker, punter, punt returner, both kickoff returners and also the kick holder. Everybody that started on the offensive and defensive lines last season returns. In contrast, Utah State had 26 first-time starters on the 2017 team, fourth in the nation behind Ball State, Illinois and Baylor.
Wells even went so far as to compare this year's team to the 2013 squad that went 9-3 in conference and won a division title.
"I think we had some really good players in 2013. I can tell you this: We have more good players this year, in my opinion," Wells said. "Will we stay as healthy as we did in 2013? Not a lot of people understand that we got lucky in 2013. We didn't get guys hurt. We didn't have to see the backups ... We're better this year in terms of depth."
Only time will tell if Utah State can avoid the injury bug, but it appears the Aggies have the pieces to at least get back to the postseason in 2018.
Sophomore quarterback Jordan Love's time as an understudy to then-senior Kent Myers was short-lived as the senior battled injuries and eventually lost the starting job. Now, Love has had a full offseason to prepare for year two as Utah State's starting quarterback.
Love has the arm to make long passes, such as the two 70-yard or longer touchdown passes he made against UNLV. While he's not a run-first kind of QB, he's mobile enough to pick up yards if the opportunity presents itself. More importantly, he can use his feet to buy time for his receivers and make the big play. That said, Love can improve on his completion percentage of 54.9 from last year and his QB rating of 119.3.
And Love also has plenty of experienced players around him to ease the pressure. For one, he has all five starting offensive linemen back from last season. Second, he has preseason All-Mountain West tight end Dax Raymond, last year's leading receiver Ron'Quavion Tarver and starting slot receiver Jordan Nathan. While 2017's leading rusher LaJuan Hunt has moved on, the Aggies have second-team All-American JC transfer Darwin Thompson and converted slot receiver Gerold Bright ready to pick up the slack.
One of Utah State's greatest struggles over the past few seasons has been keeping the starting quarterback healthy over the course of the season. If the Aggies can manage to protect Love, and if this offense can build on its experienced starters, this team will be in good shape in 2018.
The front seven is filled with plenty of familiar faces, including last year's leading tackler Suli Tamaivena at inside linebacker. All three starting defensive linemen return along with senior inside linebacker Chase Christiansen. But there's also an exciting addition to this year's squad in outside linebacker Tipa Galeai. The former TCU Horned Frog had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules last season. Galaei made 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore at TCU and will be a nice addition to Utah State's pass rush.
Priority one for this defense is stopping the run. The Aggies gave up more than 216 yards rushing per game last season. One would hope that with so many returning starters up front that the extra year of experience will end these struggles. Utah State can't afford to let other teams run wild like it did in 2017 if it wants to achieve its full potential.
There are some big shoes to fill in the secondary with the departures of Dallin Leavitt and Jalen Davis. Utah State appears to have moved Ja'Marcus Ingram from cornerback to safety to help compensate for the loss of Leavitt. Gaje Ferguson is no slouch either as he made 90 tackles from his safety position last season.
Junior college transfer DJ Williams is a nice addition at cornerback to help build depth as he battles with last year's starter Cameron Haney for a starting spot. Meanwhile, senior Deante Fortenberry will battle with redshirt freshman Andre Grayson on the other end.
Utah State's special teams are in great shape with Lou Groza finalist Dominik Eberle back. Eberle was in the top three of all field goal kickers after scoring 19 points in a single game against San Jose State. There's no reason to think Eberle won't be back in New York as a Groza finalist once again.
Starting punter Aaron Dalton also returns after averaging a respectable 42.0 yards per punt, and the Aggies also bring back their punt and kick returners: Jordan Nathan will return punts while Savon Scarver and Gerold Bright will return kickoffs.