Blake Anderson has inherited a Utah State football team that not long ago was enjoying arguably the most successful era in program history.
Following a tumultuous 2020, though, the Aggies have hit the reset button, and the first-year coach will be tasked with turning the corner on a 1-5 season.
While Anderson and his coaching staff had their chance to get acclimated with their players in the spring, the process of getting Anderson’s own system into place kicks into high gear as USU opens fall camp.
That will be the next big step in a rebuilding process that Anderson stressed “we’re going to be patient” with when he was introduced last December as the Aggies’ new head coach.
“It’s a great place with a ton of traditions. I feel I’ve started off in a good spot,” Anderson said during a video interview from Mountain West football media days.
Here are five storylines to follow in fall camp as Utah State prepares for the 2021 season:
Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?
It’s a common theme among FBS schools in Utah this year — who’s going to be the starting signal caller? In Logan, the two most likely candidates are junior Logan Bonner, who followed Anderson from Arkansas State, and junior Andrew Peasley, who started two games last year.
Bonner has much more experience at the top collegiate level, playing in 24 games (and starting 15) during his time at Arkansas State while throwing for 3,166 yards with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also is familiar with the offensive system Anderson runs.
Peasley has seen spot time over the past three years until starting the final two games of last season and throwing for 391 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions while also rushing for 195 yards and one touchdown.
Anderson was complimentary of the leadership that both Bonner and Peasley have shown when asked about the QB competition at MWC media days.
“I think it’s going to be a great battle between those guys,” the coach said. “They’re both high-energy guys, and they’re both really high-football IQ guys. They understand our system really, really well. However that thing shakes out, we’re going to be in good shape.”
Beyond those two, the Aggies have a handful of sophomores — Cooper Legas, Josh Calvin and Garrett Larson — who’ve never played at the collegiate level.
Will the high influx of transfers pay off?
Anderson has brought in 15 transfers this offseason to help bolster the roster. That includes nine from Power Five programs, four from Group of Five schools (three came from Arkansas State) and two from the junior college ranks.
Utah State isn’t foreign to the concept of bringing in transfers and having them contribute immediately — guys like former USC wide receiver Jalen Greene in 2018, or the trio of former Utes — Siaosi Mariner, Caleb Repp and Nick Heninger — in 2019 come to mind.
Last year, former UCLA defensive tackle Marcus Moore started three games and had 20 tackles, and now he’s among the veteran leaders on the defensive side of the ball.
Rarely have so many transfers come at once, though. If this new group — we’ll get to more of the names in a minute — can assimilate into the system quickly, the Aggies will benefit greatly.
“I think we’ve got a good foundation to work with. Recruiting is a huge part of that. We’re battling as best we can to build a roster,” Anderson said.
How long will it take to implement Blake Anderson’s system?
Anderson brings a high-tempo offense with him, one that he admits can take some time to get used to the rhythm but one that he believes can give his team an edge on game day if executed well.
“The hardest part of our system is to truly understand the tempo that we really, really want. It’s one way in your head, it’s another thing to actually go out there and do it,” he said.
During Anderson’s seven years at Arkansas State, the Red Wolves became known for having an offense that could put up record-setting numbers. In his tenure, A-State broke 12 school records.
Now, the challenge is to make Utah State’s offense as successful, and it starts with getting the players up to speed.
“It’s been a process. We’re not there yet. Hopefully during fall camp we can really make some big strides,” he said.
Will Justin Rice become the face of the defense?
One of the most high-profile transfers to join USU this offseason is inside linebacker Justin Rice, who transferred to Arkansas State last year and followed Anderson for one more year. Before A-State, he played at Fresno State from 2016-19 and was named first-team All-Mountain West.
Last year showcased what Rice can do. For the Red Wolves, he had 76 tackles, a nation-leading 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. That earned him first-team all-Sun Belt Conference honors.
The Aggies have added a handful of Power Five transfers on defense that can hopefully complement Rice. Up front, they added defensive ends Patrick Joyner Jr. (Miami) and Byron Hobbs-Vaughns (Texas), along with defensive tackles Jahaziel Lee (Georgia Tech) and Philip Paea (Michigan). In the secondary, USU has brought in safety Hunter Reynolds (Michigan) and cornerback Kyle Mayberry (Kansas).
Even though Utah State returns nine defensive starters, it will need a good portion of this influx of talent to contribute in 2021. The Aggies gave up 35.2 points and 485.3 yards per game last season and were among the worst-ranked defenses at the FBS level.
It all starts, though, with the quarterback of the defense in Rice, a player Anderson lauded for his ability to keep his teammates calm and focused.
“You put him right in the middle, and he calls the shots. He’s got a tremendous amount of experience, led the country in tackles for loss last year. Being able to play behind the line of scrimmage is huge,” Anderson said. “We’re all about chaos defense. We’re going to create turnovers and tackles for loss, sacks. That’s something that he’s really, really good at. He has a knack to get around the ball.”
Who else will emerge as offensive playmakers?
Anderson said he is looking for speed and team guys to build his pass-friendly offense around. Last year, Arkansas State was second nationally in passing offense, throwing for 364.4 yards per game.
Beyond quarterback, there are question marks at other skill positions. Last year’s leading rusher, Jaylen Warren, is gone after transferring to Oklahoma State. Devonta’e Henry-Cole, a former Utah transfer, is back, along with John Gentry, Pailate Makakona and Elelyon Noa.
The Aggies also added Oregon State transfer Calvin Tyler Jr. at running back this offseason.
There’s optimism the running game — which averaged just 140 yards per contest last year — could be much improved under new offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker. He comes to Logan from UCF, where the Knights had their best three-year stretch in school history in rushing from 2018-20, including rushing for a school record 3,448 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2018.
Utah State’s three leading receivers from last year — Deven Thompkins, Justin McGriff and Derek Wright — all return. Still, the Aggies added a pair of transfer wide receivers in former Nebraska wideout Jamie Nance and Brandon Bowling, another transfer from Arkansas State.
How much the newcomers can contribute remains to be seen. Nance played in just one game over two seasons for Nebraska, while Bowling had 82 receptions for 878 yards and nine touchdowns in five years at A-State.
“You’ve got to be a smart football player. You’ve got to have a high IQ,” Anderson said of players in his offense. “We do operate quickly, we do ask a lot of you in a very short period of time. You don’t have a lot of time to think. You’ve got to be able to know it immediately and go out and play.”
Anderson would also like to find as many ways as possible to get the ball in the hands of wide receiver Savon Scarver, the team’s return specialist and the preseason Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year.
“We’ve got to be creative in how we utilize him and get the ball in his hands as much as we can,” Anderson said.