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What to make of Utah State’s 2023 early signing class?

Utah State coach Blake Anderson inked 23 players to letters of intent on the first day of the early signing period, including former Ute Malone Mataele

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Utah State Aggies football head coach Blake Anderson watches the BYU game in Provo on Sept. 29, 2022.

Utah State Aggies coach Blake Anderson watches the game against BYU in Provo on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. Says Anderson of the start of his 2023 recruiting class: “Filled needs that were important to us. ... We felt like the guys who signed with us today fit this place.”

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

There is now a clear picture as to how Utah State will approach recruiting in the Blake Anderson era, put on display with the Aggies’ 2023 signing class.

“It feels like a solid class, but you don’t really know until you get them out on the field and develop them. We felt like the guys who signed with us today fit this place.” — USU coach Blake Anderson

Twenty-three players signed letters of intent Wednesday, becoming the newest crop of USU football players. (Anderson noted that Utah State isn’t done adding players and will continue to recruit for the current class through the traditional signing day in February, as well as through the summer ahead of the 2023 season.)

In a nutshell, 11 signees were high school athletes, 10 were junior college transfers and two were four-year transfers from Power Five schools.

Sixteen of the additions will be able to join the program in the spring, in effect gaining an entire offseason with Utah State before making their debuts.

All but one of the additions — former University of Utah defensive back Malone Mataele — have multiple years of eligibility remaining. Twelve of Utah State’s signees were rated by at least one major recruiting service (247 Sports, Rivals, On3 and ESPN) as a three-star recruit, with one signee getting a four-star designation.

The state of Utah produced the most signees (nine), followed by California (six), Florida and Georgia (two each), with one signee each from of Alabama, Hawaii, Louisiana and Texas.

Eleven of the signees are defensive players, including five defensive backs, five defensive linemen and a linebacker. Twelve offensive players signed, including three running backs, three receivers and three offensive linemen, along with two tight ends and a quarterback.

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Utah State’s 2023 signing class as of Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Utah State athletics

A clear picture you say? Yes, in fact.

The Aggies had multiple priorities when it came to recruiting for their 2023 class, and all were achieved in one way or another.

First and foremost, USU had specific needs to fill, holes on the roster, especially in the defensive backfield and along the defensive front.

The Aggies added 10 players in those two areas alone, some who could, and maybe even should, start immediately, with Mataele being chief among them.

The rest of the signees have varying amounts of experience, giving the Aggies depth across graduation classes that was otherwise lacking.

“Felt like we had a good class,” Anderson said. “Filled needs that were important to us. ... We felt like the guys who signed with us today fit this place. We got what we were working for, filling positions of need, both with high school and veteran players.”

Utah State had a small graduating class in 2022 — with only 10 seniors — and Anderson and company needed to balance out the roster (Anderson said he hopes to get USU to a point where 20-plus players graduate every season).

By all accounts, they did it.

“We were pretty 50-50 in terms of how we organized the class to this point (as far as experience), which is something that was important to us,” he said.

“We didn’t want to go all one way or the other, so we split it down the middle. We feel like it is a class that meets a lot of needs.”

The Aggies only added one player with just a year of eligibility remaining, giving the coaching staff the opportunity to develop talent, a hallmark of Utah State football under multiple head coaches.

“We try to stay away from one-year guys unless we feel like the value of a one-year (rental) is going to impact our ability to win games next fall,” Anderson said. “We are always looking for guys with two or three years left when we are talking about transfers. It is not a dealbreaker in every case, but it is definitely a strategic conversation.”

“... We feel like if we can get guys for two or three years, we can continue to develop them. Most of it is based off of need, the room itself. Is it developed yet where you can play with what you have on the roster? We tried our best to attack those positions with those thoughts in mind.”

The Aggies also prioritized the state of Utah, something Anderson promised he’d do when he was hired, even if it hadn’t shown up in previous classes that were transfer heavy.

Eight of USU’s 11 high school signees are from the Beehive State, with two coming from Cache Valley itself.

“I said this when I got the job, and every year is different, but we are going to start at home,” Anderson said. “We made a ton of offers early in the process. We didn’t sign them all. We are battling BYU, Utah, the Pac-12 and Big 12, and now Utah players are traveling coast to coast, which is scary because we want to keep them home.

“We will always start in the state of Utah first. Hopefully in the future we will win more and more battles here at home. ... And I think it is great for the brand and the valley to get guys from the valley who have bright futures.”

Of the 10 JUCO players to sign, three — Micah Davis, Jaylen Martin and Javar Strong — had played previously at the FBS level, though most of the junior college signees fell under an approach that centers on players, not where they’d played.

“We try to take an approach to look at players, not where they are coming from,” Anderson said. “Do they fit the need and the culture? We have found a lot of value from the JUCO ranks. I like the guys we signed today, and I think they all fit us for different reasons.”

Utah State still has work to do. Anderson talked about the need to add a veteran offensive lineman, ideally at the tackle position. And realistically no one knows how good the class will turn out until it gets to Logan.

Still, Anderson and company were pleased.

“It feels like a solid class, but you don’t really know until you get them out on the field and develop them,” he said. “We felt like the guys who signed with us today fit this place.”

What will Skyridge quarterback McCae Hillstead bring to Utah State?

McCae Hillstead was one of the prized high school signees, as a three-star state championship-winning quarterback who chose the Aggies over a Power Five school in Washington State.

“He brings tons of things as a player,” Anderson said. “He is a 10.7 (second) 100-meter guy who can make every throw.

“To go head-to-head with Washington State on him and get him to stay home (was huge). He committed to us and then took a visit to Washington State with an offer. He came back and said ‘Utah State is where I want to be,’ and never wavered. He is competitive, fast and mobile. A great guy to build around.”

How notable are the additions of Jr Sia and Taliafi Ta’ala?

Three of the Aggies’ high school signees were offensive linemen, and two of those were interesting additions at that. Jr Sia (Mountain Ridge) and Taliafi Ta’ala (Alta) both were among the top offensive line prospects in Utah, both of whom garnered interest from Power Five programs outside the state.

Neither is expected to contribute immediately, but their additions did not go unnoticed.

“In-state kids that stay at home, who have been recruited by Power Five programs outside the state, those are huge wins for us,” Anderson said.

“We know that the strength of our recruiting base starts with the offensive and defensive line. Historically, the best players in the state, the guys who have made the biggest impact and gone to the NFL, a lot of those guy have been on the line, both sides of the ball.

“They (Sia and Taala) will be developmental guys, but you like to think that a couple years down the road they can factor in in a big big way.”

Where will Utah State’s five new defensive backs play?

Headlined by Mataele, but including JUCO transfers Martin, Strong and Ronald Fuselier, as well as high school signee Kadiyon Sweat (Lehi), Utah State added a great deal of depth to a defensive backfield that desperately needed it.

Where will they all play? Some won’t play immediately, but nearly all have the flexibility to play multiple positions.

Given how Utah State plays defensively (leaving DBs alone on islands while trying to get in the offensive backfield), that was a necessity.

“We thought there was a lot of flexibility with the guys we signed, moving guys around,” Anderson said. “We are going to continue to add as much ability and skill to the room as we can.

“With the way we play, you cannot really have enough guys who can play in space. We felt there was a need, and that is where we went after it.”

Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, wearing red, runs for a gain against Utah Utes cornerback Malone Mataele, wearing white.

Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) runs for a big gain against Utah Utes cornerback Malone Mataele (15) during the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. Mataele hit the transfer portal and has found a new home in Logan.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News