During this time last year, the Utah State Aggies football program was entering a season with an overall vibe of uncertainty and low external expectations.
What a difference a year (as well as a conference championship and a bowl game victory over a power five opponent) can make.
The vibes surrounding second year head coach Blake Anderson and his Aggies have certainly taken what feels like a 180-degree turn as the squad runs through this year’s spring practice sessions.
The program, which won 11 games last season, is no longer flying under the radar, but that’s territory where most winning programs ultimately aim to be.
“Knowing the standard is set and all eyes are on you, it certainly makes for a different environment and it’ll be a challenge to see if this team’s mature enough to live in that (environment),” Anderson said.
“It’s a lot easier to come in when nobody’s really expecting a whole lot — I think our group benefited from that last year — but this particular team is going to have a ton of pressure from day one.”
The newfound pressure of heightened expectations has translated into a solid product on the field according to Anderson, whose team wrapped up their 11th (out of 15) Spring practice session Tuesday evening.
The second year head coach said he’s been pleased with how the team has looked in the early going.
“We’ve worked really well,” Anderson said. “We’ve come out every day and practiced at a high level, and I haven’t had to beg or coerce them to give effort and to me that’s a sign of maturity and discipline.”
After a strong 2021 season, the 2022 Aggies will have some gaps to fill heading into the season. Departures of key contributors like defensive end Nick Heninger, linebacker Justin Rice and receiver Deven Thompkins (just to name a few) mean that there’s plenty of production that needs replacing.
Despite the departures, the Aggies still bring back key players throughout who will help fill the empty shoes, with 13 combined starters returning for another season, including quarterback Logan Bonner, who set school records in both passing yards and passing touchdowns last year.
The program brought in seven division one transfers in the offseason, including Maryland receiver Brian Cobbs and University of Miami safety Gurvan Hall Jr. Anderson said he expects much of those experienced newcomers to fill big roles for the team come fall.
“The new guys that we brought in in January are starting to show up and we expect to see those guys on the field in impactful ways,” Anderson said.
“We feel like we’ve recruited the right guys to fill the roles that we need them to fill. Now, how big those roles are is yet to be determined, but they look to be what we needed them to be thus far.”
With four more spring practices to go — concluding with the team’s Spring Game at Maverik Stadium on April 23 at 1 p.m. — Anderson and players have said they’ve been pleased with how the team looks at this point, but they also acknowledged that they’re far from a finished product — as they should be this early in the season.
Specifically, Anderson pointed out that he is anxious to see what players will take on leadership roles, which had been drained with the offseason’s departures.
“Some consistent, daily leaders have to emerge and we’re starting to see signs of that,” Anderson said.
“You can encourage leadership, but it’s got to show up on its own to some degree. I think you’ll see that happen over the summer or early in the fall, but that’ll be a key factor in our ability to be successful. When things got hard last year, we had the glue guys that held everybody together. … This group’s going to have to identify those guys.”
Though many of the questions surrounding the Aggies will not likely be answered during the team’s spring practices, one thing is certain, from last spring to this spring, the vibes around the Utah State football team have changed, and it’ll be up to them to make sure it stays that way this fall.