During last year’s historic 11-3 campaign, it was the record-breaking offense and its players that stole many of the headlines for the Utah State Aggies.
But as the season wore on, in the games that mattered most, it was the defense, led by coordinator Ephraim Banda, that paved the way for the team to finish the season with a conference championship and a bowl victory.
Starting somewhat slowly, but peaking at the right time, the defensive unit held each of its final three opponents to 13 points or fewer, marking the program’s best three-game defensive stretch since 1983.
The unit finished the season top 10 nationally in forced fumbles, red-zone touchdown percentage, fourth-down conversion percentage and tackles for loss.
Now, as the Aggies head into the 2022 season, the question remains: Can the Aggies continue to perform at that same level?
The answer remains to be seen, but a quicker start to the season seems like it could be possible given the defense’s performance in spring practices.
“I keep going back to last year at this time, and we’re a lot further ahead (this year),” senior linebacker and returning starter AJ Vongphachanh said. “I’ve been really pleased, but there’s still a lot of little things we need to work on.”
The roster returns five starters from last year’s squad in Vongphachanh, defensive back Michael Anyanwu, defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka, safety Hunter Reynolds and defensive end Patrick Joyner Jr.
From the transfer portal, the unit added defensive end Daniel Grzesiak (Nevada), inside linebacker MJ Tafisi (Washington), safety Gurvan Hall (Miami) and outside linebacker Anthony Switzer (Arkansas State). All are expected to contribute right away and have looked strong through spring practices, according to head coach Blake Anderson.
The Aggies lose a significant amount of production with the departures of Justin Rice, Nick Heninger and Shaq Bond, but Vongphachanh said that he and other returning players are looking forward to filling those empty shoes.
“The guys are stepping up,” Vongphachanh said. “(The returning players), including myself, are starting to step out of their shells and become vocal leaders instead of trying to lead by example. I think that’s the next step for us guys who are coming back and know the defense — taking on leadership roles.”
That emergence of leadership is exactly what Anderson prescribed for his team if it hopes to replace all the key departures from last year’s squad. Though the group will have plenty of new faces, many of the expected starters are upperclassmen, so inexperience won’t likely be an issue for the Banda-led unit.
As spring practices conclude with Saturday’s annual Blue vs. White Game at 1 p.m., Vongphachanh — who started all 14 games last year, recording 55 tackles and two sacks — said that the most important thing will be embracing the same “grinder” mentality that last year’s defense embraced.
“We know what it takes to get to that point,” Vongphachanh said. “It’s not like we blew everyone out of the water last year. It took a lot of hard work, so if we continue hard work, over and over, and keep the same culture as last year, we’ll continue to move forward as a program.”