Can the reigning Mountain West champion Utah State Aggies defend their title?
The Aggies enter fall camp with notable returners, but also major holes that need to be filled in the lead up to the 2022 season.
Sitting in front of a white background emblazoned with dozens of blue Us inside the Jim and Carol Laub Athletics-Academics Complex at Utah State University on Thursday, Blake Anderson looked comfortable.
The second-year Aggie head football coach smiled often and joked freely with school media relations staff and assembled media.
He looked like a man who was exactly where he was meant to be.
Down the hall, USU defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda was just as settled — only in his office — with picturesque Maverik Stadium looming in the background.
The same was true for Aggie offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker, only his view was of the Bear River Mountains to the northeast.
To a man, the Aggies exuded comfort and confidence at Utah State football’s annual media day.
Entering their second year under Anderson, the Aggies have every right to be that way.
Year 1 was a rousing success, as Utah State exceeded all outside expectations and won 11 games — including two against Power Five opponents — plus the program’s first ever Mountain West Conference championship.
Despite all that, and the return of record-breaking quarterback Logan Bonner, among others, the Aggies weren’t tabbed as the conference title favorites, or even Mountain division favorites, this year.
Not a single Aggie made the preseason all-conference team either.
To say Utah State wasn’t bothered by those snubs would be a lie, but 2022 is a new season, and given the questions surrounding the program entering fall camp, everyone in Logan is about to get uncomfortable in a hurry.
“It seems like yesterday that we were in LA, finishing up the bowl game and a championship weekend,” Anderson said. “(It was a) great season, tons of fun, but reality sets in real quick and fall camp 2022 is here.
“There are huge challenges ahead of us.”
To name a few, Utah State must replace major contributors on both sides of the ball, including linebacker Justin Rice, defensive linemen Marcus Moore and Nick Heninger and safety Shaq Bond.
On offense, wide receivers Deven Thompkins, Derek Wright and Brandon Bowling are gone, as is offensive lineman Quazzel White, along with special teams standouts Savon Scarver and Jordan Nathan.
All told, Utah State must replace 11 starters from 2021, many of whom are among the greatest Aggies in program history.
It doesn’t end there.
The Aggies’ schedule was fairly advantageous in 2021, but now Alabama — yes, THAT Alabama — replaces Washington State, Weber State replaces North Dakota and UConn replaces New Mexico State.
Throw in road games at Boise State and BYU, and there is little that is easy on Utah State’s 2022 slate.
“Everything just gets tougher,” Anderson said. “The schedule is a good bit tougher and everything gets tougher in a conference that sees you coming.
“There is going to be a sense of awareness of what we bring to the table and how competitive we can be. It is a huge challenge.”
Amid all that, the Aggies have welcomed 14 new four-year transfers who will need to be incorporated in a hurry.
Included among them are wide receivers Brian Cobbs (Maryland) and Xavier Williams (Alabama), defensive end Daniel Grzesiak (Nevada), linebacker MJ Tafisi (Washington), former Utah and Fresno State running back Jordan Wilmore, safety Gurvan Hall Jr. (Miami) and quarterback Levi Williams (Wyoming).
“There are a lot of new faces and we lost a lot of productivity,” Anderson said. “There is a tremendous challenge when you consider the productivity that graduated and the new faces and the shoes that they have to fill.”
Can the Aggies defend their conference championship?
Expectations within the program are such that they expect to. What happens during fall camp will go a long way in determining if those expectations become reality, though.
“We will get to work and see what we can create over the next month before we get the opportunity to play,” Anderson said.
“There are some key features on both sides of the ball that fall camp needs to answer for us. We are going to have to be the best we can be every day.”