Entering the 2021 college football season, few people knew the name Derek Wright.

More had heard of Deven Thompkins, but no one would have guessed he was about to have the best single season by a receiver in Utah State history.

A year later, both Wright and Thompkins are battling for jobs in the NFL — with the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively — after combining to form one of the best receiver duos in all of college football last season.

“In order for this offense to be really good again, the wideouts have to perform at a very high level.” Utah State receivers coach Kyle Cefalo

In retrospect, Wright and Thompkins probably should have been viewed as rising stars entering last season. The talent was there — underrecruited as Wright and Thompkins were coming out of high school — there had just been a lack of production.

Who is the most likely candidate to have a breakout campaign for the Aggies in 2022?

Look no further than slot receiver Kyle Van Leeuwen, another underrecruited — a two-star recruit, Van Leeuwen had only one scholarship offer coming out of high school — and as of yet unproductive pass catcher.

Much like Wright and Thompkins, the Timpview High product isn’t exactly a complete unknown. Van Leeuwen played in all 14 games for Utah State last season, totaling eight receptions for 63 yards.

But with Wright, Thompkins and, most importantly, slot receiver Brandon Bowling gone, the door has opened for the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Van Leeuwen to take on a much larger role in 2022, and by the sounds of it, it will be a starring role.

Throughout fall camp, Van Leeuwen has received praise from numerous Aggie coaches.

In the opening days of fall camp, USU defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda had nothing but glowing remarks for Van Leeuwen, tweeting, among many things, “If you can’t cover him, join him.”

When talking about how the Aggies will replace Bowling, Wright and Thompkins, head coach Blake Anderson noted transfers Brian Cobbs and Xavier Williams and, yes, Van Leeuwen.

“Kyle Van Leeuwen in the slot position has a chance to step in, and there are big shoes to fill with Bowling and DT (Thompkins) graduating,” Anderson said.

Per USU passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Kyle Cefalo, Van Leeuwen will be an integral part of the Aggies’ passing attack and a shoe-in as a first teamer.

“I’ve been really pleased with the group, honestly,” Cefalo said in release. “We’re establishing some depth and I like the leadership that’s starting to emerge. Our first group’s really showing up every day, like Justin McGriff, Brian Cobbs and Kyle Van Leeuwen.

“They’re working really hard every day, and they’re showing up and making plays. We have a lot of talent in the room right now, which is awesome, and consistency is the biggest thing that we’re striving for.”

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The Aggies need Van Leeuwen to be a standout. Much of USU’s success offensively in 2021 can be traced back to an elite corps of wideouts and that remains the case again in 2022, even as Utah State is committed to being as balanced an offense as possible.

“In order for this offense to be really good again, the wideouts have to perform at a very high level,” Cefalo said.

“We took on that role and that challenge last year and it was phenomenal. I love the new crew we have and the expectations are still through the roof. Rather than just set goals and set expectations, I just want them to come out every day and focus on the day at hand.

“Whether it’s practice, a meeting, a walk-through, just be locked into that. We can pile up those good days on top of each other, and good things will happen.”

Of course, Van Leeuwen isn’t the only Aggie who will need to have a breakout season if the team is to meet its internal expectations.

Utah State returned only 50% of its production on offense, defense and special teams from a season ago, so there is opportunity aplenty, and there are a few relatively unknown Aggies who appear primed for breakout seasons.

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True freshman offensive lineman Weylin Lapuaho — a former Bingham High standout — has the inside track on one of the starting guard spots and will need to be up to the task if the Aggies are to have an improved rushing attack this year.

Redshirt freshman safety Ike Larsen — a former Sky View High standout — has impressed throughout the offseason and is likely to see significant time behind Miami transfer Gurvan Hall Jr.

“He (Larsen) has a chance to make a big step there,” Anderson said.

JUCO transfer Terrell Vaughn and redshirt freshman NyNy Davis are both primed to help Van Leeuwen pick up the slack left behind by Thompkins and Bowling, while JUCO transfer Omari Okeke has the potential to become a star defender at striker as the season wears on.

That is the thing with this Aggie program, though, according to offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker. Unsung and unknown contributors will emerge throughout the season.

“There may be guys you didn’t even hear of until Week 6 and all of a sudden they are making plays,” Tucker said.

And who’s to say who they will be.

Utah State wide receiver Kyle Van Leeuwen looks on during game against BYU Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, in Logan, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press