Utah State football: Five storylines to follow during fall camp and entering the 2022 season
The reigning Mountain West champions have questions across the roster that will need to be answered in fall camp
That is all that stands between the Utah State Aggies and the start of the 2022 college football season.
The reigning Mountain West Conference champion Aggies will take the field inside Maverik Stadium on Aug. 27, when they host the new-look UConn Huskies, now led by former UCLA head coach Jim Mora Jr.
They will do so with a target on their backs — something the Aggies have rarely had — and little to no outside respect.
Despite winning the Mountain West last season, Utah State wasn’t picked to win the conference this year, or even its own division.
ESPN’s College Football Power Index — FPI — projects USU to be only the 88th-best team in the country this season, and win six or seven games.
Such lack of respect isn’t new or unexpected, though. In Logan, it is a way of life.
“The us-against-the-world mentality is front and center when you realize no one respects this football team,” Utah State coach Blake Anderson said. “They just realize it is what you earn. It is not given and that is fine. We will have more eyes on us this season, but we are going to have to go out and prove ourselves.”
There is a lot to prove, despite the Aggies’ status as reigning conference champions.
Utah State lost 11 starters from last year’s team, many of them extremely productive players.
There are holes to fill on both sides of the ball, at key positions and at all levels, all of which makes fall camp extremely important.
If Utah State is going to come close to approximating what it did in 2021, it needs to find some answers and fast.
“We are going to be the best we can be every day,” Anderson said. “One degree better every day, control what we can control, high workload, high intensity level, be in the best shape we can possibly be.
“We will stick to our formula and our approach and I think our kids know that if we do that well, we will have a chance to be successful.”
Here are five storylines to watch during fall camp and heading into the 2022 season:
Will the offensive line be solidified? Who will step in at guard?
It might be boring, but no collection of players is more important to the success of a football team than linemen, on either side of the ball.
And Utah State has some serious questions along its offensive line heading into the 2022 season.
There are positives, to be sure. Utah State is extremely settled at the center and tackle positions with experienced starters and even backups who’ve started multiple games over multiple seasons.
“We have a lot of experience back,” offensive line coach Micah James said. “The old guys are trying to lead and I’m excited about the young guys, as well.”
Graduate seniors Chandler Dolphin and Alfred Edwards are back, as is senior Jacob South and sophomore Cole Motes, a group that has combined to play in 145 games, starting 76.
USU also returns seniors Wyatt Bowles and Wade Meacham, as well as junior Calvin Knapp, who have combined to play in 40 games.
Still, the interior guard positions are up in the air right now.
“We have two interior spots, two guard spots that are wide open,” Anderson said. “Likely a young guy who hasn’t played a lot or at all is going to have to step into one of those spots.
“I think that will be critical to our success. Your center and tackles all have played, even the backups have played and started games, but those two guard spots have to materialize in a way so that we can run the ball better than we did a year ago.”
Two players to keep an eye on are redshirt freshman Elia Migao and true freshman Weylin Lapuaho, who, according to Anderson, are really pushing the veterans ahead of them.
“Those two young guys are battling, really trying to make it hard for the veteran guys to keep their job,” Anderson said.
The Aggies have continued to add depth along the offensive line as well, welcoming JUCO transfer Nikita Iuferov, FCS transfer Austin Leausa and five true freshmen, including Lapuaho, Teague Anderson, Sione Motu’apuaka, Adam Pond and Bryce Radford.
Who can hold down the No. 2 and No. 3 running back positions?
Offensive line play and production at running back are inherently connected, and Anderson wants Utah State to take a step forward in the run game this year.
The Aggies were the 83rd-best team in the country in rushing yards per game last season — at 140.1 yards per contest — and that simply isn’t good enough going forward.
“We were adequate, but not explosive,” Anderson said. “We have to be better, especially in situations where everyone in the stadium knows we are going to run the ball. We have to get better in those areas.”
Throw in the loss of Elelyon Noa, the team’s second-best rusher, who elected to transfer in the offseason, and the Aggies need to figure out which players are capable of spelling off starter Calvin Tyler Jr., or taking over in his absence in the event of injury.
“We know Calvin is the guy and likely will continue to be the guy if he can stay healthy, but who is going to take a load off his back, who is going to step in as the No. 2 and the No. 3?” Anderson said. “What is that room going to look like as it solidifies? We need to find that quickly so we can get up and running.”
The Aggies return John Gentry and Pailate Makakona, who combined to rush for 336 yards on 108 carries, but newcomers, like freshman Robert Briggs or Fresno State transfer — a former Utah Ute — Jordan Wilmore could play a role as well.
“We feel like we needed more opportunity in that room to maybe play by committee a little bit,” Anderson said.
Ultimately, offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker is most concerned with how well the Aggies run the ball in the fourth quarter.
“We ran the ball a lot last year,” Tucker said. “We were really balanced in play selection. We ran the ball over 500 times. I think you have to be able to run the football.
“I always equate (running the ball) to a 12-round fight. You have dig to the body and those body shots don’t really pay dividends until the championship rounds, which is the fourth quarter for us. We are going to continue to bang you, even if it is at three yards a clip, and we have to be able to build that attrition.”
Can the Aggies replace NFL-caliber receivers?
There was no more glaringly obvious hole for Utah State entering spring ball than the one left by former Aggies Deven Thompkins, Derek Wright and Brandon Bowling.
That trio proved to be one of the best collections of wide receivers in the country last season, and now Thompkins — who set school records for receptions and receiving yards — and Wright are in the NFL, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, respectively.
The Aggies added some significant transfers in an attempt to replace them, including former Maryland wide receiver Brian Cobbs and former Alabama wide receiver Xavier Williams, and there is optimism they can do just that, along with returning starter Justin McGriff.
“The wide receiver room lost a ton of productivity,” Anderson said. “We have brought in some veteran players who can impact that room in a big, big way, but we haven’t played a game yet. Can they go out and do that on a weekly basis at the level that that group last year did?
“I love what they brought in the spring, but there is so much respect that has to be given to the game itself against your opponent on a weekly basis and that is a remains to be seen.”
The Aggies also have a group of younger players, developed in the program, that they believe can play significant roles for them going forward, led by Kyle Van Leeuwen.
“Kyle Van Leeuwen (is someone to watch) in the slot position,” Anderson said. “And NyNy Davis. Both of those guys have a chance to step in, and they have big shoes to fill with Bowling and DT (Thompkins) graduating.
“On the outside, we are really pushing Otto Tia (to have a bigger role).”
Van Leeuwen in particular has drawn rave reviews from multiple Aggies coaches, on both sides of the ball, and is expected to become a major contributor.
Do the Aggies have enough on the defensive front?
In Nick Heninger and Marcus Moore, Utah State had two of its most productive leaders playing on the defensive line in 2021. Both are gone, and their losses should be equated to what the Aggies lost at wide receiver. Or at least close to it.
“Losing a guy like Marcus Moore up front, we all know the talent he had,” Utah State defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda said. “And Nick Heninger is a frickin’ superstar.”
“We needed their productivity, leadership and football IQ,” Anderson added.
The duo are gone though, so who replaces them?
Banda has high hopes for his defensive front, thanks to both returners and transfers.
Chief among them is defensive end Daniel Grzesiak, a Nevada transfer who has already been compared favorably to Heninger.
“He is a possible starter who is super-talented and has a few years left,” Banda said. “There are rumblings he can be as good or even better than Nick was.”
The Aggies also brought in JUCO transfer Tavian Coleman at defensive tackle and UCLA transfer John Ward at defensive end. Both are expected to make a push for playing time.
Byron Vaughns is back after winning defensive MVP in the Mountain West championship game, as are players like Patrick Joyner and Hale Motu’apuaka, but where the season might rest for the Aggies up front is with a group of younger and unproven players.
Per Banda, redshirt freshman Enoka Migao is one of them, and he will see playing time at defensive end this year.
Additionally, the success of the Aggies’ defensive tackle group could come down to how well Phillip Paea and Poukesi Vakauta play.
“Phil and Poukesi, those are the ones who really have to step up,” Banda said. “They have to come up and be big time for us.”
Young players or transfers, Utah State has a lot of unproven players on its defensive line, and Anderson knows it.
“We have brought in some veteran transfer type players that can do (what Marcus and Nick did),” Anderson said, “but they have to do it in game settings and that is asking a lot.”
Justin Rice is gone. Anthony Switzer is hurt. Who are the linebackers?
Justin Rice was a special player in college, whether it be at Fresno State, Arkansas State or Utah State last season.
As Banda put it, “he was one of those players that don’t come around often.”
“You lose Justin Rice who was like having a coach on the field,” Anderson said. “He broke pattern a lot to make big plays.”
The Aggies believed they had found another one of “those players” in Arkansas State transfer Anthony Switzer, but Switzer went down with a possible season-ending injury during spring camp.
So where does that leave the Aggies at linebacker? It is a position of concern.
“It is going to be position by committee early,” Anderson said. “That is another key position of need. How do we fix that? ... We have to figure out our approach.”
One player the Aggies have few questions about is AJ Vongphachanh.
The senior is a standout at the position and will need to be even better with Switzer out.
“AJ is a super smart guy who does everything you ask him to do,” Anderson said. “He is in the starting huddle for a reason. If he stays healthy, who knows how good he can be. And we need him to be.”
Beyond Vongphachanh, the Aggies do have some options, chief among them Washington transfer MJ Tafisi.
Banda expects to slowly but steadily bring along UCF transfer Cole Joyce and is perhaps most excited about redshirt freshman Sione Moa.
“He has had a great six months,” Banda said. “He had a really good spring practice.”
There remain questions at the hybrid striker position, but players to watch for include Kaleo Neves, BYU transfer Wes Wright and JUCO transfer Omari Okeke.
Okeke, in particular, has drawn rave reviews.
“When you start seeing that kid in the game, he is an Anthony-Switzer-like dude,” Banda said. “He may not be ready at the beginning of camp, but late in camp he will really start to push, and by Week 2 or Week 3 he will be full go. When he is out there with Neves, I’ll feel really good about where we are at at striker.”