Spring is supposed to be a time of optimism for college football programs.
Development is the name of the game during spring camp, which means young players getting reps and making leaps, providing hope for both the upcoming season as well as for future seasons.
That was the feeling surrounding Utah State football at the start of spring ball.
Despite more than a few notable transfers out of the program immediately following the 2022 season — as well as the loss of multiple coaches, including both coordinators — the Aggies were an excited bunch in mid-March.
“The guys were itching to get out there, as you can imagine,” Utah State coach Blake Anderson said on the first day of spring camp. “... A lot of energy, new guys having fun, getting acclimated. We made a ton of mistakes, but a successful Day 1.”
Moreover, Anderson was pleased with what he had seen from the Aggies’ new additions, which totaled more than 30 players, a combination of four-year transfers, junior college transfers and high school signees.
“What we have seen from January to now is the new guys have been great additions and they have acclimated well,” Anderson said. “They weren’t showing up in a bad way today, which is a good sign. Every day it will get a little more hectic.”
Things were no less optimistic after the Aggies’ first scrimmage on April 8.
Many players on both sides of the ball made an impression, statistically or otherwise, including but not limited to quarterbacks Levi Williams and Cooper Legas, wide receivers Otto Tia and Jaylen Royals, safeties Devin Dye and Ike Larsen, running back Cooper Jones and defensive ends John Ward and Adam Tomczyk.
Said Anderson after the scrimmage: “There is so much to fix, but we are excited about where the guys are at just in terms of how hard they work, how much fun they are having playing and how this group is coming together.
“Now, the real work starts. We will go in and dissect it and figure out just how bad we really are. I would say right now we are not very good in any phase, but there was good on both sides.”
It is a little bit harder to be as optimistic now.
Notable USU football players who’ve entered the transfer portal
- Bishop Davenport, quarterback.
- Bailee Davenport, running back.
- Ty Barnett, cornerback.
- Ajani Carter, cornerback.
- Martavious ‘Ny Ny’ Davis, wide receiver.
- Dominic Tatum, cornerback.
- AJ Vongphachanh, linebacker.
- Kaleo Neves, nickel back.
- Phillip Paea, defensive tackle.
- Aurion Peoples, defensive tackle.
- Patrick Joyner, Defensive tackles/end.
- Byron Vaughns, defensive end.
- Tavian Coleman, defensive tackle.
- Weylin Lapuaho, offensive lineman.
- Daniel Grzesiak, defensive end.
- Sione Moa, linebacker.
- Xavier Williams, wide receiver.
- Luke Marion, safety.
- Saco Alofipo, safety.
- Crew Wakley, safety.
- John Gentry, running back.
- Ron Tiavaasue, tight end.
- Addison Trupp, Defensive end.
In the last few days, multiple presumed starters and/or regular contributors have entered the transfer portal, namely, cornerbacks Ajani “AJ” Carter and Dominic “Dom” Tatum, nickel back Kaleo Neves and wide receiver Martavious “Ny Ny” Davis, not to mention backup quarterback Bishop Davenport, his brother Bailee Davenport and cornerback Ty Barnett.
They are just the latest. Since the 2022 season ended, 30-plus USU players have left the program via the transfer portal, per 247 Sports and On3 Sports.
Many of those have been on the defensive side of the ball, defensive line especially, although the Aggies’ secondary has been hit hard of late.
Some have found homes at Power Five programs, like Byron Vaughns (Baylor), Daniel Grzesiak (Cincinnati), Patrick Joyner (Kansas), and Weylin Lapuaho and AJ Vongphachanh (BYU).
Others swapped out one Group of Five program for another, such as Ny Ny Davis (Louisiana Monroe), Tavian Coleman (Texas State) and John Gentry (Sam Houston State).
And still others remain in the transfer portal, looking for their new opportunity.
The Aggies have added players via the portal, namely wide receiver Colby Bowman (Stanford), defensive back Malone Mataele (Utah) and linebacker Gavin Barthiel (Washington State), plus there have been juco additions, many of whom are expected to play immediately like defensive end Cian Slone and safety Devin Dye (son of former MLB great Jermaine Dye).
There has nonetheless been a real loss of talent at Utah State.
In ESPN’s exhaustive look at returning production across the FBS, Utah State came in at No. 103 in early February, and that was before the recent departures.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Aggies will now return just under 31% of their defensive production from last season, and defense was USU’s strength in 2022.
It has gotten so bad that Utah State was unable to have a traditional Blue and White spring showcase this year. The combination of lack of players and injuries necessitated a traditional practice instead.
“Due to injuries and attrition during the spring, the number of available players is not where we need it be to hold a traditional spring game, so we will hold a practice,” Anderson said. “Everyone that is available to practice will practice, but it will mostly be in drill settings. We will finish with some live work, but that will be very short and limited.”
After the showcase, Anderson was asked about the state of the program. Namely if the team’s culture was an issue, i.e. the reason so many players are exiting the program.
He was defiant in a way fans will surely appreciate.
“This is the new world of college football This is what legislatures have created,” Anderson said. “It is going to happen all across (the country) and it is. This is not a Logan problem. This is a NCAA football problem. It is not going to go back.
“If you watch the portal, there are guys going into the portal who want to play more. Transfer down to AA or NAIAA. They need to do that and we are going to help them find places to go. Every name that goes into the portal isn’t a guy who has been productive here. There is another group of guys who are marketable, have some leverage and want to find places to go where they will get paid to pay.
“... We are going to celebrate those who’ve chosen to stay and we are going to recruit like crazy to get more guys here who want to be here. Maybe one day we will be in the NIL world as well, but right now we don’t have a collective that is paying these guys, so they are staying here because they want to be here. We don’t have a culture problem.”
To be fair, Utah State has rebounded fairly well from the defections, especially along the defensive line, both with recruiting and development.
In addition to the aforementioned Slone, John Ward and Adam Tomczyk appear to be legitimate options at defensive end, while Hale Motu’apuaka and Poukesi Vakauta are more than capable defensive tackles. Depth behind them is concerning, but reinforcements are on the way, junior college transfer Clifton Mosley specifically.
In the secondary, USU has options even after losing Carter and Tatum. The safety position appears pretty settled with Larsen — recently announced Male Rookie of the Year at USU — and Dye, while at nickel back the Aggies will have a healthy Anthony Switzer.
Mataele is capable of playing at corner, safety and nickel back and USU still has an experienced Michael Anyanwu, plus Xavion Steele and junior college transfer Ronald Fuselier available at corner.
Many of the departures — at least early on — are ones Utah State saw coming or even helped facilitate, according to Anderson, and the reality is the talent at USU in 2022 wasn’t good enough. The below .500 record by the end of the season proved that.
It is also fair to say that Utah State should be improved offensively in 2023, thanks to key offseason additions like Bowman, wide receiver Micah Davis (junior college via Air Force) and running back Davon Booth (junior college), improved health from players like Williams, plus Anderson’s transition to offensive playcaller.
Still, at a time of year when the hope is to build, the Aggies have continued to lose talent and not all the end-of-the-bench types either.
Spring camp only just concluded for Utah State on Saturday, though, and the transfer portal is once again open (it closes on April 30), so hope remains. Anderson and company have time to figure out if Utah State has enough on the roster as is. And if not — which seems likely — USU can add players via the portal.
“We need to make sure we have a great foundation on both sides,” Anderson said at the beginning of spring camp. “We have to identify leaders, we need to make sure our fundamentals improve, and we have to be technically sound. If we get that done, we will have a good starting point, because we still have the summer and fall camp and we don’t need to rush it to get everything done.”
There still isn’t a rush for Utah State, not with the 2023 opener still 41⁄2 months away. With every new departure, though, the roster shrinks, pressure rises and time gets shorter.