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Utah State is making a change at QB. Here’s why true freshman McCae Hillstead will be starting

Hillstead will replace Cooper Legas as Aggies’ starting quarterback beginning with this week’s game against James Madison, coach Blake Anderson says

SHARE Utah State is making a change at QB. Here’s why true freshman McCae Hillstead will be starting
Air Force defensive lineman Caden Blum (87) and defensive end Daniel Grobe (95) pressure Utah State quarterback McCae Hillstead.

Air Force defensive linemen pressure Utah State quarterback McCae Hillstead during game at Air Force, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. The true freshman Hillstead will make his first college start next Saturday against James Madison, Aggies coach Blake Anderson said on Monday.

Christian Murdock, The Gazette via Associated Press

There is a change at the quarterback position for Utah State after the Aggies’ conference-opening loss to Air Force last week.

Head coach Blake Anderson told reporters Monday that true freshman McCae Hillstead is the team’s starting quarterback going forward, with a visit from James Madison looming on Saturday.

The former Skyridge High star replaced a struggling Cooper Legas in the 39-21 loss to Air Force last Thursday and led the Aggies on three scoring drives after another slow start squelched any hopes of Utah State winning its Mountain West Conference opener.

“He did not put the ball in harm’s way, he kept his eyes downfield,” Anderson said of Hillstead, after watching film of last week’s loss. “He made quick decisions … moved the chains with his feet, was not afraid of the moment and I think he will only get better with the reps he’s going to get as a starter.”

Hillstead entered the Air Force game early in the second quarter after Utah State fell behind 29-0. He ended up completing 18 of 27 passes for three touchdowns, and perhaps most importantly, didn’t turn the ball over, while also rushing for 6 yards on seven carries.

Legas turned the ball over twice in just over a quarter of play against the Falcons — once on a fumble, and another on an interception in Air Force territory. Those turnovers led to two Air Force touchdowns.

Anderson said Legas’ decision-making and lack of confidence facilitated a change.

Legas, a senior out of Orem High, completed just 2 of 7 passes for 46 yards before getting benched against Air Force. He was sacked once — Legas lost a fumble on that play deep in Utah State territory — and finished with three carries for minus-10 yards.

“I felt like Coop was indecisive and fidgety in the pocket,” Anderson said, while citing a few examples that showcased Legas’ struggles against Air Force. “He was late getting the ball out on the fumble — the ball should have been out much earlier. That ball that was floated down the middle was not a confident throw, it should have been picked off. We’re lucky it hit the turf. The interception was not very confident, a poor decision based off a look he’s seen a million times. 

“For whatever reason, he’s not comfortable in the pocket right now.”

That continued a concerning trend of slow starts for Utah State this season. Through the first three games, the Aggies have been outscored 43-7 in the first quarter.

Once Hillstead was inserted in the game, Utah State outscored the Falcons 21-10. After the Aggies punted the ball on their first drive with Hillstead under center, Utah State scored touchdowns on three of its final four possessions.

“What I saw from McCae was quick decisions, working through progressions, making good decisions on things that he’s had reps of,” Anderson said. “Now, he missed some things as well — he missed pressures that he should have protected and picked up and read differently.” 

Anderson said Hillstead previously was receiving about 20% of the reps but that will change with the QB switch, allowing the freshman more opportunities to learn and hopefully progress.

“There were honestly things I haven’t really had a chance to give him reps of and really teach him through, considering he’s only been getting about 20% of the reps — at most on a given week maybe about 30% of the reps,” Anderson said.

“I think those are things that with reps, he will get better at and things he’ll have better answers for moving forward.”

With Hillstead on the field, Utah State converted 3 of 7 third-down attempts, including his first touchdown pass, a 2-yarder to Terrell Vaughn on third-and-goal.

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Hillstead also rattled off an 18-yard run on his first touchdown drive and completed passes of 21, 24 and 31 yards during the game. 

Both the 24 and 31-yard passes went to Micah Davis, with the former converting a third-and-2 and leading to a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jalen Royals on a third-quarter possession. 

Hillstead’s 31-yard pass to Davis set up a 6-yard touchdown pass, also to Davis, for Utah State’s final score of the game in the fourth quarter.

“I think we’ve got the skill players around McCae to allow his skill set and the confidence that he has in delivering the ball across the field — it gives us the best opportunity to win,” Anderson said.

Hillstead will be the eighth true freshman to start at quarterback for Utah State and the first since Bishop Davenport started against Wyoming last season.

Kent Myers (five starts in 2014), Darrell Garretson (seven, 2013), Chuckie Keeton (eight, 2011), Riley Nelson (six, 2006), Jerod Walker (two, 2005) and Jeff Crosbie (four, 1998) have also started at least one game at QB as a true freshman for the Aggies.

Given the physical nature of football, Anderson anticipates that Legas will need to be ready if called on again to lead the Utah State offense.

“I’m going to keep coaching him through it. He’s going to have to play again at some point,” Anderson said of Legas. “The chance of McCae getting all the way through every snap the rest of the season is pretty low.”

Legas started eight games for the Aggies last season and was the team’s starter through the first three games. 

On the year, Legas has completed 67.6% of his passes for 384 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions while also running 25 yards on 16 carries.

“Coop needs to be ready,” Anderson said.

On this week’s depth chart, Legas is listed as the backup behind Hillstead, with Levi Williams, a Wyoming transfer, third string.

After last week’s game, Anderson said Hillstead’s skill set and decision-making was what led the coach to replace Legas with the true freshman instead of the junior Williams. Williams briefly made an appearance in the Air Force game in a few goal-line snaps before Hillstead returned to throw his first touchdown of the night.

“I hate being in the situation we’re in but it’s my job to assess it and move forward as I think it fits our team the best and gives us the best chance to win right now,” Anderson said.

Utah State will host James Madison on Saturday at 6 p.m. MDT, with the game televised on KJZZ. The Dukes are 3-0 on the season, beat the ACC’s Virginia in Week 2 and are coming off a close victory over Troy in their Sun Belt Conference opener.

Following that game, the Aggies will play at UConn on Sept. 30 before getting back into MWC play for the remainder of the season with a home matchup against Colorado State on Oct. 7.

Hillstead is the highest-rated high school quarterback signee for Utah State in 247 Sports’ recruiting rankings that go back to the turn of the century. He was also the highest-rated QB in the state of Utah’s 2023 recruiting class, according to 247 Sports’ composite rankings, ahead of BYU signee Ryder Burton of Springville High.

At Skyridge, he threw for nearly 7,000 yards and 74 touchdowns over three seasons as the Falcons’ starter, even while missing six games last year due to injury. Hillstead also rushed for 1,800 yards and 35 touchdowns in his high school career.

He returned in time to lead Skyridge to the 6A state title last season, completing 66.7% of his passes during his three playoff appearances for 668 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception. Hillstead outdueled 2024 Utah commit Isaac Wilson in the 6A state championship game, as Skyridge beat Corner Canyon 17-7.

Hillstead signed early with Utah State and enrolled in spring semester at the school.

Less than a year later, he’ll be starting for the Aggies.

“For now, we’re going to put McCae out there and do everything we can to help him be successful,” Anderson said. “If he’ll make decisions quickly as he did the other night, be confident in those choices and protect the football, it gives us the chance to win. That’s really his responsibility.”

Skyridge Falcons QB McCae Hillstead (wearing white) throws the ball

Skyridge Falcons QB McCae Hillstead (7) throws the ball while playing the Corner Canyon Chargers in the 6A football state championship game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. The former Skyridge star will make his first start for Utah State against James Madison.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News