LOGAN — The face might be familiar, but it’s definitely not 2009 anymore.
When Gary Andersen initially arrived in Logan to take over the Utah State football program, the Aggies hadn’t won more than five games in a season in 11 years. But during his first four years as the head football coach at USU, Andersen slowly managed to change the culture and put a winning team on the field, guiding the Aggies to seven wins in 2011 and 11 victories in 2012.
That success translated into higher-profile jobs at Wisconsin and Oregon State, while former Aggie quarterback and Anderson’s former assistant Matt Wells took over at his alma mater, and, for the most part, continued the program’s trajectory, winning 44 games over six seasons.
Andersen and Wells have now reversed roles. While Wells is now entrenched at Texas Tech after signing a six-year $18.8 million contract, Andersen is now back at the helm of the Aggies. Only this time, rather than facing the challenge of building a winning program from scratch, the 55-year-old is charged with maintaining the momentum of USU’s recording-breaking run in 2018.
It’s hard to imagine that the Aggies will be able to match or exceed last year’s 11-2 campaign that ended with a victory in the New Mexico Bowl and a No. 22 ranking in the final AP poll. But there’s also no reason to think that Utah State won’t be a serious contender for a Mountain West title again in 2019.
Here are five compelling storylines to watch as the Aggies head into fall camp:
Does Love really conquer all?
Redshirt junior Jordan Love is back at quarterback, and the Bakersfield, California, native spent part of his summer at the prestigious Manning Passing Academy while his name kept showing up on all sorts of preseason and future NFL Draft watch lists. That’s what completing 267-of-417 passes for 3,567 yards and 32 touchdowns will do for you.
Love’s talent and abilities are unquestionable, but the caveat is that the Mountain West Preseason Offensive Player of the Year comes into 2019 having lost his head coach, offensive coordinator, most of his offensive line and a whole lot of weapons, including his top three receivers from last season.
Love clearly had a great rapport with former OC David Yost and had the opportunity to work for two straight years with the same coordinator, a rarity for an Aggie quarterback in recent years. But Andersen did Love right by bringing in Mike Sanford, who excelled as an OC at Notre Dame and Boise State, so there’s little reason to think Utah State won’t be able to excel offensively once again if they can replace the passing game production lost due to the departure of key targets like Ron’Quavion Tarver and Dax Raymond.
Superstar kick returner Savon Scarver should play a bigger role as a receiver in 2019, while junior Jordan Nathan had 28 catches a year ago and bringing in veteran Utah WR Siaosi Mariner should surely help.
Love won’t necessarily be asked to do more with less, thanks to what could be an improved defense. Rather, his leadership and playmaking ability late in games will mean far more than matching last year’s unworldly offensive numbers.
Where do you draw the line?
Much of the reason for Love’s success last year — as well as that of running backs Devon Bright and Darwin Thompson — was due to the extremely talented offensive line that Wells put together over a two-year period. But Thompson is now a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, while all but one starter on the offensive line from 2018 is gone.
Sophomore Alfred Edwards, who made 11 starts at left tackle, is the lone holdover. However, a couple of seasons ago, Wells became determined not to lose the entire unit at once every couple of years and started to mix more playing time for young linemen like Demytrick Ali'ifua, Heneli Avendano, Ty Shaw, Kyler Hack, Karter Shaw and Jacob South with the established veterans. In addition, the Aggies played in a lot of blowouts last season, and the new four-game redshirt rule allowed USU to get even more snaps in for the underclassmen on the offensive line.
The real question, though, is can this new O-line develop the kind of swagger that last year’s group had? Center Quin Ficklin emerged as a vocal leader from the moment he transferred north from BYU, while he, Roman Andrus, Robert Castaneda, et al., thrived while playing at the breakneck pace set by Yost.
Who else is going to emerge as a playmaker on defense?
The Aggies boast the formidable 1-2 punch of junior linebacker (and 2018 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year) David Woodward (134 tackles) and senior defensive end Tipa Galeai (10.5 sacks), but there are still a lot of holes to fill on the defense, most notably in the secondary.
Utah State led the nation in turnovers forced last season (22 interceptions, 10 fumbles), but the players who came up with half of those interceptions have graduated. Senior cornerback DJ Williams totaled four picks and 42 tackles in 2018, but he’ll need some help from the likes of junior corner Ja’Marcus Ingram and junior safety Shaq Bond, who were both limited by injuries last season.
How will the Aggies handle a more challenging schedule in 2019?
Topping last season’s record seems to be an impossibility, especially at home, where the Aggies faced most of their lesser opponents. Utah State won its six home games by an average margin of 60-21, allowing fans the option to head for home shortly after halftime. But with the likes of Colorado State, BYU and Mountain West favorite Boise State coming to Cache Valley in 2019, USU fans better just planning on hanging out at Maverik Stadium for all four quarters most nights.
And where Utah State benefitted from playing West Division foes San Jose State, Hawaii and UNLV a year ago, the Aggies will host Nevada and travel to San Diego State and Fresno State in ’19. They also have two road games at Power Five schools: Aug. 30 at Wake Forest, and Oct. 5 at LSU.
Considering that the Tigers show up in the top five of some preseason publications, the game against the Demon Deacons certainly seems more winnable. But then, the Aggies played at Wake Forest back in 2017 and were soundly humbled, 46-10.
Of course, USU fans did get a glimpse of the future in that loss when then-freshman Jordan Love came on in relief of starting QB Kent Myers and threw a 75-yard touchdown pass on his second attempt.
Can Gary Andersen recapture the magic?
Where is Andersen at now, emotionally and professionally? His exit from Oregon State in 2017 was rather awkward, but he seems absolutely thrilled and energized to be back at the place he first found success as a head football coach. He’s obviously comfortable with the situation, and yet things have changed. Andersen’s final season at USU was the Aggies’ last in the WAC, while Wells led the way for Utah State’s first six seasons as a member of the Mountain West.
And during his first go-around, Aggie fans were extremely patient with Andersen despite winning just eight total games during his first two seasons. That faith paid off handsomely, but thanks to the strength of the program Andersen built, expectations are also completely different — and perhaps unreasonably high — for him this time around.