On Saturday night, the Utah State Aggies will officially kick off their version of the 2020 football season when they take on the Boise State Broncos in Boise, Idaho.
After an offseason unlike any other, USU football has almost arrived.
Which begs the question: Who exactly will take the field for the Aggies against the Broncos?
That question was answered Monday morning, mostly, when the team released its first official depth chart of the season.
A quick scan shows several things of note on the Aggies’ initial two-deep:
Quarterbacks 1A and 1B
Whether or not it is fair to the big guys in the trenches — where everyone agrees football games are won and lost — everything always starts with the quarterbacks.
And for the first time since Jordan Love declared for the NFL draft, Utah State officially has a No. 1 signal-caller.
Utah transfer Jason Shelley will be the team’s starting quarterback against the Broncos, with Andrew Peasley serving as his primary backup, followed by Cooper Legas.
“He has come a long ways since being around the team,” Andersen said in his weekly press conference with reporters. “He has done a good job.”
Shelley’s hold on the starting job isn’t absolute, though. Andersen emphasized that the job isn’t Shelley’s on a permanent basis, and Peasley is expected to get playing time.
Question marks abound on the offensive line
How well either Shelley or Peasley perform this season will largely come down to the play of the Aggies’ offensive line, and it is a line rife with question marks.
The only position that has a definitive starter is right guard — Karter Shaw is slated to start there. Otherwise, there is no surefire lineman listed at left tackle, left guard, center or right tackle.
USU’s offensive line was a major weakness a season ago, defined by its youth and inexperience, and that was largely expected to change this year.
As of right now, though, not much has been determined about the group, other than that you can be sure to see Alfred Edward, Andy Koch and Demytrick Ali’ifua play meaningful snaps somewhere, along with Jacob South, Falepule Alo and Jackson Owens.
You might even seen Koch play four different positions along the line.
“Who knows where he’ll play,” said Andersen.
Andersen is optimistic, though, despite the many questions that still need answering.
“There have been a lot of guys in and out, back and forth,” he said. “The stable of that crew, most of whom were very young a year ago and are still very young, have been fun to watch. They are growing up around each other and learning to play different positions. Their attitudes have been very good. “
A deep running back corps
There was time this offseason when the Aggies’ running back position was viewed as a significant weakness.
That is no longer even remotely the case.
With Jaylen Warren — a Deseret News’ Mr. Football award winner — at the top, followed by Utah graduate transfer Devontae Henry-Cole and Hunter High alumnus Pailate Makakona — Henry-Cole and Warren are listed together at No. 1 on the depth chart, with Makakona No. 3 — and finally true freshman John Gentry, the Aggies almost have a surplus of running backs.
Warren and Henry-Cole are the headliners — Warren rushed for 569 yards and five touchdowns a year ago, while Henry-Cole rushed for 469 yards and four scores over the course of his 25-game Ute career — but if you throw in freshman Elelyon Noa, USU has four or five ball carriers who could play any given week.
“The running back position has been very, very competitive,” Andersen said. “I think we have as many as four or five running backs that we could put into a game. It has been fun to watch those kids compete. The way they compete, the way that coach (Dave) Schramm has handled them, they compete, but there aren’t a bunch of attitudes. They are battling and putting their best forward. I’m excited to see what they bring to the table.”
Peasley echoed Andersen’s sentiments, noting that the running back group is the team’s most improved, in his opinion.
“The running backs have definitely taken a step (in fall camp),” said Peasley. “We have been able to run the ball really well.”
An unproven defensive line
On defense, the Aggies appear to be much more set when it comes to who will start and the overall hierarchy on the roster. Only two positions, the starter at nickelback and backup cornerback, are still up in the air, with competition ongoing.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the defense is a completely known commodity. At the outset of fall camp, Andersen noted the defensive line was one of his biggest areas of concern, and that remains the case even with Justus Te’i, Ritisoni Fata and UCLA transfer Marcus Moore designated as starters.
As it is, only Te’i and Fata having played meaningful snaps for USU, and while Fata, affectionately know at ‘Soni by those on the team, is healthy, all eyes are on Te’i.
“He has been a huge part of what we are trying to get done,” Andersen said. “Just with the cohesiveness of a defensive line that is new, for the most part. Soni is back and healthy, which is great, and Marcus is playing on the other side, but he is new to our program. It is (Justus’) job to hold everyone accountable.”
Secondary the strength of the team
While there are questions along the defensive front, few questions exist in regards to the secondary.
Sure, starting nickelback is still be determined, with Andre Grayson and Jared Reed battling for the job. Then there is the fact that ASU transfer Terin Adams, who was expected to be a key contributor at corner, has entered the transfer portal. Oh, and safety C.J. Pollard, a transfer from USC, is no longer listed on the roster.
Overall, though, there is no stronger group on the team this year than the back end on defense, with Shaq Bond and Troy Lefeged Jr. starting at safety and Cam Lampkin and Zahodri Jackson at cornerback.
“I really like the competitiveness and toughness of our back end,” said Andersen. “We had some issues with kids staying healthy, but they’ve made great progress.”
Are special teams still special?
USUs special teams have been one of the team’s greatest strengths in recent years, with Lou Groza Award semifinalist Dominik Eberle at placekicker, All-American Savon Scarver at kick returner and Jordan Nathan at punt returner.
Scarver and Nathan are both back in those roles, in addition to wide receiver duties, but Eberle has moved on to greener pastures, having exhausted his eligibility.
Junior Connor Coles is slated as his replacement and Andersen has confidence in him, despite his inexperience.
“Dom is a big hit, we all know that, but Connor has done a really good job kicking the ball,” Andersen said. “Our snapper, holder and kicker all work in unison and Connor has been on a roll recently, but he will be tested.
“But I feel good about them. I feel good about all our kickers. It is a big loss of a great player and now it is time for Connor to step up and we will give him opportunities to roll. He has to he ready for it.”