LOGAN — For the second consecutive season, Utah State needs to find a way to replace the production of a very valuable running back.
Last year, the back that needed replacing was Darwin Thompson, who rushed for 1,044 yards and 14 touchdowns in his single season as an Aggie before going on to win a Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Utah State replaced Thompson as best they could in 2019, with the duo of Gerold Bright and Jaylen Warren. Bright was effective as a senior and rushed for a team-high 921 yards and nine touchdowns, while also recording 230 receiving yards and a score. Warren, for his part, rushed for 569 yards and five touchdowns in an injury-marred season, his first at Utah State after transferring from Snow College.
The duo of Bright and Warren proved a successful combination, but with Bright’s eligibility up, USU once again has to find a way to replace its most productive back.
How the Aggies plan to go about doing that, on the surface, is rather simple.
“It is going to be running back by committee,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen said.
Who will be a part of that committee is less matter-of-fact, but the easiest inclusion is Warren. The Deseret News’ Mr. Football in 2016 and 2018 NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year, Warren showed flashes of brilliance last season, including his 141-yard performance in the season opener against Wake Forest. He rushed for 105 yards and two scores the next week, against Stony Brook, and became the first Aggie ever to rush for 100-plus yards in back-to-back games to start their career.
Warren is “the guy” heading into spring football, understandably so.
“Jaylen is the main guy, obviously,” Andersen said. “He has the most experience.”
Behind him is a real lack of experience, and spring camp will go a long way in determining who is ahead of whom on the depth chart come fall.
The Aggies have a trio of talented true freshmen in Elelyon Noa, John Gentry and Isaiah Afatasi. Noa is the all-time leading rusher at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, California, the alma mater of former USC star Reggie Bush. Gentry, meanwhile, is one of the highest rated commits in program history, whose recruitment “was a battle to the very end,” said Andersen. Then there is the local star Isaiah Afatasi, who prepped at Kearns High School. All three are expected to battle for reps behind Warren, with Noa slightly ahead of Gentry and Afatasi at the moment.
“I think we have two, three really talented freshmen backs, so we’ll see how they go,” Andersen said. “Noa has a little bit of a head up on the others because he is here, but they are all really good players who will be here with us are excited to compete.”
Outside of the freshmen, there is Pailate Makakona, a JUCO transfer from Colorado Mesa University. The Hunter High alumnus is expected to get a lot of reps in spring camp.
“I am impressed with what he has done. He will get a ton of work in spring,” said Andersen.
Senior Chase Nelson, a former Logan High Grizzly, rounds out the depth chart, at least for now. As mentioned on signing day, the Aggies are scouring the transfer portal for another back.
“We are still looking for one more,” Andersen said. “Wherever that young man comes from, we will consider him a difference-maker, if we find that guy.”
Competition at running back is expected to go through spring camp and into the fall, and Andersen is intrigued with how it will all play out.
“Everyone who will be here with us is excited to compete,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how those battles go.”