clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Quarterback competition one of many storylines to watch as Utah State opens spring camp

The Aggies get underway Tuesday afternoon and team-wide competition is expected

Utah State quarterback Henry Colombi runs with the ball as Boise State linebacker Demitri Washington (38) defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero, Associated Press

LOGAN — Earlier this year, Utah State head coach Gary Andersen took some time to reflect on the 2019 season. It was an up-and-down year in the eyes of many, Andersen included, but when he looked back he saw a team that was right in the middle of Mountain West Conference title race almost the entire year. He saw a team that played in seven games that came down to the final minutes and won five of them.

As he put it, he saw a team that was “extremely tough-minded.”

“I would look at them as a whole and say this was an extremely tough-minded team,” Andersen said. “We had some great opportunities. We had to make a run to get ourselves bowl eligible. We had to make a run to be able to stay in (championship) contention. We were right in it to go compete for the championship. That didn’t happen, but that was a very tough, tough, mentally tough team.”

A flawed team, though, and the push this spring is to overcome perhaps its greatest flaw, what was a lack of “extreme physicality.”

“We are a team that has to become physically more dominant week-in and week-out to play with teams that we play,” said Andersen. “We play teams that want to light up and smash you in the mouth. We have to prepare for that. It’s a big push in the offseason.”

What is the best way to inspire more physicality? That would be competition, according to Andersen, and spring camp will be all about it.

“When we brought in those 54 kids a year ago we wanted to create competition,” Andersen said. “There are going to be some seniors and juniors that have played a lot of football here that are going to have to hold off some freshmen. If they hold them off, congratulations to them. If they don’t, they are going to get beat out. That is the fun part of where we are going this spring and our kids all know that. I think this crew has a talent. It is going to be a fight and that is what we want in spring ball. I want 15 days, offense fighting defense at a very high level and a physical level. I want those position groups to be fighting against each other every day for spots.”

Competition promises to fuel many of the storylines that will follow Utah State football throughout the spring.

Here are some to keep an eye on.

The heir apparent to Jordan Love

The most talked about competition will surely be at quarterback. For nearly three years, Utah State was set at the position with Jordan Love at the helm. This spring, the Aggies will work to find his successor.

Andersen has called it a four-way battle between junior Henry Colombi, sophomore Andrew Peasley and redshirt freshmen Josh Calvin and Cooper Legas.

Colombi and Peasley have the edge in experience, though — Colombi has played in 13 games at Utah State and Peasley five — and entering spring camp it is Colombi who has the inside track to QB1 status.

“Right now, Henry is there because he has the upper hand,” said Andersen. “He’s had the reps.” There is also the fact that he’s been tested in actual game action, including against Wyoming and Boise State last season.

Utah State quarterback Henry Colombi (3) escapes the grasp of Hawaii defensive back Donovan Dalton (29) in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, in Honolulu.
Eugene Tanner, Associated Press

“Henry has stayed mentally ready,” Andersen said. “He’s ready. He sees it and he understands it, and I think he’s really playing it out in his mind, so that’s a credit to him.”

Peasley is no slouch himself and his athleticism, which Andersen called “elite,” gives him a fighting chance in the competition.

“There’s some unique athletic ability that we have with two of our quarterbacks,” said Andersen. “Andrew is one of them and Cooper is the other. They’re elite athletically as far as quarterbacks go.”

Which should make the battle for starting quarterback an interesting one.

“We can use both of those young men (Colombi and Peasley) as a vicious weapon,” Andersen said. “Does the offense drastically change one way or the other? That’s up to him (offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder) and his staff to figure that out.”

It is Andersen’s hope that both or even all the quarterbacks will find their way onto the field, one way or another, though he emphasized there will be a single starting quarterback.

“There’s a possible niche for those kids because they are different,” he said. “Looking at it from a defensive standpoint, if I have to deal with those kids in that spot, or there are two other guys that play different, it’s hard for me. It’s like playing against pace. Those things are difficult for defenses to prepare for.”

Battle at outside linebacker

There is expected to be fierce competition at linebacker, particularly on the outside. The Aggies have moved some key contributors from both the secondary and defensive line to outside linebacker ahead of spring ball, and their transition to the position, as well as the competition that will follow should go a long way to determining how good the group is.

And the Aggies need them to be good.

“The outside linebacker crew is really important to us,” Andersen said.

Air Force running back Kadin Remsberg, left, runs around the corner for a short gain as Utah State safety Troy Lefeged Jr. pursues in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, at Air Force Academy, Colo.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

Chief among the group is former safety Troy Lefeged Jr. and former defensive ends Nick Heninger, Elijah Shelton and AJ Vongphachanh.

Lefeged Jr. was USU’s leading tackler last season, with 104 wrap-ups, and he is expected to make an immediate impact at linebacker.

“Troy was a tremendous player for us last year,” said Andersen. “He is tough and physical, and is becoming a student of the game, which is, quite frankly the next step for him in his development. Troy is fearless. He’s a tremendous tackler, and he uses his physicality. He wants to be there, he wants to smack you every chance that he gets. Troy is really growing in that area, and will continue to do so.”

Heninger, meanwhile, was simply a playmaker at defensive end last season, after transferring to USU from Utah. He led the team with five sacks and finished with 32 tackles. Shelton (23 tackles) and Vongphachanh (17 tackles) saw time at both middle linebacker and defensive end last season, meanwhile, and will hope to earn more playing time this year.

“We have a nice mix of older and younger players in that position,” Andersen said. “It is going to be a fight and that is what we want.”

Who will step up at wide receiver?

The Aggies bring back nearly their entire corps of wide receivers, including All-American kick returner Savon Scarver and explosive slot receivers in Deven Thompkins and Jordan Nathan.

And yet, questions remain, because USU’s most effective receiver last season, by far, was Siaosi Mariner.

With him gone, the Aggies needed different wideouts to step up in a big way and spring ball will go a long way in determining which pass-catchers will do just that.

“They have a lot to prove and I think they are working towards that,” Andersen said. “We will see as we go through spring how they develop their toughness, physicality and playmaking ability.”

Utah State wide receiver Deven Thompkins (13) catches a pass as Stony Brook defensive back Gavin Heslop (1) defends during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

The most important receiver, according to Andersen, will be Scarver. The senior has the tools necessary to be great, he just needs to put it all together.

“Savon is going into his senior year,” said Andersen. “He has been tremendous as a kick returner, we all know that. He is one of the best of the best at that, and now he needs to show it at wide receiver. He has been really solid, but now we are expecting him to step up for us.”

Andersen is also expecting significant leaps from Sean Carter, Ajani Carter and Tim Patrick, each of whom has barely scratched the surface of their potential.

“Those are young guys who I think are ready to jump onto the scene,” said Andersen.

Perhaps the wideout most likely to star for the Aggies this year hasn’t even arrived yet, though.

That would be JUCO transfer Justin McGriff. The 6-foot-6 wide receiver is expected to contribute immediately once he arrives in the fall.

“We expect him to step in and be a difference-maker,” Andersen said. “He is expected to jump right into that crew in the fall.”

Youth movement along the defensive line and in the secondary

Competition for playing time will be widespread across the Aggies’ defense, particularly on the defensive line and in the secondary. That is because Utah State returns very few regular starters. In fact, only defensive end Justus Te’i and safety Shaq Bond started every game last season.

On the defensive line, that means there is rampant inexperience, though Andersen has high hopes.

“The defensive line is in the same scenario as so many of our other groups,” he said. “I like them by number, but we’ll have to see how they grow. It is going to come down to their ability to grow, mature and get that toughness. They need to battle like heck through spring.”

Buoying his hopes are defensive end Marcus Moore, a transfer from UCLA, and JUCO transfer James Hansen. Both are expected to come in and contribute immediately.

“Those two transfer kids were brought in here to play,” said Andersen.

Utah State cornerback Andre Grayson (21) breaks up a pass intended for Nevada wide receiver Elijah Cooks (4) as cornerback Cameron Haney (6) helps defend during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

Behind them are mostly underclassmen.

“We are youthful at the defensive end position, but talented,” said Andersen. “I’m excited to see what they can make happen, from those seniors down to those freshmen, as far as their mental toughness and their physical toughness. Especially those young kids, cause that’ll create some really fun competition at the defensive end spot.”

In the secondary, USU must find a way to replace senior cornerbacks Cam Haney and DJ Williams.

The bright spot there is that even though Cam Lampkin and Andre Grayson are young, both saw the field quite a bit last season.

“Cam played a lot last year,” said Andersen, “Grayson too.”

There is also hope that Terin Adams, a transfer from Arizona State, will live up to some of his potential.

“He has been on a good wave lately,” said Andersen. “I like where he is. When you transfer that late in the year that is very difficult, but he played in the Pac-12 at a fairly high level and now he understands who we are and what our program is.”

At safety, Bond is the experienced leader, while Jared Reed and Dominic Tatum are expected to battle for the starting spot next to him.

“We have some really young, but talented players,” said Andersen. “With our safeties and corners we have seven kids, whether they are a redshirt or not, who are freshmen. Two or three of those will be prepared to battle for a spot. If you just look at the safeties, it is going to be Bond, and then Reed and Dominic Tatum.”

A shuffled coaching staff

All the competition is interesting, but so is the shuffling done to the Aggies’ coaching staff.

Gone is former offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. In his place is Bodie Reeder, while Dave Schramm is the team’s new running backs coach.

On the defensive side of the ball, Justin Ena ceded defensive coordinator duties to Frank Maile and Stacy Collins, who coached tight ends and special teams, respectively, last season.

All the moves, and others not mentioned, were made with an eye on improving the team.

“We talked after the season about dissecting ourselves, starting with myself, and doing everything we can to move in the right direction, “ said Andersen. “So we made some decisions. They’re great decisions. They’re well-thought out.”

New Utah State football coordinators Frank Maile, left, Bodie Reeder and Stacy Collins, right, attend a press conference with head coach Gary Andersen on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Logan.
Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

Reeder comes in from North Texas and the expectation is that he will change the Aggies’ offense for the better.

“We want to take advantage of the guys that we have in the room,” Reeder said. “We want to play to the strengths of our offense. We’re going to have multiple tempos and multiple personnel, and make sure that we’re getting the ball to our playmakers in space in the correct fashion that they need to get it.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Maile and Collins should have a demonstrable impact and the defense is expected to look more like it did in 2018.

“We’re going to be a multiple odd front,” said Maile. “A 3-4 defense is what we’re going to be running, with the ability to get into some of the even fronts, with different coverages.”

“We really want to bring the attacking style of defense back,” added Collins. “Hard emphasis on the takeaways. Three-and-outs, get up, get ourselves off the field, get the offense a chance to get back on, change those paces, put the stress on other defenses, TFLs and sacks. Then playing great red zone defense, force some field goals down there, blocking those field goals. That’s our blueprint.”

Spring camp will be key to the implementation of all the changes, and Andersen expects that to be a success.

“These guys are all great leaders,” he said. “They can manage the defensive side of the football and they can manage the offensive side of the football, which in turn allows me to be the head coach that I need to be here at Utah State. I promise this whole staff is all-in on this and we’re ready for the battles that are ahead of us.”