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Why Utah State’s Justus Te’i is leaning on his fellow defensive linemen, even as he is expected to lead

Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna tries to elude Utah State defensive back Justus Te’i during the first half of a Mountain West Conferencd football game in Fresno, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. 
Gary Kazanjian, AP

LOGAN — Fifth year senior Justus Te’i should be one of Utah State’s best defensive players in 2020-21.

The defensive end is the only returning starter along the Aggies’ defensive line, after all, and a good one at that. Te’i started all 13 games last season and finished seventh on the team with 51 tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. He also had a team-best three fumble recoveries, which ranked first in the Mountain West Conference and sixth in the nation (0.23 per game).

Throw in a wealth of experience — Te’i has played in 12 or more games in three seasons in Logan, and appeared in four games in 2018 during his redshirt year — and it is not surprising that there are high expectations for the 6-3, 255 pound lineman from Oceanside, California.

“Expect him to be a really good player for us,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen said.

More than just that, though, Te’i is expected to lead the Aggies in the trenches.

“That crew is going to be led by Justus,” explained Andersen.

It is a role that Te’i isn’t all that familiar with. For much of his career he has been able to go about his business, working on his body and technique while others led.

Throw in the fact that the Aggies are shifting from a 4-3 defense to more of a 3-4, a defense Te’i isn’t especially comfortable with, and he will be the first to admit that the transition to a leadership role hasn’t been easy.

“It has been a transition, for sure,” he said.

That is where his fellow defensive linemen come in.

While Te’i is expected to lead come the fall, he has leaned heavily on some of his fellow seniors, including Jake Pitcher, Caden Andersen and Ritisoni Fata, during the spring,

Each of the three has seen considerably less time on the field at Utah State than Te’i.

Boise State tight end John Bates (85) runs with the ball as Utah State defensive tackle Caden Andersen (94) pursues during the first half of a Mountain West football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Logan.
Eli Lucero, Associated Press

Pitcher, a former Sky View Bobcat, has played in 12 total games in his career. Andersen and Fata, meanwhile, have appeared in 25 and 26 games, respectively, in their time at Utah State.

All have less playing experience than Te’i, by at least a season, but Pitcher, Fata and Andersen are all more comfortable with the 3-4 defense, going back to high school. Their collective experience in that regard has been a boon for Te’i as he has grown into his new role.

“I think the biggest thing about this transition is that I have other seniors with me,” Te’i said. “Especially in this kind of defense that we are going to be in, where they are more experienced than I am. They’ve actually been a big help to me.”

Collectively, the group has already set out to correct many of the wrongs they felt they committed a season ago.

“We’ve adjusted a lot of things that we felt we did wrong last year,” Te’i said. “We are making it a huge emphasis this year to not make those same mistakes.”

Co-defensive coordinator Frank Maile has been essential to that process.

“There was different teaching from last year to this year, but I think the guys that have been here are catching up,” Maile said. “We are talented, we are young, but I am excited about them. I think we are going to be really good, as long as I can get them to take steps forward every day.”

Te’i has taken well to Maile’s coaching — “Coach Frank is a great coach to be learning under,” he said — and while he still has a ways to go, with the help of Andersen, Fata and Pitcher, he expects to only get better and better.

“I am getting more comfortable,” Te’i said. “I am excited to get better.”