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How Blake Anderson built his first Utah State recruiting class around transfers

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New Utah State head football coach Blake Anderson addresses the media after being introduced at a press conference Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, inside the West Stadium Center at Maverik Stadium in Logan.

Jeff Hunter

More than half of Blake Anderson’s first recruiting class as Utah State’s head football coach came via the transfer route.

It was, in large part, necessitated by a short amount of time to get the class together after Anderson was officially announced as the team’s new coach on Dec. 12, days before the early signing period.

Still, the work put in for a 19-member class that was officially unveiled Wednesday showed the importance of relationships in the recruiting game. That was particularly true with the high number of transfers — 11 in all — joining the Aggie program.

“I think we have to see what success we have with the transfers we’ve brought in, see how they blend with the team and how they fit in our culture and then make decisions going forward.” — Utah State coach Blake Anderson

“The transfer portal and how things maneuver moving forward is unchartered territory,” Anderson said. “This is somewhere we’ve not been before. I think we have to see what success we have with the transfers we’ve brought in, see how they blend with the team and how they fit in our culture and then make decisions going forward.” 

He was also complimentary of his staff’s work in bringing the class together in a short amount of time. 

“I think there’s a ton to sell here,” the coach said. “Staff members put in the time and energy to outwork others in the recruiting process.” 

Of the 19 members of the Aggies’ 2021 recruiting class, 15 are currently enrolled at Utah State for the 2021 spring semester. That class includes 10 four-year transfers (six from Power Five programs), one junior college signee, five high school signees, and three returned missionaries. Nine of the four-year transfers are enrolled in the spring semester.

Anderson outlined several of the relationships that helped the Aggies land so many transfers.

The Arkansas State connection

First, there were the three players that followed their coach from his previous head coaching position at Arkansas State: quarterback Logan Bonner, wide receiver Brandon Bowling and linebacker Justin Rice.

Anderson described his longstanding relationship with Bonner, who will be a junior and bring the most Division I experience to the USU quarterback room. Anderson recruited him out of high school and recalled the emotion the two shared when Bonner told Anderson of his intention to transfer from Arkansas State, before Anderson landed the coaching job at Utah State.

“When I took this job, the opportunity for him to come here was, to me, a perfect fit. He jumped at that opportunity,” Anderson said.

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Arkansas State quarterback Logan Bonner passes against Georgia during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Athens, Ga.

John Amis, Associated Press

Bowling and Bonner were roommates at Arkansas State, and that, too, was a natural fit. Anderson said Bowling, who will be a senior, was unsure whether he’d utilize the free year of eligibility from the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but when Anderson brought along his wide receiving coach, Kyle Cefalo, over from ASU, it made Bowling’s decision easier to join the USU program.

Rice, unlike the other two, was a transplant at Arkansas State last year, thanks to the uncertainty of playing because of the pandemic. Previous to that, he had been an All-Mountain West performer at Fresno State, and when Rice was assessing his next step, the opportunity of not having to adjust to a new coaching staff was a determining factor, Anderson said.

“I didn’t recruit those guys. I wanted it to happen naturally,” Anderson said. “I encouraged every one of those players to go back to Arkansas State and see how things go. But these three guys were clearly not going back, were going to move on with their careers, and we’re really lucky to have them here with us.”

Other strong connections

Former Oregon State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. is the one transfer who isn’t enrolled at USU in the spring semester; Anderson said he will join the team in a couple months. It was Tyler’s relationship with former Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton that helped him land in Logan. Keeton was on staff at Oregon State when the back arrived there, and now Keeton is the Aggies’ running backs coach.

“They had a great relationship there. It just made a lot of sense that when he decided to leave, he reached out to Chuckie — he and his family — and really didn’t open up his recruiting a whole lot,” Anderson said.

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Oregon State running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (2) dives out of bound to stop the clock against Utah during the second half of an NCAA college football game Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

In the case of former Kansas cornerback Kyle Mayberry, Anderson recruited him out of high school, they kept in touch and even followed each other on social media.

“When he graduated and put his name in the portal, it was a great opportunity to get back in on him,” Anderson said.

Utah State’s addition of defensive end Patrick Joyner Jr., a transfer from the ACC’s Miami, had connections to his coaching staff, too. Joyner knew USU defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda during their time together in the Hurricanes program. 

Those are just a few of the stories of how connections helped build this class. 

Assessing the class, and looking to the future

Building up the Aggies’ lines was a top priority of this class, and that included six transfers (one at the junior college level) who play either on the offensive or defensive lines.

Anderson also found a good group of transfers who wouldn’t just be one-and-done in Logan: five of the Division I transfers have more than one year of eligibility remaining (three juniors and two sophomores).

“(We) didn’t promise any guys starting positions, we promised them opportunities to compete for one,” Anderson said. “... We targeted the positions specifically because we felt like there was a need, but it’s their job to come in and compete.”

Anderson said he wants USU to have in-state talent be the foundation of the program’s recruiting efforts, even if that wasn’t a big part of this year’s class — four of the five high school signees in 2021 are from Utah schools. In that vein, Anderson said there are already upwards of 20 offers out to Utah high school players in the 2022 class.

For now, the immediacy is getting the newest class acclimated to a new environment in Logan. 

“We really stressed faith, family and a fun environment of football,” Anderson said of what his staff’s recruiting pitch included. 

Personality-wise and how they fit within the program, Anderson felt confident they’ve found the right players.

“They wanted to be a part of a family. They wanted to be challenged,” he said.

Utah State 2021 recruiting class

High school signees

  • Martavious Davis — WR, 5-10, 160 — Attala, Alabama (Etowah High)
  • Ike Larson DB, 5-11, 160 — Smithfield (Sky View High)
  • Tupou Maile — DE, 6-3, 230 — South Jordan (Bingham High)
  • Jackson Rigby — TE, 6-4, 200 — Kaysville (Davis High)
  • Otto Tia — WR, 6-3, 205 — Layton (Northridge High)

Four-year transfers

  • Logan Bonner — QB, 6-1, 220, Jr. — Rowlett, Texas (Arkansas State)
  • Brandon Bowling — WR, 5-9, 190, Sr. — McKinney, Texas (Arkansas State)
  • Byron Hobbs Vaughn — DE, 6-4, 245, Soph. — Fort Worth, Texas (Texas)
  • Patrick Joyner Jr. — DE, 6-2, 225, Soph. — Homestead, Florida (Miami)
  • Maisen Knight — OL, 6-4, 300, Sr. — Salt Lake City (Liberty)
  • Jahaziel Lee — DL, 6-2, 305, Sr. — Ponchatoula, Louisiana (Georgia Tech)
  • Kyle Mayberry — DB, 5-11, 180, Sr. — Tulsa, Oklahoma (Kansas)
  • Justin Rice — LB, 6-2, 225, Sr. — Modesto, California (Arkansas State)
  • Calvin Tyler Jr. — RB, 5-8, 215, Jr. — Beaumont, Texas (Oregon State)
  • Quazzel White — OL, 6-3, 315, Jr. — Tacoma, Washington (TCU)

Junior college transfer

  • Aurion Peoples — DL, 6-3, 290, Jr. — Lancaster, California (College of the Canyons)

Returned missionaries

  • Johnson Hansen — DL, 6-3, 270 — Salt Lake City (East High)
  • Sione Moa — LB, 6-1, 210 — Ogden (Weber High)
  • Seni Tuiaki — DL, 6-2, 250 — Salt Lake City (East High)