Five storylines to watch as the Utah State Aggies open spring camp
The Blake Anderson era kicks off in earnest Monday as Utah State begins spring camp. There are questions and storylines aplenty for the Aggies after the dismal 2020-21 season
The 2020-21 season was one to forget for Utah State.
The Aggies struggled mightily on the field and off it, too, and there is no need to rehash those struggles here. Last season was simply a nightmare scenario for the USU football program, but a new era has begun, under the direction of head coach Blake Anderson.
Anderson arrived in Logan in December, and if Utah State athletic director John Hartwell is to be believed, Anderson has the kind of credentials needed to turn the USU program around.
“You can talk to coaches — both current and former — across the country, and they rave about Blake Anderson the football coach. But people really, really talk about Blake Anderson the person,” Hartwell said. “And I think those qualities that he brings to Utah State — as a winner on and off the field and as a developer of young men — put Blake heads and shoulders above the rest of our candidates and made him a very easy choice to be the next head coach at Utah State University.”
Starting Monday and continuing through April 19, observers will be afforded the first real look at the Aggies under Anderson, as Utah State kicks off spring camp. All practices — 15 in total — will be held at the Stan Laub Indoor Football Complex or on Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium. All practices at Maverik Stadium are open to the public, but practices held inside will be closed.
Here are five storylines to follow over the course of the next month:
Will Logan Bonner be the starting quarterback? If not him, who?
It wouldn’t be a discussion about college football if quarterbacks weren’t mentioned. The position is the most glamorous in the sport, and the obsession of fans, pundits and coaches alike. And right now, Utah State has a bit of uncertainty at quarterback, which only makes the conversation all the more interesting.
Utah State has six quarterbacks listed on the roster entering camp — juniors Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley, and sophomores Cooper Legas, Josh Calvin, Garrett Larson and Crew Wakley.
Of the six, only Bonner and Peasley have seen playing time at the collegiate level and only Bonner has any degree of familiarity with Anderson and his system.
One of many transfers to the program — more on them in a bit — Bonner threw for 3,150 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions in four seasons at Arkansas State. Last season alone he threw for 1,863 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions, while sharing quarterback duties with Layne Hatcher.
Anderson was loyal to Bonner while the pair were at A-State. After Bonner suffered a season-ending thumb injury four games into the 2019 season, Anderson made it known the following offseason that he would not lose the starting quarterback job because of injury.
“Nothing’s changed,” Anderson told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “The guy was playing probably as good as anybody in the country when he went down. As good as Layne came in and played in his absence and did everything we asked him to do — and we don’t win eight games without him — Logan’s still the starting quarterback till somebody beats him out.”
Anderson went on to describe Bonner as “clearly one of the best (quarterbacks) in the country,” and on National Signing Day in early February, he called him “a perfect fit” for the USU program.
All signs point to Bonner being named the team’s starting quarterback, but Anderson didn’t promise him the job, which means a competition will take place this spring.
(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.”
To that point, quarterback play left a lot to be desired last season, though Peasley did show flashes and Legas has his supporters. Peasley is used to competing for playing time after battling with Jason Shelley last season, so if anyone can wrest the starting job away from Bonner it would be him.
The search for Jaylen Warren’s replacement
Speaking of positions of need, Utah State had a glaring hole at running back last season after Jaylen Warren elected to transfer from the program, eventually moving on to Oklahoma State.
When he suited up for the Aggies — injuries were a regular issue for the former Deseret News Mr. Football — Warren was arguably the team’s best offensive weapon. After his departure, Devonta’e Henry-Cole, John Gentry, Pailate Makakona and Elelyon Noa attempted to pick up the slack, with limited success.
Noa and Gentry engendered perhaps the most optimism — Gentry remains one of USU’s highest rated recruits ever — but Utah State still brought in Oregon State transfer back Calvin Tyler Jr., though he has not enrolled yet.
Calvin Tyler Jr. ... into the end zone!— Oregon State Football News (@BeaverFBNews) December 6, 2020
Utah lead is cut to 6, 16-10.
Watch: https://t.co/YwHhgvureg#GoBeavs pic.twitter.com/PlFwfNRzUK
Tyler’s relationship with running backs coach Chuckie Keeton brought him to USU — “They had a great relationship there,” Anderson said. “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.” — but spring camp will be about finding out who else the Aggies have in the running back room.
Henry-Cole might be the leader in that regard. The graduate transfer finished the season with 229 all-purpose yards, fourth-most on the team and carried the ball 41 times for 180 yards (4.4 yards. per carry).
If not him, Gentry or Noa appear to be the best options to complement Tyler, and the Aggies will need complementary pieces.
Offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker has had considerable success running the ball in his career, particularly at UCF. Under his direction, the Knights’ running game produced the best three-year stretch in school history, rushing for 3,448 yards (265.2 yards per game) and 43 touchdowns in 2018, 2,909 yards (223.8 ypg) and 34 touchdowns in 2019, and 2,107 yards (210.7 ypg) and 23 touchdowns in 2020.
Last season, UCF ranked 25th in the country in rushing offense (210.7 ypg).
What impact do the transfers make? Is it immediate or no?
Bonner and Tyler represent only two of many transfers welcomed to Utah State since Anderson took over as head coach.
Desperate for an influx of talent — a 1-5 season will do that — USU became “Transfer U” this winter, welcoming 10 four-year transfers into the program, as well as a junior college transfer, not to mention bringing back a pair of Aggies who’d previously entered the transfer portal with the intent to leave Logan.
Add it all up, and of the 97 players listed as a part of the program entering camp, 13% of them came to Utah State via the transfer portal this offseason alone.
As previously mentioned, none of the transfers were promised starting jobs, but at the same time no coach brings in transfers without the expectation that they will make an immediate impact.
Some, like linebacker Justin Rice, are practically guaranteed to start and star for the Aggies. Rice, famously, was an All-Mountain West performer at Fresno State, before transferring to Arkansas State last season. Cornerback Kyle Mayberry, a transfer from Kansas, is another who should be expected to contribute right away, with the same going for wide receiver Brandon Bowling, offensive linemen Maisen Knight and Quazzel White and of course, Bonner and Tyler.
JUCO transfer Aurion Peoples is another player expected to become an immediate contributor, but after that, there are questions, questions that will need to be answered in camp.
Defensive ends Byron Hobbs Vaughn and Patrick Joyner Jr. were highly touted high school prospects, but have yet to fulfill upon that promise at the collegiate level. Jahaziel Lee had a long career at Georgia Tech, but the full-time move to defensive line will require an adjustment period. Then there is receiver Deven Thompkins and linebacker Cash Gilliam, both of whom left the team midseason last year and now have to regain their footing.
Transfers to Utah State have been hit and miss over the last couple of years. When successful, like Siaosi Mariner and Caleb Repp, USU has won games. When not, as was the case with Shelley, the inverse has been true. It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that if Utah State wants to improve upon last season, the program will need immediate contributions from many of its transfers and that will begin in the spring.
How do the returning seniors adjust to all the coaching changes?
Also vital to USU’s hopes of not repeating as Mountain West bottom dwellers are the 14 ‘super seniors,’ on the roster, aka those seniors who decided to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic.
Those seniors include: cornerback Terin Adams — Adams interestingly didn’t play a snap for USU last season — offensive lineman Demytrick Ali’ifua, defensive end Jaylin Bannerman, safeties Shaq Bond and Gilliam, wide receivers Sean Carter, Jordan Nathan, Savon Scarver and Derek Wright, defensive end Nick Heninger, running back Henry-Cole, linebacker Kevin Meitzenheimer, tight end Carson Terrell and defensive tackle Marcus Moore.
In all, Utah State returns 19 starters from a season ago, but those 14 seniors in particular will be key to any and all success had by the Aggies. They are, after all, All-Americans, All-Mountain West Conference performers and more.
All-American Savon Scarver showed just how fast you can run a 100-yard dash in the snow, returning this kick from endzone to endzone in the Aggies' 36-10 victory over Nevada last season. #AggiesAlltheWay #TouchdownTuesday pic.twitter.com/PkDbiAYqsV— Utah State Athletics (@USUAthletics) October 21, 2020
On the offensive side of the ball, they will also be on their fourth coordinator in as many years, with Tucker replacing Bodie Reeder, who replaced Mike Sanford Jr., who replaced David Yost.
On defense, Ephraim Banda is the new defensive coordinator, taking over for co-defensive coordinators Frank Maile and Stacy Collins, who replaced Justin Ena, who replaced Frank Maile.
Utah State’s entire coaching staff is almost completely new to Logan, with only a few familiar faces returning for a second season. There is hope that the transition to yet another new system will be more seamless this time, given the similarities between what Matt Wells ran at USU and what Anderson’s tendencies are.
“I love Matt Wells to death. But no offense, we’re going to play faster. We’re going to be physical. Matt did a great job and he does still — I know he’s got some challenges going on in Lubbock right now — but y’all know he’s a great coach,” Anderson said. “It’s a little different. There are some of the Air Raid principles in our offense, but we have continued to progress and move and take it a little bit further.”
What will the Blake Anderson era actually look like?
Given time, Anderson’s program may become one of the most successful in the Mountain West. Both USU’s recent history, 2020-21 notwithstanding, and Anderson’s track record at Arkansas State suggest that success is a real possibility for the Aggies.
Anderson has said all the right things since arriving in Logan. By all accounts, he and his staff have excelled at the off-field aspects of program building since arriving at Utah State. A cursory glance on Twitter shows a program that has cast off the myriad of difficulties of last season, a year that included only one win, the firing of the head coach, player boycotts and allegations of racism and bigotry.
WINsday.— USU Football (@USUFootball) March 11, 2021
Today we had winners and we had losers but we all got after it at our 2nd Team Competition! #OneDegreeBetter pic.twitter.com/R8usIygEAH
Spring camp will offer the first real chance for Anderson and his staff to make their mark on football itself, and while Anderson is under no illusions as to the current state of the program, he is excited to get to work.
“I have listened to (Wells) talk about this place and what it meant to his family, and just how much they enjoyed living here,” Anderson said in his introductory press conference. “I’ve watched this program win, and I actually got my tailed kicked right out there in that stadium not too long ago as the head coach at Arkansas State. ... So, when I say that I’m excited to be here, I feel like I’ve got enough knowledge of the place, the culture, the history and tradition here that I can truly mean it and truly be honored.
“I know that’s going to take a while, and I’m perfectly fine with it. I was the fifth head coach in five years (at A-State) and those guys didn’t trust me until they knew I wasn’t going to leave right after the very last game of the season. So, I understand this process is going to take a while, and we’re OK with that. We’re going to be patient.”