LOGAN, Utah — Utah State football’s first week of spring practice is in the books.
“Pads on, full live-work today, and I thought it was chippy and energetic and physical,” head coach Blake Anderson said. “Offense had some big plays, defense made a couple too. All in all, four days, healthy and guys are working, I think we got a little better every day, pretty successful.”
Here are three takeaways from this week’s action.
Turning the Leaf
The last event surrounding last year’s football team came with a ring ceremony this week. Members of the Mountain West Champion team received rings to commemorate their 46-13 rout of San Diego State.
“Lot of smiles, a lot of fun, and then turn the page. That’s the last opportunity to really celebrate that group.” Anderson said. “I thought that was a special night and it was a special group, but now it’s back to zero-zero. Put them on the shelf and they’ll collect dust.”
The program’s focus has now shifted completely to this next season.
“There’s expectations now,” inside linebacker AJ Vongphachanh said. “I’m super happy to be back and get this thing rolling.”
Wide receivers coach Kyle Cefalo agreed with Vongphachanh.
“They know what to expect,” Cefalo said. We had a lot of success last year, but they also know how much work it takes for us to get back to where we want to be.”
Anderson said last year’s team set “a bit of a standard.”
“Those guys showed you what it’s supposed to look like and so you do have something to measure against,” Anderson said. “These guys saw it visibly. They know what it took to have the season that we had and it’s going to be even harder this time.”
The coaching staff brought in several transfers to try and fill in holes left from last year. Anderson is optimistic about how they have performed so far.
“They don’t look like new guys,” Anderson said. “They really have studied. They fit in. They blend in. Really similar to the conversation we had a year ago, those new guys didn’t go out there and look lost. I’ve been really pleased.”
Utah State said goodbye to captains and leaders on and off the field this year as seniors graduated and others transferred.
“We lost some very big personalities,” Anderson said. “Both on the field and in the locker room and really just the way they carried themselves on a daily basis. That’s not gonna be easy. Physically, maybe we’ll make up some of the ground, but the presence that we had from some of those guys, that’s a big hole. And it may take multiple guys to fill the shoes of just several.”
Vongphachanh is a guy some could see stepping into a big role on the defense. He was productive all last season with season-highs in tackles against Boise State and tackles-for-loss against Brigham Young.
Vongphachanh embraces the opportunity to lead his squad.
“I’m just trying to take more of a leadership role,” Vongphachanh said. “What I need to worry about is just making sure that I can progress from myself last year and make sure I’m not making the same mistakes and just helping the other guys lead.”
Anderson recognizes the loss of key leaders on the team from last year. He needs players to “step in” and embrace that role.
“Some guys are really, really comfortable in that role, some are not,” Anderson said. “You can’t really make a guy be a leader. He has to naturally step into that role. I’ve been encouraged to see some guys starting to move in that direction. It’s still early in the process.”
Anderson added what he is looking for from team leaders.
“A lot of what allows you to be a great leader in the locker room is you show plays in the field and show daily consistency,” Anderson said. “It will be an ongoing process and we probably won’t know the answer to that for quite a while.”
The Receiving Core
The Aggies lost three very productive receivers this year. Deven Thompkins, Derek Wright and Brandon Bowling each had at least 10 touchdowns and 700 yards. Thompkins was the workhorse last year collecting 102 receptions for 1,704 yards.
Replacing that kind of efficiency is a big ask that Cefalo understands.
“We’re all very aware that we have some shoes to fill and we have a bunch of touchdowns to replace, but I think we have the right mix of kids in right now that’s going to be able to get that done,” Cefalo said.
Anderson added that he thinks the attack through the air will be more balanced this year.
“We all got really used to seeing the same couple guys make plays, but if you’re paying attention, we’re spreading the ball around to everybody,” Anderson said. “It may not be one guy with 100 catches, it may be three different guys with 60-70 apiece and that’s okay too. It makes it really tough to defend.”
Anderson has been encouraged by what he has seen from the receiving core early this spring.
“I like the fact that every day it’s kind of a different guy having a big day,” Anderson said. “We’ll see if that trend continues.”
After four practices, Cefalo is optimistic about his new group.
“They look good. It’s been a really good first week,” Cefalo said. “It’s a lot. We practiced four times this week, it’s a lot of running… could see it on their legs a little bit. A lot of new guys in there learning. A lot of guys that have been here in bigger roles.”
Justin McGriff and Kyle Van Leeuwen are the main returners from last year’s receiving core. Last season, McGriff tallied six touchdowns and 414 yards on 35 receptions.
“Personally, for Justin, that was statistically his best season he’s had in college,” Cefalo said. “Now he’s stepped up. He’s been great in the workouts. He’s been great all winter. He is taking on that role of ‘I’m the leader now, follow me.” I love it. I want to empower him as much as I can. He’s still working too. He’s not a finished product yet either, but his attitude’s right and his work ethic is right.”
Van Leeuwen is the third Van Leeuwen brother to play in blue and pewter. His brothers Travis and Zach were also wide receivers. Kyle saw limited playtime last season, but he is expected to take a much larger role this year.
“The best part about Kyle is that he’s the same kid every day,” Cefalo said. “Smile, excited to be there, wants to learn, kind of embracing the new role he’s got.”
Another guy having big days is Maryland transfer, Brian Cobbs. He has impressed teammates and the coaching staff this week with athletic grabs.
Alabama transfer Xavier Williams is coming off of injury but has shown “flashes” of speed.
“He has to get his body back into shape,” Cefalo said. “He flashes at times.”
Utah State will practice at Maverik Stadium three times this next week between 4-6 p.m. MT on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.