Mother Nature canceled the morning plans for hundreds of Aggie faithful planning to attend the first Utah State fall scrimmage Saturday morning. But media were present to observe the goings-on at the relocated scrimmage in the indoor practice facility.
As expected, plenty of offseason questions received at least partial answers, though there were also some surprises. Anderson summed the scrimmage up thusly:
“Energy was really, really good. I don’t think the execution was great. But, as expected we’ve got a lot of young guys, new guys that are trying to find their way. I think this is going to be really good film for us to teach off of and try to take some improvement steps over the next week.”
It’s easier to start with some names that didn’t play on the field to provide some context for later depth chart notes. Plenty of guys didn’t step on the field, but the four most notable were defensive end Patrick Joyner Jr., safety Dominic Tatum, linebacker Omari Okeke and tight end Broc Lane. All three of these players are expected to be in the rotation at their respective positions but weren’t on the field due to various injuries.
Head coach Blake Anderson made sure to note that none of these injuries are serious and all of them should be able to return hopefully by next week and perhaps participate in the second scrimmage on the 13th.
UP AND DOWN OFFENSE
It’s pretty much an axiom that spring and fall scrimmages will be dominated by defense. USU made no exception to this. The offense struggled in a lot of ways, especially later in the scrimmage after the first-string skill position players (the starting O-line remained out there for most of the time) were pulled and the backups had to make plays. Senior offensive tackle Alfred Edwards called out a lack of energy later in the scrimmage.
“Started off really good, got a couple of big plays,” Edwards said. “After that break I thought we really got flat. We just couldn’t bring back that energy from the beginning.”
The offense had three turnovers on the day. Two were interceptions thrown by Cooper Legas and Levi Williams, the other a fumble by John Gentry.
Some positives did shine through, however. There were no less than eight passes that went for more than 35 yards, including four 40-yard tosses. There were also four rushes of 18-plus yards. Big plays were on the menu all day, showing that the explosiveness of last year is still present with this team.
DEFENSE RESPONDS TO CHALLENGE
Daniel Grzsiek started off his post-scrimmage interview with a story of how the coaching staff challenged the defense.
“On Wednesday we came out in practice, and they said we was looking soft,” Grzesiak said. “It was our first day in full pads, it was live. Coach [Anderson] said we was looking soft, people was getting bucked up, they was running for five yards. He challenged us to come out here today and really turn it up. So I feel like we really turned it up.”
The defense certainly did “turn it up” for Saturday. Their energy was felt all over the indoor facility with every good play by the defense bringing a roar of approval from the defensive side of the field. The front seven dominated much of the scrimmage with 24 of the 61 rushing plays going for a loss including 13 sacks.
Grzsiek himself led this dominance by producing the most statistically eye-popping performance of the day. He was credited with 10 tackles, seven tackles for loss, five sacks and two pass breakups. All of those were team bests (the pass breakups were tied for best).
“Daniel has done a phenomenal job,” Anderson said.
Grzesiak’s day was not perfect though. He had a major screwup early on. Against a read-option play, Grzesiak went unblocked (as is typical of option plays) and he crashed inside thinking the running back kept the ball. Levi Williams read that mistake perfectly, pulled the ball and ran for what was credited as a 40-yard run – the longest of the day.
Other defensive standouts included Byron Vaughns (five tackles, three TFLs, three sacks). Anderson also mentioned former Logan and Sky View High School safety Ike Larsen as a standout along with UCLA defensive end transfer John Ward.
NOT THE GREATEST DAY FOR QUARTERBACKS
Logan Bonner obviously got the start. Behind him, in order, were Cooper Legas, Levi Williams and Bishop Davenport.
Bonner didn’t play all that much in the 11-on-11s. He was pulled along with some other first-stringers around halfway through the scrimmage. Legas and Williams got the lion share of the snaps with Davenport getting a series late. Bonner was largely on target with his passes, unfortunately several of those were dropped. He was 5-of-10 for 73 yards, but had some of the drops been caught, he’d likely have been 8-for-10 with around 100 yards.
Legas had the most productive day, going 13-for-22 (59.1 percent) for 193 yards. He missed on a few more throws than he should have but was generally consistent. He did throw one interception, a long pass that was overthrown, tipped by Gurvan Hall Jr., and then picked off by Hunter Reynolds.
Williams, on the other hand, did not have a good showing. Though only slightly less accurate on paper than Legas (11-of-22), the eye test determined that his accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. He also threw the worst pass of the day that went straight into the hands of linebacker Josh Williams. His two best plays were both runs. The first was the aforementioned play where he took advantage of a sleeping Grzesiak to run up the sideline and the other he took up the middle for a 10-12 yard gain.
TOUGH DAY FOR STARTING WRs
The first-string WRs had a bit of a tough day, though there were a few flashes. Brian Cobbs started out strong by reeling in a 49-yard pass from Bonner on the first offensive snap. But after that, things weren’t as clean. Kyle Van Leeuwen dropped multiple passes, including an easy over-the-middle toss (the kind that was Brandon Bowling’s bread-and-butter last year). Justin McGriff also got in on the drop action with one pass bouncing right off his numbers and onto the turf.
The one wideout who definitely had a good showing was Alabama transfer Xavier Williams. He largely played with the third team but had four catches for 92 yards, including a 49-yard reception, tied for the second-longest catch of the day.
TRUE FRESHMAN STARTS AT GUARD
At the forefront of depth chart questions was who would replace Demytrick Ali’ifua and Quazzel White at the left and right guard positions. There was little surprise when Wade Meacham was in at left guard but true freshman Weylin Lapuaho’s start at right guard drew interest. Edwards, the most experienced of the Aggie lineman, had high praise for Lapuaho’s work after graduating early and joining USU in the spring.
“[Weylin’s] been amazing since he’s been on campus,” Edwards said. “He’s probably one of the best freshmen that I’ve been around. He’s a really strong kid. Great frame. He came in, learned the offense really well. So now it’s just getting him reps and once he gets all the reps he needs then he’s gonna be a really special player.”
Edwards wasn’t the only one to offer praise. Anderson had his own words on the freshman.
“He does not act like a freshman. He definitely doesn’t play like one,” Anderson said. “Could very easily be our starting right guard when we play in a few weeks.”
Based on the last part of that statement, there could be a more competitive position battle going on behind the scenes. Two guards who saw time with the second-string line were Elia Migao and Teague Anderson. Falepule Alo, the backup center with plenty of game experience, could also be a choice to move to guard.
The top three guys on the depth chart are clearly Cobbs, McGriff and Van Leeuwen. The latter played out of the slot while the former two lined up on the outside. Terrell Vaughn and Williams were playing with the backup teams, catching passes from Legas and Levi Williams.
Vaughn had probably the best catch of the day. Williams threw a deep ball down the sideline that was slightly underthrown and probably should have been picked off. Instead, the 5-foot-7 Vaughn harnessed his inner Deven Thompkins and rose up to steal the pass and come down with the ball for a 36-yard gain.
NyNy Davis, who played his snaps with the second and third units led all pass-catchers in receptions (7) and yards (96).
– RUNNING BACKS
Calvin Tyler Jr. is the unquestioned starter at running back, but there’s been a crowded battle behind him for the number two spot. And given that the coaches have repeatedly said they plan on running multiple backs and not just playing through one guy, that backup RB spot is an important one to fill.
Expectations were for John Gentry (who is No. 25 on the Cache Valley Media Group Top 25 Aggies list) or incoming transfer Jordan Wilmore to scoop up that job. But it was Pailate Makakona who stole the show as the primary reserve running back. He initially lined up with the second-stringers and even played snaps with the ones later on.
Makakona finished with 45 yards on six carries and produced the best yards per carry average of the day (7.5). He also had the longest run among running backs with a 22-yard scamper. John Gentry led in overall yards with 50 on seven carries. Freshman Robert Briggs got the most carries on the day with 10 and he gained 36 yards on those tries.
– TIGHT ENDS
With Broc Lane out, breaking down who got snaps is a little less fair to do, but it’s going to happen anyway. Josh Sterzer started with the first team, but redshirt freshman Parker Buchanan also got snaps with the first team and made a few solid catches.
Ron Tiavaasue, a transfer from Missouri State had the best play among the tight ends. He caught a pass over the middle about 15 yards down the field, broke a tackle and was credited for a 35-yard gain.
The tight ends got involved a little more often than they were during last season. Sterzer didn’t record a catch, but Buchanan had three for 34 yards and Tiavaasue had a pair of catches for 34 yards. Getting the tight ends involved has been an outspoken goal of the coaching staff, which could add another layer of depth for the USU passing game.
AJ Vongphachanh and MF Tafisi occupy both starting linebacker spots (with Kaleo Kneves at striker) but the depth behind them has been questionable. At the scrimmage redshirt freshman Sione Moa seemed to be the third linebacker, occasionally lining up with the first-stringers. Sophomore transfer Cole Joyce and true freshman Josh Williams appear to be the next names in line after Moa.
The top three are, as expected, Ajani Carter, Andre Grayson and Michael Anyanwu. Carter spent all of his time lining up on the outside receivers with Grayson and Anyanwu playing at least some of their snaps in the slot. Sophomore Jamie Nance, the former Nebraska WR turned CB appears to have jumped up the depth chart as he took a lot of snaps with the second team.