“A lot of work to do” still after USU’s second fall scrimmage – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN – Following the second fall scrimmage — which was thankfully able to be held on Merlin Olsen Field in front of the viewing public — Utah State head coach Blake Anderson started out his statements to the media by emphasizing how his team isn’t ready for its Week 0 matchup with UConn.

I just don’t think we did anything consistently enough,” Anderson said, “to be really excited about anything other than the fact that we don’t play for two more weeks.”

It sounds harsh on paper but it didn’t come off as harsh or even critical of his team in any notable way. Just a statement meant to clarify that what was seen on the field is not the team that will step foot on that same field on August 27 to face the Huskies. Further improvements are on the horizon and dinged-up players will return to turn the squad we saw Saturday into one ready to try and match the 2021 conference championship-level team.

Even still, it’s worth noting what’s changed from last week’s first scrimmage to this week and the overall themes from both weeks combined.

Inactive players

Again, it’s good to start with some key inactives while also noting the return of some players. Patrick Joyner, Jr. and Dominic Tatum, who missed last week, were available this week and saw plenty of snaps. Tatum in particular is a nice player to have back considering his injury. Anderson said they’re “lucky to have him back.”

“I think (Tatum) is looking great considering the injury he had and how significant it was,” Anderson said. “It was possible he wouldn’t play football again and for him to be ready at this early stage of the year — our rehab department and our strength department and Dom himself have done a phenomenal job.”

Highlighting todays missing players were the three on the offensive line who sat out. Starting right tackle Jacob South, who played last week, did not take snaps and neither did reserve center Falepule Alo. Backup offensive tackle Cole Motes sat out again having already missed the previous scrimmage. Broc Lane, who missed last week’s scrimmage, also sat out again.

Great day for freshman Larsen

Redshirt freshman Ike Larsen — the local product by way of Logan and Sky View high schools — made his case to be in the rotation at safety with his performances in the two fall scrimmages. Last week, Larsen recorded five tackles, tied for second on the team, but this Saturday he upped his game. Along with three tackles, Larsen also broke up a pass and won a 50-50 ball in the air for an interception. His play continues to impress Anderson.

The guy just keeps showing up. He’s been a pleasant surprise. I thought he showed up in spring with glimpses but he’s had as good a fall camp as anybody,” Anderson said. “I think he’ll be a big contributor on special teams, nickel packages, dime packages and I could see very easily working into the rotation where he’s playing some significant snaps with the number one defense.”

Getting into a starting spot will be a difficult task with Tatum getting healthier and with Hunter Reynolds and Gurvan Hall, Jr., holding down the two main safety spots with an iron grip. But in the modern football world, the more DBs you have the better. And the young Larsen looks up to the task of either coming in on DB-heavy sets or even stepping in to bigger roles if injuries mandate it.

Struggling to put together healthy offensive line

Last week it was just Cole Motes who missed time among key offensive lineman. This week, three of USU’s experienced returners sat out, raising the question as to when the whole offensive line will be, well, whole. Anderson himself would love to know the answer to that question.

The integrity of the O-line is a critical thing,” Anderson said. “When you start making substitutions there it doesn’t look the same. So I’m frustrated with that but it was necessary today.”

It’s frustrating for all parties to have poor health on the O-line (except maybe the opposing D-linemen), and it’s hard to evaluate the offense when the right side consists of a true freshman and the third-string right tackle. Getting all key guys back will be when better evaluations can be made.

“I’m hoping that once we settle in that five and we can get good reps with them on a day-to-day basis that we’ll start being able to be more consistent,” Anderson said.

Joyner huge in return, Grzesiak remains solid

Last week, Patrick Joyner, Jr. sat out with a minor injury. He returned this week with a vengeance, racking up 11 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks. While he played much of those snaps with the second-team defensive line, he did face the first-string offensive line a decent amount.

“(Joyner) wanted to try and get out last week, just wasn’t quite ready,” Anderson said. “Towards the middle of this week, looked better and better. You saw him last year, when the guy’s healthy he’s an impact player. We need him well and continue to play like he did today.”

Byron Vaughns and Daniel Grzesiak have the two starting edge rusher spots nailed down for now, but Joyner’s dominance gives hope for a three-deep rotation of capable edge rushers. The potential to rotate these three edge defenders and keep them fresh could prove very valuable, especially late in the season when guys are banged up.

Speaking of Grzesiak, he didn’t put up the crazy numbers of last week (reminder: 10 tackles, seven TFLs, five sacks) but still did perfectly fine. He had five tackles, three TFLs and one sack. John Ward, who received praise from Anderson last week, recorded three TFLs.

Much better day on the ground

The stats from both scrimmages have a lot of noise considering they include yards lost in the combined 21 sacks from both weeks. If we exclude quarterback yards and carries (which, yes, does mean throwing out some positive runs by the QBs, it’s not a perfect solution) we can get a workable idea as to how Utah State has done in traditional runs with the running backs.

Last week, our QB-adjusting method has the Aggies rushing 39 times for 158 yards, or 4.1 yards per rush. This week, the same method spits out 52 rushes for 248 yards, or 4.8 yards per rush. That 0.7 yards per rush may not seem like much, but last year it would have meant the difference between ranking about 39th in yards per attempt and 84th.

Lead backs Calvin Tyler Jr. (12 carries, 45 yards, 2 TDs) and Pailate Makakona (13 carries, 50 yards, 1 TD) were both solid despite the fact the offensive line was missing a few key players.

Stagnant offense a cause for concern?

Right now, if you simply took the offense’s performance at face value, the conclusion would be the Aggies’ offense is terrible, especially in the passing game. Across two weeks the quarterbacks have completed 45 of 101 passes (44.6 percent), averaging just 6.9 yards per attempt and throwing four interceptions. They’ve given up 21 sacks, which is a sack rate of between 15-20 percent, depending on the exact number of dropbacks.

That’s not a conclusion one should honestly come to right now.

We have a good idea of how good the offense can be given most of the O-line, the starting running back and at least one productive receiver return. Not to mention, Logan Bonner — who threw for more yards than any other USU quarterback ever last year — is also back plus the offensive coordinator and all the offensive coaching staff. The only major unknown is the wide receiver group, where McGriff is the only contributing returner. So unless McGriff, Brian Cobbs, Kyle Van Leeuwen, Xavier Williams, Terrell Vaughns and NyNy Davis are all incompetent, it’s hard to see this offense as performing anything near as bad in real games as they have the last two scrimmages.

Davis climbing WR depth chart

This Saturday’s stat line for redshirt freshman NyNy Davis (one reception for eight yards) wasn’t as headline-worthy as his seven receptions for 96 yards last week that led all receivers. But he’s climbed his way into potentially being a rotation receiver behind the main three of Cobbs, McGriff and Van Leeuwen. This week, Davis lined up a few times alongside first-team players. He even had one snap where he lined up alongside Cooper Legas in the shotgun where Legas ran a read option with Davis as one of the two potential runners (Legas kept the ball so no rush attempt for Davis).

With his performances the last two weeks, Davis is setting himself up to be an intriguing piece in the puzzle of USU’s offense.

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