USU offense needs new star to pair with Bonner, who can fill that role? – Cache Valley Daily

Utah State running back Calvin Tyler Jr., right, carries the ball while pressured by Washington State defensive back Tanner Moku, obscured, during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

LOGAN – In Utah State’s quest to replicate its 2021 success and repeat as Mountain West champions, a greater portion of the weight falls upon the offense, which carried much of the same load a year ago in the title run. In USU’s three great seasons of the last decade (2012, 2018, 2021) a common denominator each time was a record-setting offense.

Star players are also a very common denominator. Aggie greats dot these seasons from Chuckie Keeton and Kerwynn Williams in 2012, Jordan Love and Darwin Thompson in 2018, and Logan Bonner and Deven Thompkins in 2021. Where there are great Aggie football seasons, top shelf offense invariably follows and it’s precipitated by star duos — a QB and an RB or WR.

Bonner returns to reprise his role as the star quarterback but who will his star running mate be? Will that player be a running back or wide receiver? It’s one of the most pressing questions of the offseason and ties directly to the most pressing question: Can the Aggies repeat as conference champions? If USU finds another running mate for Bonner on the scale of a Thompkins, Thompson or Williams then the chances of a repeat skyrocket.

The betting favorite for a second star on the offense would have to be running back Calvin Tyler, Jr. He’s the returning starter at the position and was picked as the second-best player in the Cache Valley Media Group Top 25 Aggies list for this season. Despite missing multiple games in 2021, Tyler ran for 884 yards. Extrapolate his missed games and his 14-game stat total would have been around 1,030 yards with 8-9 touchdowns.

Also worth keeping in mind is the start Tyler had to last season. In the first four games he tallied 414 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Since 2000, the only Aggies to achieve both totals in the same span are Robert Turbin and Emmett White. Tyler’s injury bugged him for much of the middle of the season, allowing for Elelyon Noa’s emergence as a solid backup, but Tyler returned to form by the end of the season. His LA Bowl performance (120 yards, one TD) was of particular note since he had his highest workload (26 carries) of the season, likely due to Bonner’s absence for most of the game. Tyler also had 109 yards against Wyoming in the fourth-to-last game of the season.

If the star isn’t Tyler, the next obvious choice would be for one of the wide receivers to take the torch directly from Thompkins. The now-former Aggie Thompkins shattered USU’s receiving record on his own, but the entire receiving corps in general could be considered a star when taken as a whole. The trio of Thompkins, Brandon Bowling and Derek Wright became a legendary corps of receivers in the annals of Utah State history last year. The three wideouts each caught at least 10 touchdown passes (11 by Wright and 10 by both Thompkins and Bowling), becoming the only trio in USU history to accomplish that in the same season.

But all three of those receivers are now gone.

Anderson and his staff didn’t skimp on finding potential replacements. They went out and assembled a diverse group of receivers that could provide Bonner with all the toys he could possibly want. Top on the list of potential star receivers is Maryland transfer Brian Cobbs. In his four years with the Terrapins, Cobbs reeled in 59 catches for 880 yards and two touchdowns. Were Cobbs to put up those numbers in this upcoming season alone, that would probably make him the top receiver in Logan.

Lining up opposite Cobbs will be the top returning receiver from last year, Justin McGriff. And when it comes to McGriff, one short sentence from Offensive Coordinator Anthony Tucker sums him up almost entirely.

“He can be as good as he wants to be.”

Standing 6-foot-6 and able to smoothly control all 215 pounds of that tall frame, McGriff has all the physical traits to be one of the best possession and red zone receivers this team has seen in decades if not ever. But he’s not quite capitalized on his physical gifts. His drop rates and prowess in getting open down the field remain areas of improvement. Last year the WR depth chart was wide open, but he was beat out by Derek Wright for outside receiver snaps and wound up the fourth-most productive receiver. His 35 receptions for 414 yards and six touchdowns were solid, but well behind the others.

Cobbs and McGriff may own the outside spots, but Bonner loved throwing to his slot receivers last year. And not just Thompkins but also Bowling. Those two lined up in the slot 87 percent of passing snaps and were the top two receivers in both yards and catches (combined 158 catches for 2,539 yards). So whoever is in the slot could be in for a bevy of targets. That said, new starting slot receiver Kyle Van Leeuwen could wind up seeing the most targets and maybe even get more yards than either Cobbs or McGriff. If he shows steady hands and makes key plays over and over out of the slot he could be a huge part of this offense.

The coaching staff hasn’t been keen to hype up any one particular player. What they’ve done consistently throughout the offseason is talk about sharing the load in both the rushing and passing attack. Offensive Coordinator Anthony Tucker said he doesn’t plan on relying on just one running back, such as Tyler. He’d rather have fresh legs that can break runs at any given moment.

“You have to have more than one guy to operate, especially with the tempo that we play, the amount of plays we play a game,” Tucker said. “To me, it’s unrealistic to think that this one guy is going to be able to carry the load for 90-plus plays.”

When it comes to wide receivers, Anderson isn’t anticipating one of his guys dominating the receiving workload like Deven Thompkins did a year ago, but he’s liked what he’s seen from his guys.

“It may look different than (Thompkins) making 100 catches,” Anderson said. “But as a group there’s a lot of different pieces that can be explosive. We’re maybe even a little bit bigger.”

These views from the coaching staff shouldn’t dampen fans’ hopes for these players as individuals. There’s plenty of chance that any one of them could break out. It’s just highly unlikely that any will be record-chasing the way Thompkins or Williams were. The Aggies’ “star” skill player could be Tyler with 900 to 1,100  yards or one of the three WRs with 65 catches for 950 yards and 8-10 touchdowns. That would be plenty to lead the offense to good, if not great, places this season.

The fact Tyler won’t get oodles of carries because of scheme shouldn’t draw back from a potential great season. After all, Thompson split carries almost evenly with backfield mate Gerold Bright in 2018 and still had a highly impactful year. In fact, Thompson ran the ball less times that season (153) than Tyler did last year (196) and Thompson played an extra game over Tyler. It’s very likely that, health given, Tyler will crack the 200 carry mark and with that he could easily break 1,000 yards rushing.

An area of the offense that isn’t likely to produce a star, but could field a notable improvement over last year is tight end. In terms of receiving production, last year was the worst in more than a decade for Utah State. Aggie tight ends combined caught 15 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Despite the record-setting amount of passing yards USU produced, tight ends just couldn’t find a way to be involved.

In fairness to Carson Terrell, the starting tight end last year, his strength was much more in blocking, and he was rather good at it. But finding a way to get a decent blocker who can also be a threat in the passing game is a spectacular way to take one’s passing attack to the next level.

“We’ve been working hard all offseason on that kind of stuff, learning the route tree and really diving into it,” junior tight end Josh Sterzer said. “We feel pretty comfortable with our run blocking and pass (protection) so we really wanted to emphasize (route-running) coming into the offseason and I think it’s showing up here so far during camp.”

Sterzer appears to be the heir apparent to Terrell, being the primary backup to him last season. Sterzer actually played more snaps than Terrell in the first three games of the season (109 to 72), but saw limited snaps the rest of the season (just 54 in the final 11 games of the season). Other names in the mix are redshirt sophomore Brock Lane and redshirt freshman Parker Buchanan.

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