Maverik Stadium on the Utah State University campus
LAS VEGAS — Utah State weren’t the stars of those show at Mountain West media days. The Aggies were picked to finish eighth in the conference media’s preseason poll. Only one member of the team made the preseason All-Mountain West Team. Neither of USU’s two player representatives — quarterback Cooper Legas and defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka — were the singular Aggie honored.
Despite the lack of fanfare, optimism flowed from the two players and their head coach, Blake Anderson. The Aggies have a lot of hurdles to overcome. Voters in the media aren’t optimistic about their chances, but at least these three are.
Could 2023 be be like the 2021 seasons?
When asked if this year’s team could pull off a 2021-esque surprise, going from picked to finish last in their division (and nominally 10th in the conference) to winning the conference crown, Anderson said “I think any team has that kind of potential. You don’t really know until you start really kind of developing and playing.”
That’s a basic principle of college football, where it seems like any team can come out of the blue at times. But it’s underpinned by the fact that, according to Anderson, coaches aren’t necessarily blessed with the simple knowledge of knowing how good their team is until results start coming in.
“I don’t know what this team can do and I didn’t know what 2021 could do,” Anderson said. “We brought in a bunch of transfers to go with a really good senior class and lightning kind of struck.”
Legas reflects on his 2022 performance
Fate hasn’t exactly dealt a clean hand to Legas during his college career. In 2021 as a sophomore with zero career snaps, he had to replace Logan Bonner mid-bowl game. And in 2022, while the team was seemingly in the process of falling apart early in the season, Legas became the starter with the pressure of bringing the team back from the brink. He even had to prep a full week without telling most of the people he knew that he was about to become the full-time starting quarterback. And even after becoming the starter he missed parts of three games due to injuries.
Legas hasn’t buckled under these opportunities. In fact, one could say he’s done a solid job considering he led USU to victory in that 2021 bowl game (throwing a touchdown on his first career pass). And the Aggies went 5-3 in games where Legas was a starter. But things haven’t been perfect and Legas knows that. There’s room for improvement. Particularly when it comes to turnovers.
“I was really exited to play and I think I wanted to prove that I could play and I think I went out and was sort of too focused on trying to do to much,” Legas said. “I made a lot of good stuff happen but at the same time there were times I should have gotten rid of the ball or slid earlier or done certain things to protect the ball more. I think I was always trying to do something but I think one thing I’ve learned just from watching film and throughout the year was just to really be successful as a quarterback you’ve got to just take care of the ball as much as you can and get it out of your hands quick.”
The issue of turnovers has been a loudly proclaimed area of focus for the Aggies this offseason. Legas’ own numbers reflect the team’s issues. Last year, among 108 qualified quarterbacks (i.e. those that attempted enough passes to be relevant), Legas had the second-worst ratio of interceptions to pass attempts, throwing an interception every 22 attempts on average (which was more twice the average of qualified QB who threw one every 45 attempts).
Legas’ 2022 campaign shouldn’t be boiled down to his one very poor category, but his potential 2023 improvements need to be framed at least in part by the weaknesses he needs to improve upon. And it’ll be a team endeavor. Several of Legas’ interceptions weren’t his fault, being more a function of poor play-calling a missed pass block, or sometimes just an unlucky bounce. Most of those things can be worked on.
Adjustments to the offense
Last year’s offense was a poor encore to a record-setting 2021 unit that helped lead the team to a conference title. A rotating door at quarterback thanks to injuries, a drop-off in wide receiver production and more contributed to the offense ranking 96th in total offense per game.
There are changes coming, and not just because of turnover via the transfer portal. Anthony Tucker, who served as the offensive coordinator for the last two seasons, left for a new job and Anderson will take his place along with a co-OC Kyle Cefalo.
For one, Anderson wants to utilize all the talent he has. Last year the plan was to spread the ball around to more players since star wideout Deven Thompkins would be around. But that didn’t happen as much as Anderson wanted.
“I didn’t feel like we were using all of our talent,” Anderson said. “I thought we were kind of narrow minded, a little bit narrow focused on a few particular players and not spreading the ball around enough. I thought we could be balanced and use all of our weapons a little better.”
There are a host of potential players fit to become features in the offense, many of them new. Terrell Vaughn, Robert Briggs, Colby Bowman, Davon Booth, Jalen Royals, Otto Tia, Micah Davis, Kyrese Rowan and many more.
Speed of play is another point of re-emphasis. Anderson said he felt the team didn’t play as fast as it should. Ever since his time at Middle Tennessee, Anderson has been a disciple of fast-paced offense and its potential advantages.
“For us I think it can be an advantage, especially late in the game,” Anderson said. “It can minimize some mismatches where maybe physically we’re not looking great in the first quarter but by the third or fourth quarter some of those matchups start playing in our favor.”
Aggies adding some “big beef” on the defensive line
A lot of eyes are going to be on Utah State’s defensive line this year. It’s the unit perhaps most emblematic of “the transfer portal taketh and giveth.” The Aggies lost 10 D-linemen to the portal and brought in eight. It’s a unit with a lot of unknowns and a lot of change from the get-go.
There is one change coming with the new players that’s perhaps worth keeping an eye on — the size of the interior defensive linemen. Last year the Aggies’ top six defensive tackles by total snaps held an average weight of 283.3 pounds. Coming into 2023, the defensive tackle unit (excluding a couple of freshmen unlikely to see much time) tips the scales at an average of 303.3, a solid increase of 20 pounds.
The additions of four tackles of 300-plus pounds via transfers certainly do their part to rocket that average up, but gains made by returning DTs also contributed. Comparing last year’s weight listings to this year, Poukesi Vakauta went from 290 to 305; Seni Tuiaki from 270 to 280; Motu’apuaka from 280 to 290; and Bo Maile from 275 to 280.
“It’s a blessing to have some big beef on the line. That’s gonna help us this year,” Motu’apuaka said. “That’s coach (Cauthen)’s style and we’re just ready to rock. We’re ready to put on the extra weight and play.”
Adding more size on the defensive line, if used effectively, could help Utah State improve it’s porous run defense from last year which ranked 106th in yards allowed per rush and 113th in rushing yards allowed per game. New defensive coordinator Joe Cauthen has led some very effective run defenses. As the DC under Anderson at Arkansas State, Cauthen-led defenses ranked 21st in rush yards allowed per attempts in 2016 and then 24th in the same stat in 2017.