Offense shows flashes, but has work still to do – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN – Utah State’s football fall camp has reached its conclusion. Game week begins on Monday and the following Saturday the Aggies will begin the 2023 season with their trip to Iowa to take on the 25th-ranked Hawkeyes. But even with the first game day so close, it’s time for one last look back at the offseason before the real season begins.

Let’s break down how the Aggies looked in their showing across two scrimmages and what we know about this offense right now, beginning with who the starters and rotation players will be. The following is a projection of who the starters would be assuming perfect health in Week 1. Some may not start due to health or maybe the position battle is really close and this guess is just off. Either way, more than just 11 players will get in on offense so it’s worth knowing who other rotation players are likely to be so they’ll be listed as well.

Projected Starters

  • QB: Copper Legas

  • RB: Robert Briggs

  • WR: Otto Tia

  • WR: Jalen Royals

  • WR (Slot): Terrell Vaughn

  • TE: Josh Sterzer

  • LT: Ralph Frias

  • LG: Wade Meacham

  • C: Falepule Alo

  • RG: Tavo Motu’apuaka

  • RT: Cole Motes

Other potential starters/rotation players

  • Davon Booth (RB)

  • Rahsul Faison (RB)

  • Colby Bowman (WR)

  • Micah Davis (WR)
  • Broc Lane (TE)

  • Teague Anderson (OT)

  • Wyatt Bowles (OT/OG)

Those are the names to know heading into Week 1. A lot of them are newcomers to the lineup or up-and-comers whose names were on the roster last year but are getting their first crack at playing lots of snaps. But let’s get more into how the offense is shaping up. Shifting the offense under Anderson was a move meant to improve the team’s prospects and so far there’s promise. For better or worse things will be different this year.

Anderson’s first and foremost concern, going by how many times he brought it up in interviews with the media, is limiting turnovers. Every offensive player knows the stat: the Aggies were dead last in interceptions in 2022, giving the ball away 21 times. Opposing teams feasted on those while it simultaneously choked USU’s offense.

In the two fall scrimmages the Aggies had no interceptions and a single “fumble” (that was simply a swing pass to a running back that happened to go backward but also went straight out of bounds so there wasn’t any danger). In his comments after both the first scrimmage and the second one, Anderson made sure to note the lack of turnovers as a positive whatever else may have happened.

Not throwing interceptions is only part of what needs to be improved in the passing game, though. The flaws in Utah State’s pass attack last year were numerous. Along with the too-many interceptions, there were issues with play-calling, availability of options for the quarterback when he dropped back and the QBs themselves throwing bad passes. Those things often led to interceptions but more often they simply led to incompletions — not as bad but drives would end without points all the same.

Starting with the quarterback himself, Cooper Legas needs to show he’s improved from last season. Last year he was a decidedly average QB (below average in some areas) but that’s not going to cut it for an offense that is now looking to him as the leader and one of the few veteran returners among the starting 11.

A massive area of improvement for Legas is in his intermediate passing, the throws in between deep shots and short, quick throws. Legas was pretty much dreadful on such passes in 2022. According to PFF, Legas was one of the least accurate passers on throws that travelled between 10 and 19 yards. He ranked 108th (of 125) among QBs with at least 40 attempts within those distances in PFF’s adjusted completion percentage metric (meant to account for drops and times QBs are hit as they threw) and threw the 12th-most interceptions on such throws.

Utah State wide receiver Jalen Royals runs during Utah State’s fall camp scrimmage on Aug. 11, 2023

As much as the quarterbacks need to improve, part of the blame for USU’s poor passing last year lay in the receivers. It’s not as simple as saying the receivers were bad, because that’s not entirely true. Brian Cobbs and Terrell Vaughn saw enough success to prove their talent. The issue lay more in the fit. Utah State’s offense features a lot of vertical routes and two of the Aggies’ top receivers, Cobbs and Justin McGriff, did not possess great downfield speed. Without speed on the outside, the offense struggled to do what it wanted, instead trying to utilize McGriff and Cobbs’ strengths as big possession receivers in an offensive system and with a quarterback not fit to fully capitalize on said strengths.

This year’s wide receiver class appears to have the speed necessary to run Anderson’s offense. Jalen Royals, Terrell Vaughn, Micah Davis and Colby Bowman all appear to possess at least good downfield speed with each able to take the top off the defense. Having more than one downfield option should allow more room for the offense and better overall options for Legas to take advantage of.

Despite likely improvements at quarterback and better fits at wide receiver, there’s one issue with the potential of the passing game: pass protection. In both fall scrimmages the offensive line did a poor job keeping the pocket clean for the QBs. It’s an incredibly concerning development for the Aggies. Health at quarterback has already been shaky the last couple of seasons and allowing even more hits to the signal-caller is asking for disaster.

Utah State running back Rahsul Faison celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown during USU’s fall camp scrimmage on Aug. 11, 2023

So with all this talk of the passing game, one might ask about how the run game is shaping up. The answer is that despite losing a 1,000-yard rusher in Calvin Tyler Jr., Utah State could very well be in solid shape with its ability to move the ball on the ground.

Naming a true successor to Tyler isn’t really a simple thing to do. Robert Briggs appears to have the official title of starter nailed down pretty solid, but by no means does it look like he will get the lion’s share of carries the way Tyler did last year (granted, Tyler had more carries last year than any RB did in a single season since 1999 so that’s a high bar to reach anyway). Davon Booth and Rahsul Faison are both breathing down Briggs’ neck in terms of getting carries. Faison in particular absolutely showed out in the two scrimmages with 131 combined yards on an average of 8.2 yards per carry. Booth also impressed with an 8.7 yards per carry average, albeit on only seven carries (Faison had 16).

It’s entirely possible for the Aggies to be using three running backs early in the season, in addition to the carries Cooper Legas is likely to get (he was second in carries last year despite only starting only eight games), probably shaving it down to a two-back rotation as the year progresses. Who those two backs will be is anyone’s guess.

In the middle of both the pass and run games is the tight end group. Anthony Tucker’s offense used them as glorified fullbacks most of the time, lead blocking in the run game, pass blocking on pass plays and occasionally running routes to the flat. Anderson has made promises for a couple of years that tight ends will be used more often on passing downs and there’s some evidence that will be the case. The main issue is that virtually no one in the room can stay healthy. Josh Sterzer is out right now and may miss one or two games before playing. Broc Lane missed the second scrimmage of fall camp, and Isaiah Alonzo is no longer even on the roster. That leaves Parker Buchanan, Will Monney, and the recently converted from QB Chase Tuatagaloa as potentially the three TEs available for week one.

Were the tight ends to remain healthy, there’s every chance they can be effective. Lane has shown great promise as a pass-catcher and has often been split out with wide receivers in four-wide or trips formations. And Sterzer is a balanced tight end in his own right. They just need to stay on the field.

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