Utah State spring football key storylines as Aggies look for next banner campaign – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN — Spring ball is well under way for Utah State, with a week of practices already under their belts and the first spring showcase less than two weeks away. It’s the first wave of the 2024 college football season here in Cache Valley.

The rather up-and-down 2023 season gave Aggie fans whiplash. One week there’d be incredible excitement with stars like Jalen Royals or Ike Larsen making huge plays and another fans were wringing their hands over an unstable quarterback position and/or porous defense.

Despite the frustrations, there’s plenty to be excited for with the 2024 version of the Aggies. Unlike last year, the team hasn’t faced a significant drain in talent by way of the transfer portal. That leaves a lot more room for internal development along with improvements via the additions in the portal, which has been a lot more friendly since it did much more giving than taking than last year.

Over the last 10 years or so, the formula for Utah State football has been mediocre seasons broken up by more spectacular years every few years or so, here’s a visualization of that using each season’s record dating back to 2014.

  • 2014: 10-4
  • 2015: 6-7
  • 2016: 3-9
  • 2017: 6-7
  • 2018: 11-2
  • 2019: 7-6
  • 2020: 1-5
  • 2021: 11-3
  • 2022: 6-7
  • 2023: 6-7

If this trend is somehow predictive, it means the Aggies are in line for an 11-win season within a year or two. Even if it’s not predictive, the hunger for another great year long the lines of 2012, 2018 or 2021 is growing and patience with head coach Blake Anderson will start to grow quite thin if better results than another 6-7 season aren’t achieved.

Here are the top storylines to be keeping an eye on throughout spring. Most of these haven’t developed into anything yet since spring ball just barely started, but these will be the things to watch going forward.

A two-tiered quarterback battle

There will be a lot said about the quarterback battle for Utah State. Last season already saw plenty of controversy with Cooper Legas and McCae Hillstead trading the starting job back and forth through either injury or poor performance. The transfer portal then added two more potential starters to the mix in the former Iowa Hawkeye, Spencer Petras, and former Utah Ute, Bryson Barnes.

Put all of that together and you’ve got four quarterbacks on this roster with at least multiple Division I starts, two of which got those starts at a power conference school and the other two getting those starts at Utah State itself.

Right now, what started out on paper as a four-way competition seems to be, for the moment, two battles. The first is the battle for the actual starting job and the second for who will be third and fourth. Legas, who ended 2023 as the starter, serves as the incumbent starter and is battling Petras who appears to be a clear No. 2 right now and is taking some reps with first-team players. That’s the primary battle and it makes sense that the most experienced QBs (both have only one year of eligibility) to be the ones making the biggest push to be the starter. The secondary battle is between Barnes and Hillstead who’ve shared third-team reps.

That’s how things have started, but changes are bound to happen as spring progresses, whether it be Petras overtaking Legas or perhaps one of Barnes and Hillstead making a much closer run at the starting job.

O-Line additions challenging incumbents

Last year’s offense was stacked with quality running backs and wide receivers that did a lot of quality work despite a too-often ineffective offensive line. Pro Football Focus’ grading system ranked USU’s O-Line 128th in pass blocking and 99th in run blocking. The failure to create solid running lanes or protect the quarterback led to a hamstrung offense, one that produced at times, but also flopped when teams weren’t giving up the big plays that made up for the consistency Utah State lacked.

Anderson often lamented the lack of size and physicality on his team. It’s something that’s largely his fault, but in the last transfer window Anderson has done his best to remedy past mistakes. He added multiple transfer offensive linemen from power conference schools along with several junior college prospects.

The offensive line going into spring is made up entirely of incumbents. Cole Motes (left tackle), Wyatt Bowles (left guard), Falepule Alo (center) Tavo Motu’apuaka (right guard) and Teague Anderson (right tackle) were all essentially the starters by the end of the season and began spring ball as the starting five on the O-Line. Notable transfers like Trey Andersen (left tackle) and George Maile (left guard) were on the second string line along with Jr Sia (right tackle), a highly touted recruit from last year’s class who redshirted last year.

That none of the newcomers to the O-line aren’t starters probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Neither played much at their previous stops so it’d make no sense to just hand them a starting gig. But over the spring, summer and fall these will be tightly-fought position battles.

New-look interior D-Line, edge rushers looking for internal development

One of the most mind-numbing aspects of Utah State last season was the complete inability to stop the run late in the season. Most of those problems lay on the shoulders of the front seven, and especially the defensive line which serve as the front line against the run game. Similar to the offensive line, there’s plenty of returners though the interior D-line is looking like it’ll see a significant shake-up. Two key players in that rotation, Hale Motu’apuaka and Poukesi Vakauta are gone and the Aggies loaded up on transfers to fill the void. Newcomers like Gabriel Iniguez, Miguel Jackson and Macyco Williams are slotting in alongside returners Seni Tuiaki and Bo Maile.

The newcomers on the D-line weren’t as heralded as some of the O-line additions, but Iniquez was a second-team Conference USA selection last year and both Jackson and Williams were solid players for their respective teams. Their addition plus some continued development from Tuiaki and Maile, who were both sophomores last year, could make for some good depth. But along with those five names, guys like Sir Mells, an Oregon transfer who didn’t play much as a redshirt freshman in 2023, along with Ricky Lolohea, an Oklahoma State transfer who redshirted with the Cowboys in 2023, and there’s a lot of guys who could end up in the mix on the interior D-line.

The edge rusher spots appear to be largely unchanged for the moment as Paul Fitzgerald, Enoka Migao, Cian Slone and Blaine Spires being the four rotation men at that spot. It’s mainly undisturbed as one key addition is injured and not participating in spring ball (see below). There’s going to need to be a lot of internal development at this position and spring/fall camps will be a good chance to see how far each of these guys have come. Fitzgerald showed quite a bit of promise at times, recording two games with at least 2.5 sacks and leading the Aggies in QB takedowns with 8.0 with his 9.0 TFLs also leading the defense. He did that as a redshirt freshman so his sophomore season should be a chance for him to become an even bigger force. Slone joined the Aggies as a 210-pound edge rusher, which is almost criminally underweight but a little over a year after that he’s listed at 240 lbs, a much more conventional size for defensive ends. With that added bulk, he’ll have more potential as an all-around edge.

A few notable injuries

There are a few injuries that will be keeping some players out for the short term. Defensive end Marlin Dean, linebacker Max Alford, wide receiver Micah Davis, cornerback Avante Dickerson and offensive lineman Aloali’i Maui will miss at least some of spring ball, several (Dean and Alford) will likely sit out the whole thing. Stephen Kotsanlee, the punter who suffered a season-ending injury in the middle of the 2023 campaign, is already back to kicking. As of the start of spring ball, there is no one expected to miss the entire 2024 season.

Source link

Share This Article



Related Articles