Analysis from Utah State’s limited spring scrimmage and conclusion of spring camp | Sports

LOGAN — This year’s Spring Showcase for Utah State football wasn’t quite as long or intense as previous years, a deliberate, predetermined choice by head coach Blake Anderson since his team’s roster had been whittled down due to injuries and numerous transfer portal entries. A Friday afternoon announcement detailed how the Aggies’ usual scrimmage this time of year was being downgraded to a “light practice.” Despite that, the Aggies were able to run about an hour’s worth of 11-on-11 scrimmaging.

“We did as much as we could do safely,” Anderson said. “You could tell really quickly that we’re short on tight ends. We didn’t have any tight ends with the ones, we’re only down to one scholarship (running) back.”

More than a dozen players were absent due to injury or personal reasons, including expected starters/rotation players like Rahsul Faison, Max Alford and Micah Davis. Along with being down to dangerously few tight ends and running backs, the Aggies also only had two healthy rostered quarterbacks — Spencer Petras and Bryson Barnes. Zeke Payne, the only other QB on the roster, was out with an injury.

But while the missing players were fairly numerous, Anderson said the only player currently at risk to have an injury disrupt their playing time come fall is EJ Fisk who Anderson said had shoulder surgery.

Injuries are nothing new to spring ball, but piled on top of those absences were roughly 10 transfers who entered the portal after it opened on April 16. The timing of the window opening was poor for Utah State. Players were entering the portal or being enticed away while practices were still ongoing. Anderson said he will likely plan on being a little more “strategic” with the timing of spring ball, mainly holding it earlier to prevent a similar situation from happening next year.

Also, according to Anderson only three of the transfers so far were unexpected — sophomore quarterback McCae Hillstead, running back Davon Booth and defensive end Paul Fitzgerald.  The remaining transfers were all athletes whose chances at consistent snaps was doubtful and Anderson said the hope was to get those guys to a place where they can get playing time.

That list of surprise transfers notably did not include graduate quarterback Cooper Legas who also entered the portal this week. The reason behind Legas’ decision to transfer was pretty clearly implied as being a desire to start in his final season of college eligibility, something placed in clear jeopardy as Anderson said he named Petras, the transfer from Iowa, as the starting QB.

“We had a really long, good competition throughout the spring and on Tuesday, Coach Anderson let me know that I won the job,” Petras said. “Obviously I was super-happy about that. Just excited to move forward.”

Legas began spring camp as the QB1, but Petras eventually won the job through high-level play. Anderson said he wanted to make it clear that Petras won the job and that he didn’t shortchange Legas in his chance to retain the starting gig.

“Out of respect for all that Coop’s done since he got here and the career he’s had, I wanted to make sure that it was very obvious to everybody that Spencer won the job,” Anderson said. “They got equal reps with the ones. They both got limited reps with the two’s.”

Anderson said the “numbers and the eye test” pointed toward Petras being the right man for the starting job. According to the fourth-year coach, those numbers included turning the ball over just once in 13 practices and completing nearly 80 percent of his passes.

As for the on-field play during Saturday’s toned-down scrimmage, the second-team offense led by Bryson Barnes shone while the first-team defense got the better of the Petras-led offense for the most part. Barnes led multiple long drives with most of the big passing plays coming off his arm. He threw the only passing touchdown of the 11-on-11 period, a seven-yard slant to Otto Tia. Barnes led a second touchdown drive that was capped off by a Samuel Gamino two-yard run.

The lone scoring drive for the first team offense started on the 20-yard line as a red zone situational drive. Robert Briggs, who began the practice with a roughly 30-yard run up the middle, finished the possession with a three-yard scoring run. Petras did have a 35-yard pass to Tia that would have been a touchdown, but it was called back due to a holding penalty on the offense.

On defense, there were several big plays. The defenders managed four sacks, including two on third downs and another on fourth down. They also created one turnover with Ike Larsen tipping a pass in the end zone which Omari Okeke snagged out of the air while also getting a foot in bounds right at the end line to complete the catch.

Although a few surprise transfers caught the team off guard, the overall feeling among the team appears to be one of optimism. Anderson noted multiple times that he likes where the roster is at and that even with a couple starters in the portal, he doesn’t expect to need to add too many guys from the portal. Overall, Anderson said he felt  spring camp “was a success.”

“From this time last year, to now, it’s better football team,” Anderson said. “We’re not done by any means. But I feel like we’ve added value in every room through recruiting. Guys have developed. A lot of guys are playing better ball than this time last year. I feel like it’s putting us in a good position going into the summer.”

The defense, under the guidance of first-year defensive coordinator Nate Dreiling, appears to be quickly improving. It showed out quite well against the first team offense, largely limiting the run (outside of the one big gain on the ground), covering receivers tightly and making windows very small for Petras to try and fit passes through. The Aggies continue to see great play from returners like Larsen, but incoming players have been making their impact too. Anderson specifically pointed out defensive tackle Gabriel Iniguez, linebacker Shaun Dolac and safety Jordan Vincent as guys who have made their mark as newcomers on that side of the ball.

Another key area slated for much-need improvement with this team is the offensive line and Anderson didn’t shy away from praise for that unit which added several key transfers in addition to returning most of its starters from last year.

“I think our offensive line, collectively, is so much better than we were this time last year,” Anderson said. “We’re getting good two-deep work in there. And the competence level is going through the roof.”

For now, Utah State is done with practice and will transition into summer workout programs. Practices and camp will restart in late summer. The transfer portal, the bane of the Aggies at the moment, will close once again on April 30.

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