While watching Tuesday’s practice from the stands in Maverik Stadium, I couldn’t help but think there is something special brewing for the 2018 Utah State football season.

Granted, optimism always seems to abound at the start of fall camp in college stadiums throughout the country, but I consider myself a realist when it comes to sports. To be completely frank, I had my doubts about the Aggies prior to the fall camps of 2016 and 2017.

You see, during my previous three seasons reporting on the Aggies, I watched the defense have its way against the offense in far too many scrimmages and 11-on-11 drills. However, this summer has a different feel to it. That’s because the Aggies have more offensive weapons at their disposal than they have in at least five years.

USU averaged 226 yards passing per game a year ago, and I would be very surprised if that number doesn’t increase significantly in ’18. Not only do the Aggies welcome back proven targets in Ron’quavion Tarver, Dax Raymond, Jordan Nathan, Aaren Vaughns and Savon Scarver, there are several newcomers who are primed to make an immediate impact.

USC transfer Jalen Greene, junior college transfer Devin Heckstall and true freshmen Deven Thompkins have turned some heads since fall camp started, plus Logan High products Chad Artist, Taylor Compton and DJ Nelson continue to improve and have the potential to be valuable playmakers.

Quarterback Jordan Love has looked very comfortable during the three practices I have attended and will surely improve on his 54.9 completion percentage. The redshirt sophomore has gotten significantly bigger and stronger since first stepping foot on campus, and his hard work is starting to pay off.

Matt Wells and his coaching staff made the right decision having Love start the last six games of the 2017 campaign, and the Californian will greatly benefit from having David Yost, the same offensive coordinator, for the second straight year.

USU’s rushing game, on the other hand, is definitely more of a question mark. Nevertheless, with all of the options in the passing game, coupled with an offensive line that has all five returning starters and some established depth, I think the rushing attack will be just fine.

Veteran Gerold Bright and JUCO All-American Darwin Thompson are duking it out for that starting tailback position, and both players are exceptional athletes. Additionally, Eltoro Allen and Justen Hervey possess explosive speed, while fellow returnees Tre Miller and Morian Walker Jr. give the Aggies big, physical options at running back.

The Aggies return nine offensive and nine defensive starters from a year ago, plus All-American kicker Dominik Eberle and soon-to-be four-year starting punter Aaron Dalton. There is no substitute for experience and Utah State has plenty of that.

Another reason I’m confident the Aggies will win a lot of games this fall is they have a very favorable schedule. Instead of squaring off on the road against a second Power 5 Conference team like they did last year, the Aggies will host a New Mexico State squad that lost a wealth of starters.

USU should roll at Maverik Stadium against NMSU and Tennessee Tech and, on paper, should be heavy favorites against most of its Mountain West opponents at home. A 6-0 record on Merlin Olsen Field this season is a very reasonable goal.

As far as the rest of the schedule goes, the Aggies avoided what appear to be the top two teams in the West Division of the Mountain West in Fresno State and San Diego State — a squad USU never seems to match up well against. Road tilts against Colorado State and Wyoming appear to be less daunting than usual because both programs lost a lot of starters, plus BYU is in rebuilding mode after last year’s struggles, meaning a win in Provo is undoubtedly more likely than normal. I firmly believe the Aggies should only be legitimate underdogs twice — road contests against Michigan State and Boise State — during the regular season.

I don’t think anybody will be surprised if USU’s regular season finale, a Nov. 24 showdown in Boise, is for the conference’s Mountain Division title. It’s my belief this could be the program’s best team since joining the Mountain West prior to the 20113 season. In order for that to happen, here are some more things the Aggies must do well this fall:

n USU must improve on its 34 percent third-down conversion rate on offense. The Aggies have struggled in third-down situations since the 2013 campaign, which is the last time they are converted at better than a 36 percent clip.

n The Aggies must shore up their rushing defense, which seems likely with the entire starting front end returning, plus the addition of Power 5 Conference transfers Fua Leilua (defensive end) and Tipa Galeai (linebacker). USU ranked 115th in the NCAA last year as it allowed 216.4 yards on the ground an outing.

n Ball hawks must emerge in the secondary after the Aggies graduated All-American cornerback Jalen Davis and safety Dallin Leavitt, who was the team’s emotional leader last season. Those two players combined for nine of USU’s 13 interceptions and 20 of the squad’s 44 pass breakups a year ago.

So far during fall camp, safety Shaquez Bond, a junior college transfer, and hybrid safety/linebacker Baron Gajkowski have proven they can pick off passes.

An encouraging thing for USU’s defense is it forced 18 fumbles a year ago, and the players that accounted for 16 of those are back. Also, Louy Compton is the Aggies’ only non-returner who recovered a fumble last season.

n Utah State ranked fourth nationally in defensive touchdowns (five) and sixth in turnovers forced (29) in ’17, and those trends must continue in ’18.

n As opportunistic as the Aggies were defensively last season, a lot of that was canceled out by the offense’s propensity to give the ball back. Utah State lost 11 fumbles and threw 13 interceptions last year. In order to challenge for a conference title, the Aggies must improve their turnover margin.

n USU’s recent failures in down-to-the-wire games are well documented. That alarming trend needs to be reversed in ’18.


Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.