Editor’s note: This is the second in an eight-part series profiling Utah State’s football team by position. Next: Wide receivers/tight ends
In each of the past 10 seasons, the Aggies have racked up at least 2,000 yards rushing as a team.
Prior to that streak, Utah State’s football program hadn’t amassed 2,000 yards on the ground in 33 years. In those 33 years, the Aggies only competed in a pair of bowl games. During its aforementioned 10-season stretch, USU has made seven bowl appearances.
It’s fair to say establishing a formidable rushing attack has been vital to USU’s growth as a program, and that trend of success should continue in 2019. That’s because the Aggies have arguably their deepest group of running backs since future NFL draft picks Robert Turbin, Michael Smith and Kerwynn Smith were wreaking havoc on opposing defenses in 2012.
“I’m very confident,” USU senior tailback Gerold Bright said. “We’ve got great backs and we’re pretty deep in that position, with great talent, so I have no worries in our run game this year.”
The explosive Bright is primed to have a big final season and headlines USU’s talented running back corps. The native of Pensacola, Florida, teamed up with current Kansas City Chief Darwin Thompson to form the most potent tailback tandem in the Mountain West a year ago.
Bright rushed for 888 yards and 10 touchdowns, and averaged an impressive 6.3 yards per carry in 2018. Bright also caught 22 passes for 232 yards and a trio of TDs. During his collegiate career, No. 1 has averaged 6.8 ypc.
“He’s going into his senior year and he’s had a lot of opportunities, and is going to get some more,” said USU running backs coach Stacy Collins, who is also the team’s special teams coordinator. “So, he understands where he’s at and understands that this is his last run here at Utah State, and he’s working hard to make the most of it.”
During his previous two seasons, Bright scored four touchdowns of 70 or more yards. The former Aggie slot receiver has worked hard in the weight room and is ready to be “an every down back,” which is one of his main goals. Two other of Bright’s primary objectives this season are to break the 1,000-yard barrier and “to be a lot more physical and finish my runs like a true running back.”
“I’m ready to go,” Bright said. “This is my last year. I’ve got to write my ticket. I want to get to the (NFL), (so) I’ve got to perform. So, that’s the goal. You know, winning is the goal and that’s going to help me progress, as well as my stats too.”
During Mountain West Media Days, USU head coach Gary Andersen stressed the importance of having three go-to tailbacks. A trio of newcomers are vying to join Bright as two of those go-to backs, and those players are BYU graduate transfer Riley Burt, junior college transfer Jaylen Warren and true freshman Enoch Nawahine.
Nawahine verbally committed to Boise State in February of 2018 but never enrolled there, and ended up signing with USU 12 months later. The native of Kahuku, Hawaii, participated with the Aggies during spring camp and was definitely one of their top newcomers, regardless of position.
“He’s going to continue to get better and better,” Collins said of Nawahine. “You know, he had been out a year with his shoulder surgery and came back, and I thought he did some really good things during the spring. He’s doing a tremendous job this summer and has continued to get better throughout the fall.”
As a high school senior, Nawahine rushed for 985 yards and 11 TDs on 163 carries.
As well as Nawahine has performed so far, there’s a decent chance he will redshirt this season, especially if Burt and Warren continue their upward trajectory. Warren and Burt arrived in Cache Valley this summer with the expectation of earning immediate playing time.
“They’ve both picked up (the offense) very, very fast, and they both have different strengths and things they need to work on,” Collins said of Burt and Warren. “But they did a great job of being here in the summer ready to roll, and they’ve picked it up and have continued to compete in those positions.”
In his final season at BYU, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Burt gained 323 yards and scored twice on 59 carries. The former Box Elder star tailback and sprinter shined in the Cougars’ 49-18 triumph over Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as he rushed for a career-high 110 yards.
Warren is coming off a memorable sophomore season at Snow College, where he finished first nationally among JUCO players in rushing yards per game with 159.4. The 5-8, 215-pounder scored 15 TDs on the ground en route to being named the NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year.
The powerful tailback was also a high school star as he accumulated a whopping 3,099 yards on the ground — a single-season Beehive State record — as a senior at East High. Warren matched the single-season state standard with 38 rushing TDs that season, to boot.
“We’re excited to have Jaylen here,” Collins said. “He’s a competitor. Obviously, he’s an in-state kid and you love to get those in-state kids, and he’s going to have a great season this year. He’s a hard worker, does a lot of things well, has got good burst. He’s physical, so I’m excited to watch him when the lights come on.”
Another running back who could carve out a role with the Aggies is former Logan High standout Chase Nelson, who spent his first three seasons at USU as a safety. The redshirt junior was one of the team’s top special teams performers a year ago.
“You know, Chase has done a great job,” Collins said. “He certainly produced last year for us on special teams. He’ll do that again this year, but when Chase gets his opportunities to come out here and compete, he does a great job. So, don’t ever overlook Chase because he’s just got that DNA in him. He’s a great competitor and he’s going a find a way to compete every time he’s on the field.”
Adding depth at running back are redshirt sophomore Sione Fehoko and Colorado Mesa transfer Pailate Makakona, who are both Utah natives. This is Fehoko’s third season at USU. Fehoko and Makakona, a sophomore, played their high school ball at Cottonwood and Hunter, respectively.
When asked about the primary positional goals at RB, Collins stressed the importance of ball security, playing “with relentless effort” and having “one explosive play in every seven touches” — which constitutes a run of 10 or more yards and a reception of 15 or more yards. Collins is confident his players are up to the challenge.
“We have a great group of running backs,” he said. “I think we’re deep. There’s a lot of competition in that group, so it’s been good. We’ve got to continue to keep grinding through fall camp, but it’s been a solid group and they’ve worked hard.”