Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an eight-part series profiling Utah State’s football team by position. Next: Defensive Line.
It’s no secret one of the Aggies’ biggest questions heading into the 2019 college football season is how well will their offensive line come together.
That’s what happens when you graduate four two-year starters in the offensive trenches — all of whom garnered all-Mountain West honors a year ago, led by first-team center Quin Ficklin.
Indeed, Utah State will be pretty inexperienced at offensive line when it takes the field against Wake Forest on Aug. 30, in the season opener for both teams. Because of that inexperience, one of TJ Woods’ primary goals as USU’s offensive line coach “is to earn some respect when we go out there and take the field.”
Those sentiments were echoed by left tackle Alfred Edwards, who is the team’s lone returning starter in the offensive trenches.
“We certainly have a hungry group of guys on the offensive line,” Edwards said. “Everybody wants to prove themselves and I feel like we’re starting to earn respect on the team during camp. And so I’m really excited for this season.”
USU was in a similar situation in 2016 when all five O-linemen made their first career start in the season opener at Wisconsin. With five new starters in ’16, there was definitely some inconsistency and uneven performances early on, but that unit developed into one of the best offensive lines in the Mountain West.
The good news for the Aggies is they have had a lot of success recruiting O-linemen over the past few years. In the past two years alone, USU signed four offensive linemen who had at least one Power 5 Conference scholarship offer, plus Edwards had offers from nearly every program in the Mountain West.
Woods also coached at USU from 2009-12 — the final two of those seasons as the O-line coach — and has seen the difference on the recruiting front.
“Well, I think it’s night and day, and I don’t think that’s just at the O-line position,” Woods said. “I think it’s at every position. That doesn’t mean the final product is night and day different, but I think just from a recruiting standpoint this place looks different. The powers to be here have done some tremendous things in Logan ... and with our facilities here. It’s definitely a different feel and none of that stuff hurts recruiting, I can tell you that.”
Over the past few years, the Aggies have brought in more athletic recruits at O-line, which is something Woods is excited about and looking forward to build on.
“I think they’ve got a ton of potential,” Woods said. “You know, they’re all athletic. The last staff did a great job of recruiting and identifying long, athletic kids, and they have the right mindset. And to me, that’s probably the No. 1 thing. Obviously, you want to be athletic as an O-lineman, you want to be able to move, all those things, but the intangibles to me are what are most important.
“... But at the end of the day, potential just means you haven’t done anything yet, so that’s our job; that’s my job as the O-line coach is to get those guys ready to roll here in about two-and-a-half weeks. And we’re having a great time doing it.”
Having Edwards back at left tackle is a big piece to the puzzle. The 6-foot-7, 310-pounder is a legitimate candidate to garner all-conference accolades this season. Woods raved about No. 72’s athleticism and length, and said he is developing into a good leader, but asserted his biggest attribute is “he is a grinder. He wants to win and he’s going to do whatever it takes to get it done.”
“He’s a tough kid,” Woods said. “... He’s not interested in just surviving or being mediocre. He wants to be great, he has the potential to be great. There’s some things that we’re trying to fine-tune with him right now, but we’re really excited about Alfred.”
Edwards isn’t USU’s only projected starter at O-line with a substantial amount of experience. Junior center Demytrick Ali’ifua has played in every game the past two seasons and leads all Aggie O-linemen with 779 career snaps. No. 58 has four career starts.
Ali’ifua and Edwards will likely be joined in the starting lineup by left guard Heneli Avendano, right guard Karter Shaw and right tackle Andy Koch. All three of those players are freshmen who saw limited playing time a year ago without burning their redshirt year.
Koch, who played defensive end in high school, could be one of USU’s breakout performers in 2019. The 6-6, 290-pounder was a highly regarded high school recruit out of Eastvale, California. Koch received scholarship offers from four Pac-12 programs, Iowa State and Boise State, among others.
“I’m way excited,” Phillips said of Koch, who put on a substantial amount of weight, a lot of which was muscle, during the offseason. “He’s very athletic. You know, obviously he converted from being a D-lineman in high school, never playing O-line really, so there’s some rawness to him in his movements and all those things. But his sheer athleticism and his attitude and his character (are outstanding). ... I think he’s got the world at his fingertips, man. He can be as good as he wants to be.”
At the end of the first full week of fall camp, Jacob South (left tackle), Ty Shaw (left guard), Chandler Dolphin (center), Mohelika Uasike (right guard) and Jackson Owens (right tackle) were consistently playing with the second unit. Uasike, a converted defensive tackle, is a junior, as is Ty Shaw. Dolphin and South are redshirt freshmen, while Owens is a true freshman.
Two other O-linemen who could break into the two-deep are sophomore Kyler Hack and redshirt freshman Wyatt Bowles. Both guys have been limited during fall camp, and Bowles is currently sporting a cast on his forearm.
Other Aggie offensive linemen who are battling for playing time this season are true freshman Hunter Hill, Aric Davison, Logan Wood and Sione Lasike, and redshirt freshman Wade Meacham. Former Logan High standout Caden Andersen, a junior who just barely made the switch from defensive tackle, could also figure into the mix. Hill turned down offers from USC and Washington State, among others, to sign with Utah State.
Another true freshman, Ashton Adams, has been sidelined by an injury.
“We have a tremendous amount of depth, which is awesome,” Woods said. “There isn’t hardly any kids in that room where they’re way off the pace. There’s a lot of kids that might have slight disadvantages over some other guys playing right now, but I don’t feel like anybody should be counted out at this point, and obviously that’s baring injuries. ... I’m pleased with the overall competition in the room.”
It’s a fierce competition that’s been aided by lining up against an extremely deep, talented Aggie defensive line that features six seniors, including three who have garnered all-MW distinction.
“I feel like we have one of the more physical defensive lines in the whole Mountain West, so I feel like going against them has really just taught us to focus on our technique more and has helped us get stronger,” Edwards said. “And so I’m really glad we’ve been able to go against this D-line specifically.”