The 122nd season of Utah State football is less than nine days away.
The Aggies have a big opportunity to make an early season statement when they travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to square off against Wake Forest next Friday.
Although they have 13 starters to replace, the Aggies do welcome back eight players who earned all-Mountain West honors a year ago in explosive kickoff returner Savon Scarver (first team), quarterback Jordan Love (second team), defensive end Tipa Galeai (second), linebacker David Woodward (second), cornerback DJ Williams (honorable mention), defensive tackle Fua Leilua (HM), DT Christopher ’Unga (HM) and kicker Dominik Eberle (HM).
These eight athletes have proven track records of solid, consistent play, along with fellow Aggies like running back Gerold Bright, offensive tackle Alfred Edwards, defensive tackle Devon Anderson, wide receiver/punt returner Jordan Nathan and punter Aaron Dalton.
Several guys with limited if any starting experience will need to elevate their level of play in order for USU to build on last year’s success. In no particular order, here are four offensive and defensive players I expect to have breakout seasons:
• Cameron Haney: I’ve always felt the cornerback has had the potential to put together a big season, and he’ll get that opportunity as a senior. No. 6 started 10 games during his first three seasons in Logan and was especially effective with limited snaps as a sophomore and junior as he recorded a combined 13 passes defended and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Haney has yet to intercept a pass as an Aggie. I would be surprised if he doesn’t put an end to that drought in 2019.
• Andy Koch: Simply put, as long as he stays healthy, this redshirt freshman should have a special career at Utah State. I believe the offensive tackle, who had scholarship offers from five Power 5 Conference programs, will be an all-conference performer this season.
The strength and conditioning photos of the 6-foot-6, 290-pound Koch that came out last month on social media still blow me away. The converted defensive end is built like a gigantic tight end and his athleticism will allow him to dominate as he continues to develop as an offensive lineman.
• Troy Lefeged Jr.: This safety was one of the team’s biggest revelations during spring camp, and he has further entrenched himself as a starter during fall camp. The former Old Dominion commit will no doubt bring some physicality to USU’s secondary.
As a sophomore at Fullerton (California) Junior College last season, Lefeged Jr. intercepted two passes — one he returned for a touchdown — and broke up four more in 10 games. Expect No. 3 to exceed both of those marks in ’19.
• Siaosi Mariner: In the wideout’s three seasons at the University of Utah, he caught 52 passes for 785 yards and four touchdowns. As long as Mariner continues to develop his chemistry with Love, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he exceeds all of those numbers in his one season in Logan.
The Aggies lost three excellent receivers following the 2018 campaign in Ron’quavion Tarver, Jalen Greene and Aaren Vaughns. I expect Mariner to be USU’s go-to receiver in ’19.
• Kevin Meitzenheimer: I really thought this linebacker would be one of USU’s breakout performers a season ago, but he was limited by a knee injury. As long as the junior stays healthy, this is the year he will make his mark.
Meitzenheimer, a three-sport athlete in high school, finished with a combined 32 tackles, including 2.0 for a loss, as a freshman and sophomore. He will double those totals in ’19.
• Caleb Repp: No. 87 could never quite find his groove/role during his three seasons at Utah. Repp, who like Mariner is a graduate transfer, spent time as defensive end and tight end.
There is no question what Repp’s role will be during his lone season in Cache Valley. The native of Rancho Cucamonga, California, has impressive speed — he was a very good high school sprinter — for a tight end and, at 6-5, he will be a nightmare for opposing linebackers and defensive backs to contend with.
• Justus Te’i: Aggie fans got a glimpse of what Te’i was capable of in 2017 when he forced a pair of fumbles against New Mexico and recovered one of them. No. 51 started a combined nine games as a freshman and sophomore before redshirting last season.
Whether he’s lining up as a defensive end or linebacker, the athletic Te’i will be an impact performer in ’19. USU is loaded at the defensive tackle position, plus Tipa Galeai is probably the best pass rusher in the Mountain West. Those D-linemen will open the door for Te’i to make a lot of plays this fall.
• Jaylen Warren: I’m still a bit perplexed as to why this junior running back wasn’t offered a scholarship by USU until Gary Andersen was rehired as the head coach. I saw Warren play a time or two at East High School, and he blew me away by rushing for an astounding 3,099 yards and 38 TDs as a senior.
The 5-8, 215-pounder went the junior college route his first two seasons and continued to rack up gaudy statistics. Warren was named the 2018 NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year after averaging 159.4 rushing yards per game as a sophomore at Snow College.
USU had the best tailback tandem in the Mountain West last season in current Kansas Chief Darwin Thompson and current senior Gerold Bright. Thanks to Warren, I believe that trend will continue in ’19.
Here are a few other Aggies who could surprise a lot of people this fall: Heneli Avendano, Fr., OL; Derek Wright, Jr., WR; Andre Grayson, So., DB; Deven Thompkins, So., WR. I’m also expecting Cache Valley natives Taylor Compton (Jr., WR), Jacoby Wildman (Sr., DE), Jake Pitcher (Jr., DE) and Chase Nelson (Jr., RB/special teams) to be key pieces to the puzzle for the Aggies in their quest for a Mountain West championship.