There’s no question some uncertainty abounds for Utah State heading into the 2019 football season.
Not only must the Aggies replace nine starters from last year’s record-breaking offense — one that shattered the Mountain West single-season record with 618 points — they must navigate through what on paper appears to be a significantly more difficult schedule. USU will face a minimum of seven teams — four of them on the road — that went to a bowl game a year ago. Of USU’s 12 regular season opponents from 2018, only four went bowling. Even USU’s home opener against FCS foe Stony Brook could be a potential challenge as the Seawolves have made back-to-back postseason appearances.
And yet, expectations are still high for the Aggies as they prepare for their 122nd season on the gridiron. For starters, USU was projected to finish second behind Boise State in the Mountain Division in Tuesday’s Mountain West preseason poll.
And while the Aggies will utilize several first-time starters for their season-opening game at Wake Forest, they will also have the luxury of a talented returning nucleus. USU welcomes back eight players who secured some kind of all-conference recognition last season, which is more than any other team in the Mountain West.
Headlining that nucleus is a trio of All-Americans in linebacker David Woodward, dynamite kickoff returner Savon Scarver and placekicker Dominik Eberle, plus quarterback Jordan Love, who the media tabbed as the 2019 preseason Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. The Aggies have already launched a Heisman Trophy campaign for Love, who threw for 3,567 yards and accounted for 38 touchdowns — a USU season-record 32 through the air — a year ago despite sitting out several quarters in blowout victories.
Love and fellow NFL prospect Tipa Galeai, a nightmare for opposing offensive lines, represented the Aggies at Mountain West Media Days on Wednesday at Green Valley Ranch Resort in Henderson, Nevada. USU head coach Gary Andersen raved about Love’s consistency and work ethic at the annual event.
“I know what we are going to get. We’re going to get his best shot,” Andersen said. “... What we need to make sure we do — and that’s the (coaching) staff, that’s the other players on the team — is do our part to continually help him and, quite frankly, feed off of what he’s giving us. ... We’ve got to get the right players around him. We’ve got to make sure we coach them the right way to give their best to be able to support Jordan on the field and off the field. But you’re talking about an unbelievable young man ... and his consistency is special.”
One of USU’s biggest question marks is at offensive line as talented, athletic sophomore Alfred Edwards is the only returning starter. However, Demytrick Ali’ifua was a valuable asset at left guard and lined up for nearly 400 offensive snaps last season as a sophomore, plus Andy Koch, Karter Shaw, Jacob South, Kyler Hack, Chandler Dolphin, Ty Shaw and Wyatt Bowles — most of whom are redshirt freshmen — were rewarded with some meaningful playing time in 2018.
The Aggies welcome back two proven playmakers in wide receiver Jordan Nathan and running back Gerold Bright, who made a combined 10 starts on last year’s 11-2 squad. Despite splitting the carries with current Kansas City Chief Darwin Thompson, Bright still managed to rush for 888 yards and 10 touchdowns, and catch 22 passes for 232 yards and three scores.
Bright, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry in ’18, garnered the praise of Andersen for his unselfishness. Andersen and his staff brought in a pair of transfers —Jaylen Warren, who was the NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year at Snow College, and BYU graduate transfer Riley Burt — to push Bright, and the senior-to-be has taken the challenge in stride.
“A lot of running backs would look at that and say, ‘Oh, the coaches don’t think I’m any good. Oh my goodness, they’re bringing in guys with experience,’” Andersen said. “That’s not the case (with Bright). The case is we believe we need three quality backs to get to where we need to be. He’s excepted that. He’s put his arm around them, he’s helped them understand how to learn the offense, so he’s another tremendous young man.
“What we expect from him is big plays. We run an offense that thrives on big plays. We run an offense that thrives on wearing you out and then not let (opposing defenses) get lined up, and (then) we’re going to make big plays.”
On the flip side, inexperience shouldn’t be much of an issue on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, this is arguably USU’s most talented defense since Andersen’s final year (2012) in his first stint at the Aggie helm.
Woodward is a legitimate candidate for Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. He led the conference in tackles (134) as a a sophomore and ranked among the league leaders in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (5.0). Andersen referred to his speedy, athletic tackling machine as “a tremendously instinctive player.”
“He’s gotten stronger, he has gotten bigger,” Andersen said. “I think his football knowledge will continue to grow as we allow him to do a few different things. You know, every defense is not the same every year, and I think our tweaks will give him an opportunity to potentially make some more big plays. I don’t know if we’ll match that tackle number (from last year) or not, but we’ll put him in a position to make some big plays for us.”
Not only do the Aggies return the conference’s top tackler, but the MW leader in sacks (Galeai, 10.5) and the man who tied for the No. 1 spot in interceptions in cornerback DJ Williams (four). Like Woodward, Williams and Galeai were selected to the preseason all-league squad.
“Ten-and-half sacks, that’s only a starting point for me,” Galeai said. “I want to make that just a little benchmark for me to go off of for next year and hopefully exceed that number.”
In addition to Woodward, Williams and Galeai, USU’s defense will be bolstered by a wealth of proven commodities in defensive linemen Fua Leilua, Devon Anderson, Christopher ’Unga, Jacoby Wildman and Justus Te’i, and defensive backs Shaq Bond, Ja’Marcus Ingram and Cameron Haney. Bond and Ingram both missed significant time with season-ending injuries last fall. USU’s talent and depth in the defensive trenches rivals that of Boise State’s in the Mountain West.
Once again, USU’s special teams units should be downright special. There is a treasure trove of talent, starting with Scarver and Eberle. Scarver led the nation in kickoff return yardage a year ago, while Eberle has been one of college football’s elite kickers the past two seasons. The senior-to-be has never missed an extra point during his time at USU and is the only Aggie to ever boot four field goals of 50 or more yards.
“That’s huge just knowing that if we’re not going to score a touchdown on the drive, at least get us into field goal position because I know he’s going to make the kick 10 times out of 10 times,” Love said of Eberle. “So just having a kicker like that, it kind of takes some (pressure) off the offense. ... I mean, you’d like to score (TDs) every time, but if you don’t score just get into field goal position (and) he’s going to get three points.”
USU’s other top special teams performers are Nathan and punter Aaron Dalton, who was granted a medical hardship and is primed to be a four-year starter. Nathan is a bona fide first-team all-conference contender as a punt returner, plus teammate Deven Thompkins also has explosive potential as a return specialist.
As expected, the Mountain West’s future bowl lineup was announced Wednesday at Media Days. The six-year cycle, which will start in 2020, will include the four existing Mountain West tie-ins — the Famous Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona and Hawaii bowls — plus the Los Angeles Bowl and an ESPN-operated bowl that will be announced in the near future.
Additionally, a Mountain West team will get selected to the Cheez-It Bowl if one of the bowl’s primary partners are unavailable to fill their slot. The Cheez-It and Los Angeles bowls will feature opponents from Power 5 conferences.
A year ago, the Mountain West filled all five of its bowl slots, plus Boise State was picked to compete in the First Responder Bowl. Wyoming, the league’s seventh bowl eligible team, was not invited to a bowl.
MW TITLE GAME
The Mountain West is exploring the possibility of moving the conference championship game to a neutral site in Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Craig Thompson, the commissioner of the MW, said the move could take place as early as next season.
This past season the division champion with the highest winning percentage in conference-only games hosted the MW title contest. A series of tiebreakers were instituted in case of a tie, the first of which was head-to-head competition.
Mountain Division champion Boise State and West Division champ Fresno State finished with the same regular season record last fall, but the Broncos got to host the title game because they beat the Bulldogs head to head.