The past couple of months have been a grind for Utah State’s football players in the weight room.
Those athletes will now turn their attention toward fall camp and bouncing back from a rough COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. The first of 16 practices — there will also be a pair of scrimmages — took place Friday. USU head coach Blake Anderson addressed the media Thursday at the Spetman Auditorium.
“I feel like we’ve had a really, really good summer leading into fall camp,” Anderson said. “The guys have been off for the last five days, but they worked extremely hard up to that point, and they’re in great hands. (Head strength & conditioning coach) Paul (Jackson) and his staff do a phenomenal job and we’re really blessed to have a great strength staff. ... Just listening to his feedback, (it’s been) very, very positive in the sense of just daily consistency, which is the key. ... I felt like guys obviously got bigger, faster, stronger over the summer, so a good foundation for where we’re headed.”
The Aggies are anxious to get back on a winning track after stumbling to a record of 1-5 last fall. USU competed in a bowl game in eight of the previous nine seasons.
This year’s Aggie roster features a good mixture of returning impact performers and newcomers. USU welcomes back nine starters on offense and defense, plus 44 letterwinners. However, there are also 39 first-year Aggies, although 15 of them are transfers from FBS programs. Of those 15 transfers, nine previously competed in a Power 5 Conference program.
With this kind of balance between veterans and newcomers, Anderson is expecting some fierce battles for playing time during fall camp.
“I think we’ve got battles all across the board and the thing that excites me is there’s not a guy sitting in a position that can just sit back and relax and knows that he doesn’t have somebody fighting for his job,” Anderson said. “We’re wide open, very open-minded about what the two deep’s going to look like. I expect us to play a lot of people. I don’t expect us being one guy taking all of the reps at any particular position. ... And I think that creates opportunity and excitement because the players know there’s a possibility (they) can get on the field, even if maybe a year ago they weren’t able to do so.”
One of the most intriguing battles will take place at the quarterback position. Junior Andrew Peasley started the final two games last fall and garnered the praise of Anderson. The Aggies also have a proven Division I signal caller in Arkansas State transfer Logan Bonner, who started 15 games for the Red Wolves, but missed all of USU’s spring camp while recovering from an injury. Bonner, a junior eligibility wise, wasn’t fully cleared until “a couple weeks ago,” Anderson said.
Anderson did say Peasley will take the first snap of fall camp with the first-string offense, but “Logan may take the second snap with the ones, I don’t know.”
“I feel like Peasley separated himself enough from the rest of the group in the spring, and obviously the experience we have, that experience that Logan has of actually playing at the Division I level, we’re going to let those two guys go at it,” Anderson said. “Cooper (Legas) will battle his tail off to try to get in that fight, but I’ll tell you fall camp doesn’t create a lot of opportunities to get a ton of reps for everybody. ... One thing I did notice about Peasley all summer is he was at the front of every line, he was at the front of every sprint. He’s done everything he can to have a great quarterback battle in fall camp.”
In addition to Bonner, Anderson is excited to have the services of a handful of other guys who missed all or most of spring camp with injuries — athletes like starting cornerback Cam Lampkin and super senior wide receiver Jordan Nathan, who has made an impact ever since he was a true freshman.
Nathan is one of 20 Aggies who have already earned their bachelor’s degrees. The others are cornerback Terin Adams, offensive lineman Demytrick Ali’ifua, defensive end Jaylin Bannerman, safety Shaq Bond, Bonner, wide receiver Brandon Bowling, WR Sean Carter, kicker Connor Coles, linebacker Cash Gilliam, CB Andre Grayson, DE Nick Heninger, running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole, OL Maisen Knight, CB Kyle Mayberry, defensive tackle Marcus Moore, DT Phillip Paea, S Hunter Reynolds, LB Justin Rice and RB Calvin Tyler Jr.
Ali’ifua, Bond, Grayson, Heninger, Henry-Cole and Moore all are returning starters, while Nathan has made 32 starters during his Aggie career. Additionally, Bonner, Bowling and Rice were all starters at Arkansas State last season.
Rice should be one of the top defensive players in the Mountain West as he was a first-team all-conference selection for Fresno State as a sophomore. The Modesto, California, native elected to transfer to ASU when it appeared the Mountain West would not play football last fall. Rice arrived at Arkansas State the week before fall camp and it took him a while to get acclimated, but he ended up ranking first nationally among all FBS players with 18.5 tackles for loss.
Anderson, who was Arkansas State’s head coach from 2014-20, referred to Rice as the quarterback of Utah State’s defense.
“I mean, he puked his way through the first few practices, he did not play very well for the first few weeks,” Anderson said of Rice’s arrival at ASU. “It took him midseason to get in shape and then he lit up the conference of rest of the year. He’s in the best shape of his life right now. He truly has elevated his work ethic. I’ve challenged him a lot. That was probably his biggest deficiency was just consistent daily working. He’s changed that. He and Paul Jackson have really hit it off. He’s done extremely well in that area and I think he’s matured a lot just personality wise, and it shows in his leadership with the guys on defense.”
Rice was a first-team all-Sun Belt Conference honoree a year ago, while Bonner and Bowling were honorable mention all-league selections. Ali’fua, Moore, Heninger and Bond were named to the honorable mention all-MW squad last season, as were fellow returning Aggie starters AJ Vongphanchanh (linebacker), Stephen Kotsanlee (punter) and Savon Scarver (kickoff returner).
USU’s other returning starters are OL Alfred Edwards, Grayson, CB Zahodri Jackson, LB Kevin Meitzenheimer, tight end Carson Terrell, WR Deven Thompkins, WR Derek Wright, WR Justin McGriff, OL Jacob South, S Dominic Tatum and OL Falepule Alo.
All 16 of Utah State’s practices during fall camp are closed to the public. This decision was made as a precaution for COVID-19, Anderson said. Both scrimmages (Saturday, Aug. 14 and Saturday, Aug. 21) are open to the public and will take place at Maverik Stadium.
LEAVING THE PROGRAM
Three former Aggies have left the program within the last few months in OL Hunter Hill, DT Jahaziel Lee and safety/striker Breaker Mendenhall.
Mendenhall, the son of former BYU and current Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall, “has stepped away from football altogether as or right now to deal with some personal issues, and so we’re leaving the door open for him to come back at some point if he chooses to, but as of right now it doesn’t appear as if he’s going to be in a place where he feels comfortable doing that in time to play this particular season,” Anderson said. The head coach was impressed by Mendenhall’s contributions during spring camp.
Hill entered the transfer portal in mid-July, while Lee followed suit last week. Hill was a highly-touted high school recruit out of Orem and had scholarship offers from USC and Washington State, but never cracked the two-deep during his two seasons as an Aggie.
Lee transferred from Georgia Tech this past winter and was around for spring camp. Anderson said Lee’s mother was recently diagnosed with an illness and “he’s going to try and get closer to home.” The graduate transfer is from Louisiana.