With fall camp over and most of the spots on the depth chart shored up, Utah State’s football team can turn its focus to its season opener.
The Aggies will kick off their 122nd season on the road against Atlantic Coast Conference foe Wake Forest on Friday. Opening kickoff from BT&T Field in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is scheduled for 6:05 p.m.
The Aggies are hungry to build off last year’s success. USU matched its single-season school record with 11 wins in 2018 and shattered several single-season records, including scoring offense (47.5 points per game) and total offense (497.4 yards per game).
Despite only returning two full-time starters from their record-setting offense, quarterback Jordan Love is confident the Aggies can be elite on that side of the ball.
“Our offense can do the exact same things even better,” USU quarterback Jordan Love said during Monday’s press conference. “... We’re super excited to get out there and just show out. Coming off last year, obviously, we got a lot of hype for our team. I don’t think people are understanding what we’re going to do this year. It’s going to be a special season and a real big thing. I can’t say much because we’re just going to get out there and show you what we can do.”
What were the biggest strides USU’s offense made during fall camp?
“People are getting the pace down,” Love said. “It’s about learning the offense and getting comfortable with it. That’s the one thing we got a lot better at, was getting comfortable with the offense and knowing what we need to be doing every play. Obviously, we’re going to continue to get better with that once the season starts and we get into some real game experience.”
Real game experience will be especially valuable on the offensive line, which only returns one starter (Alfred Edwards) and one other athlete (Demytrick Ali’ifua) who has taken more than 100 snaps at the collegiate level.
Baring any unforseen circusmstanses, the Aggies will be starting a pair of redshirt freshmen (right guard Karter Shaw and right tackle Andy Koch), one sophomore (Edwards, the left tackle) and two juniors (Ali’ifua, the center, and left guard Ty Shaw) in the offensive trenches against the Demon Deacons.
USU head coach Gary Andersen feels this core group of offensive linemen has the potential to be “special” during their time in Logan.
“We were all in with these kids in January and we’re still all in with them,” Andersen said. “I’m excited to see them play. This will be a stiff test for them walking into that situation and setting with that (Wake Forest) defensive front. It’s going to be fun to see what they can do and how they hold up. ... They’re young and we expect them to be good. The sooner they mature and show that they can do it, we can be special. Those five guys are going to have to get it done. We have eight of them that we feel pretty good about.”
Another position group Andersen is excited to see in action is the wide receiver corps. This was “probably” the hardest spot to decide, in terms of the depth chart, during fall camp, Andersen said.
Utah graduate transfer Siaosi Mariner and All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver have emerged as the starting outside receivers, while dangerous slot target Jordan Nathan should make his 19th career start against the Demon Deacons. Junior college transfer Derek Wright and true freshman Ajani Carter are listed as the primary backups at the outside receiver position.
“There was a lot of competition at wide receiver and there still is a lot of competition at wideout,” Andersen said. “That will become more clear as you play a game to see exactly when the ball gets in certain kids’ hands, what takes place, who the playmakers are. That’s the challenge in all three phases of a football team, is to make sure you get the playermakers a chance. ... You have to catch them and you have to make plays because in this offense, if you’re a guy that just catches it and falls down, it doesn’t do much use for the offense.”
As for the defensive side of the ball, senior defensive tackle Devon Anderson asserted “we all came together as far as completely learning the defense” during the second half of fall camp. “Not many mistakes were made, everybody knew their assignments and we finished strong.”
The Aggies are brimming with confidence defensively. Not only does USU welcome back seven returning starters, but several key reserves and a collection of players that ultimately accounted for 41 passes broken up, 25.5 sacks, 11 interceptions and nine forced fumbles from a year ago.
With the addition of Power 5 Conference program graduate transfers Nick Heninger (Utah, defensive end) and Terin Adams (Arizona State, cornerback) the Aggies have gotten even better defensivey. Anderson raved about USU’s defensive depth.
“If I go down or somebody else goes down, it’s not going to be a panic,” he said. “We believe in every guy in our room — the defensive line, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. We believe the ones, twos, and threes all can do the same as the ones. That’s the number one thing going into the season, is that we have depth and people that know what they’re doing.”
The Aggies released their Week 1 depth chart on Sunday and there were no big surprises, although redshirt freshman O-lineman Heneli Avendano, who received a lot of first-team reps during fall camp, is currently listed as the backup at left guard.
Shaq Bond did end up beating out fellow junior Braxton Gunther for the other starting safety spot alongside junior college transfer Troy Lefeged Jr.
Justus Te’i and Elijah Shelton are two guys who should see substantial playing time at linebacker and as down linemen. Te’i was penciled in as a Week 1 starter at defensive end, while Shelton is listed as the backup to All-American David Woodward at inside linebacker.
Jaylen Warren is currently listed as the No. 2 running back, while junior Carson Terrell and Utah graduate transfer Caleb Repp are still battling to be the starting tight end.
Andersen raved about Repp during Monday’s press conference. Andersen mentored Repp as Utah’s defensive line coach a year ago.
“Caleb is a tremendous athlete,” Andersen said. “He’s a good football player, whether he was a defense end, tight end or playing wide receiver. He’s been a really good player. We expect big things out of him and he’s a natural. He can go out and play in any spot when you need him to, whether it’s blocking at the line scrimmage or it’s running a pass route. He might even pop in there on some third downs and rush the passer, who knows.”