The wait is over for the Aggies.
Fall camp officially started with a two-hour practice on Thursday afternoon at the Utah State practice fields. Nearly 110 athletes donned practice jerseys, shorts and helmets for the first of 24 practices in preparation for the 122nd season of Aggie football.
“The first day of camp is always a good day,” USU senior running back Gerold Bright said. “You’ve got excitement, you’ve got kids full of energy and ready to go. I was seeing a lot of effort, guys reaching for balls. You know, we’ve got to stay off the ground a little bit more and be smart, but overall we had a good first day.”
The lion’s share of the practice consisted of positional drills, but there were some special teams scenarios, some one-v-one battles between the skill position players and defensive backs, and some 11-on-11 live action.
USU head coach Gary Andersen was especially pleased with how his team performed on special teams.
“You don’t work a lot on that during the summer time and I thought we kicked the ball pretty well,” Andersen said. “It was a huge positive. The drills were very clean and precise, especially with punt (drills). ... And then we snapped the ball with the centers (well) and, again, that may seem trivial to a lot of people, but it was much improved from spring (camp). In the spread offense, if you don’t effectively snap the football then you really don’t have a chance.”
There was some good give and take between the offense and defense Thursday. For starters, on the first live play of fall camp, Aggie All-American linebacker David Woodward intercepted a pass and returned it for a pick-six. Later in the afternoon, safety Cash Gilliam, a junior college transfer who started his collegiate career at Kentucky, deftly wrestled the ball away from Caleb Repp on a deep pass over the middle.
And while Gilliam got the best of Repp on that play, the Utah graduate transfer bounced back and hauled in some clutch receptions at the tight end spot.
“Caleb made a couple of big third-down plays when Jordan (Love) threw the ball to him, and that was great to see,” Andersen said. “You know, that’s what Caleb expects, that’s what Jordan expects out of Caleb, that’s what we expect out of Caleb.”
Another tight end who caught the ball well and ran some crisp routes for the Aggies at the practice was former Sky View star Bryce Mortenson. The redshirt freshman is healthy — the 6-foot-6 Smithfield native had his arm in a sling for much of last season — and has settled in at an ideal playing weight, Andersen said.
“We’ll see how good of a player he can be,” Andersen said. “Bryce has done a nice job. ... He had a nice first day out here today. He made some catches, he feels more confident in the offense. It’s obvious he ... (knows) what he’s doing, so he seems to be playing fast, which is a huge positive. And he’s in a heated battle to get himself on the field in special teams and in the tight end position.”
Another highlight from the practice was wide receiver Derek Wright snaring an outstanding one-handed catch on a 30-plus-yard fade pattern while being blanketed by cornerback Jarrod Green. Wright, a transfer from Snow College, looked sharp during spring camp.
The receiver spot is one of USU’s biggest question marks heading into the season, but standout senior cornerback/nickelback DJ Williams was impressed by that unit on Day 1 of fall camp.
“The receiving corps was real good today, man,” said Williams, who intercepted four passes and broke up 11 more as a junior. “I can actually admit that they got me today on one-on-ones. Siaosi (Mariner) got me, Savon (Scarver). You know, they did real good today, so I look forward to going against them this whole fall camp. It’s going to be fun.”
Andersen was impressed by how composed USU’s defensive backs appeared during 11-on-11 action, which can be a challenge considering the fast tempo the Aggie offense operates with.
“It’s hard to line up against our offense and I thought that group of kids did a nice job of settling in,” he said.
The next seven practices — Friday, Saturday and every weekday next week — will be held from 2:45-5:15 p.m. at the USU practice fields and will be open to the public. The Aggies will add shoulder pads to their practices starting Saturday, and will don full pads starting next Tuesday.
Andersen is entering his 10th season as a Division I head coach, but has been coaching well longer than any of his current players have been alive. The former University of Utah and Ricks College athlete has been coaching since 1988.
“I was informed today that this is, what, year 31 or 32, something like that,” Andersen said. “That’s a long time. But for me when you’re in a position to be at a university that really has the core believes that you have — and Utah State’s always going to have that — (it’s a great situation). It’s lip service at some places that the student-athletes come first, but here that’s the way it’s run from the president all the way down and, quite frankly, the fans expect that also. So that’s very comforting for me and I’m in my comfort zone (at USU).”
Andersen went on to say how much football means to him and it’s something he won’t take for granted.
A handful of USU’s veteran players are donning different numbers this season. Bright, for one, has switched from No. 8 to No. 1.
“No. 3 is my favorite number, so I just wanted to get something close to it,” he said. “No. 1 in the program and No. 1 in our hearts.”
Other Aggie veterans who have switched numbers are all-conference defensive end Tipa Galeai (22 to 10), receiver/All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver (81 to 11), WR Deven Thompkins (19 to 13), cornerback Andre Grayson (30 to 21) and safety Braxton Gunther (32 to 8).
USU received 32 votes in the preseason Amway Coaches poll, which was released Thursday. That puts the Aggies at the No. 35 spot.
Three of USU’s opponents are ranked or are receiving votes. LSU checked in at No. 6, while Boise State and Fresno State received several votes. FSU garnered the same amount of votes as USU, while BSU comes in at the No. 27 position.
The Aggies finished 21st in the final coaches poll a year ago, and 22nd in the AP Poll after capping off a 11-2 campaign with a 52-13 drubbing of North Texas in the New Mexico Bowl.