On its first possession of the second half, San Diego State pieced together a six-plus-minute drive and got down to the Utah State 5-yard line before Aggie defensive end Nick Heninger came up with a huge nine-yard sack on a third-and-goal play.

The Aztecs elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal and were unsuccessful last Saturday night at SDCCU Stadium.

In the waning seconds of the fourth quarter, Heninger chased SDSU’s Ryan Agnew for at least 40 yards to help teammate Justus Te’i sack the quarterback at the 2-yard line and preserve USU’s big 23-17 victory over the Aztecs in the Mountain West opener for both football programs.

Heninger is currently one of four graduate transfers playing for the Aggies as he is joined by former Utah teammates Siaosi Mariner and Caleb Repp, and former Arizona State cornerback Terin Adams. The contributions of their graduate transfers is a big reason why the Aggies have developed into a legitimate Mountain West contender.

A year ago, USC graduate transfer Jalen Greene shined as a blocker and pass-catching target for USU, which matched its school record with 11 wins. Greene, who caught a touchdown pass in an exhibition game for the Los Angeles Rams last month, finished with 44 receptions for 689 yards and six TDs in his lone season with the Aggies.

A lot is required in building a successful, sustainable college football program, and the Aggies have done an outstanding job identifying and signing potentially productive graduate transfers. And the best part is guys like Heninger and Adams have another year of eligibility left following the 2019 campaign.

After watching Heninger, Mariner and Repp during the first three weeks of this season, I have a difficult time thinking they couldn’t have made an impact for the Utes in 2019. Yeah, there’s no question Utah is talented and deep, but these three athletes sure look like Power 5 Conference level players to me. The Utes are always seemingly loaded in the defensive trenches, so breaking into their two-deep would have been a challenge for Heninger.

Regardless, the Aggies are fortunate to have all three of these weapons at their disposal. Mariner and Heninger both did a superb job of answering questions during Monday’s press conference, and Heninger was a laugh riot at times.

The amount of dedication Heninger displayed in becoming eligible to transfer to USU is quite inspiring. The former Bingham High star completed a whopping 58 credits during the 2018-19 academic year, including 21 this summer, to complete his bachelor’s degree in Utah’s business scholars program. The South Jordan native was a two-time academic all-conference selection during his time with the Utes.

“(The summer semester) was manageable without football, the structured practices,” said Heninger, who started his career at Utah as a walk-on before earning a scholarship in 2018. “I was obviously doing my own things, but finals week was where it was killing me. I remember I had nine different tests or final papers that I had to do in that last week, and I’m trying to get my stuff ready to move up here. It was not easy, but it was definitely worth it. I love Utah State, I love Logan, I love everything about this team. This is definitely where I need to be. It took a lot to get here, it took a lot of sacrifice and I feel like it was all worth it to be here.”

Despite coming off the bench, Heninger paces the Aggies in sacks (2.0) and is in a three-way tie for the No. 2 spot on the squad in tackles for loss (3.5).

Mariner and Repp have emerged as two of standout quarterback Jordan Love’s go-to targets. Without question, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Mariner has been one of the premier newcomers in the conference as he currently ranks second in receiving yards per game (88.3). The Tustin, California, native leads the Aggies in catches (20), receiving yards (265) and TD receptions (two).

Repp, a 6-5, 225-pound tight end, ranks second on the team in receptions (13) and third in receiving yards (140). The native of Rancho Cucamonga, California, has started two games and Mariner has been in the starting lineup all three times.

And it’s not all just about the stellar statistics for Mariner and Repp. Yeah, they’ve teamed up to corral a lot of catches, but it’s the way they are making tightly contested receptions in traffic and with little field to work with. Mariner has already made a handful of outstanding plays, and I don’t recall Repp dropping a single pass.

In three seasons at Utah, Mariner hauled in 52 receptions for 785 yards and four TDs. As long as he stays healthy, I would be stunned if No. 80 doesn’t exceed each of those stats in his lone season in Logan.

Mariner has already developed a great deal of synergy with Love, and he spoke highly of his signal caller at Monday’s press conference.

“I knew he was a good football player, but just him as a person, he’s a really good person, really good leader,” Mariner said. “... That’s what’s really amazed me aside from his play, because I already knew he was an NFL-caliber quarterback. The hype is real, he definitely makes some throws that amaze me. I’ve played with a lot of good quarterbacks definitely in my career, but he’s definitely at the top of the list of all the quarterbacks I’ve played with.”

As for Adams, I really believe he is going to have a solid two seasons in Cache Valley. I mean, less than two weeks after arriving at USU, Adams was seeing substantial playing time in the Aggies’ season opener at Wake Forest. An injury has forced No. 2 out of the lineup the past two games.

Indeed, graduate transfers have enhanced USU’s football program, and it’s a trend that will likely continue. That’s a good thing for Aggie fans.

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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