Editor’s note: This is the fifth in an eight-part series profiling Utah State’s football team by position. Next: Secondary
It’s no mystery Utah State’s football team is talented and experienced in the defensive trenches.
After all, the Aggies return a trio of seniors-to-be on the defensive line who garnered some sort of all-Mountain West recognition a year ago in 2018 conference sack leader Tipa Galeai (second team), Fua Leilua (honorable mention) and Christopher ’Unga (honorable mention).
And yet, USU veteran Devon Anderson feels his team has a lot to prove in the defensive trenches heading into the 2019 campaign. The senior defensive tackle is still smarting a bit after the Aggies allowed Boise State running back Alexander Mattison to rush for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the Broncos’ 33-24 victory last November.
“We’re very hungry,” Anderson said. “We came up short in the Mountain West, didn’t get our goal last year of getting a title, and a lot of O-linemen thought that we were weak. And I feel like everybody’s still sleeping on us to this day. I feel like they just look at Tipa Galeai, which he is a great player, but we’ve also got other people that contribute too, so we’re looking to shock the world and becoming one of the best D-lines in the nation.”
Anderson, who started 14 games during his first two seasons with the Aggies, has been one the standouts during fall camp. The former Dodge City (Kansas) Community College player is one of three seniors who should play significant minutes at defensive tackle this season. The other two are ’Unga and Leilua.
Anderson, Leilua and ’Unga combined for 103 tackles, including 11.0 for a loss, and 3.5 sacks a year ago. According to advanced metrics, Leilua and ’Unga were two of the best run stoppers in the Mountain West last season.
Indeed, the Aggies appear to be in good hands at defensive tackle in their 4-2-5 base defense.
“They’re a huge part of this (defense) and we want to have four at least and, quite frankly, I think we have five quality kids right now on the inside,” said USU head coach Gary Andersen, who also coaches the D-tackles. “So, we can roll those guys into the game and feel very, very good about them, as long as we stay healthy. And that’s a viscous weapon when you have four or five kids inside that can go in and will be unselfish enough to accept the fact that we’re going to try and split those reps 50-50 as much as we possibly can, as long as they’re all producing.”
The other two defensive tackles who are primed to receive plenty of reps during the season are junior Ritisoni Fata and redshirt freshman Hale Motu’apuaka. Fata saw limited playing time as a reserve the previous two years.
USU defensive graduate assistant coach Al Lapuaho, a former Aggie D-tackle, gushed about the strides made by Motu’apuaka and Fata during fall camp. Motu’apuaka has also impressed Anderson with his development, especially his fitness.
“This fall camp has been huge for both of them,” Lapuaho said. “They didn’t get a lot of playing time last year, (but) they have big roles (this year). You can say ones and twos, but really they’re all ones because they’re all going to get in the game.”
Another defensive tackle who could figure into the mix this season is former Arizona State signee Christian LaValle, a converted linebacker. Dean Rice and former Oregon State signee Josh Bowcut, a fellow freshman who recently returned from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, add depth at the position.
USU’s defensive tackles should free up some space off the edge for Galeai, who is arguably the best pass rusher in the Mountain West and a legitimate NFL prospect. As a junior, Galeai led the league in sacks (10.5) was USU’s leader with 14.0 tackles for loss and also picked off a pair of passes, the first of which he returned for a memorable touchdown against BYU.
“Tipa is a skilled young man,” Andersen said. “We’ll do our best to kind of hide him a little bit and try to keep him in one-on-one situations, instead of people double-teaming him.”
Heading into fall camp, converted linebacker Justus Te’i had the inside track to start at the other defensive end spot, but the junior has been splitting time at DE and LB lately. Regardless of where he plays, Te’i, who redshirted a year ago after starting a combined nine games his first two seasons in Logan, will see a lot of playing time in 2019.
With Te’i being more of a rover, there’s a good chance former Logan High standout Jacoby Wildman will start at defensive end. The senior was limited by an injury last season, but started four games and racked up 45 tackles as a sophomore.
Three other defensive ends who will likely see a lot of playing time this year are Utah graduate transfer Nick Heninger, senior Dalton Baker and junior Jake Pitcher, a former Sky View star. Pitcher was primarily a scout team player his first three seasons at USU, but has carved out a significant role on the team, Lapuaho said. Baker made a combined 57 tackles as a sophomore and junior, while Heninger, who has two years of eligibility remaining, appeared in 23 career games for the Utes.
In addition to Galeai, who does Lapuaho expect to be a threat as a pass rusher this season?
“Hopefully Pitcher can show up (in that area),” Lapuaho said. “He’s had a big, big, big role this year. Dalton Baker, hopefully he can come and show some pass rush ability this year. As far as somebody who can be like Tipa, it’s hard to say because Tipa’s a special talent. We had Justus Te’i and (freshman) Elijah Shelton, but they’re helping us out in the rover position right now, so we’ll see. I think that’s a question to be determined.”
Another DE who could factor into the mix is junior college transfer Jaylin Bannerman, who has two years of eligibility remaining. Adding depth at the position are senior Braden Harris and a host of freshmen in Kaleo Neves, Addison Trupp, Aaron Bredsguard, Connor Larsen and Diamond Faamafoe. All of those athletes played their high school football in the Beehive State.
True freshman AJ Vongphachanh recently made the move to linebacker and garnered the praise of Anderson for how well he has performed so far during fall camp.
Anderson, who is a big fan of USU’s new base defense this season, is very confident the Aggies have plenty of depth in the defensive trenches.
“We’ve got a lot of competition and people respect their roles as far as on D-line, whether you’re with the ones or twos,” said Anderson, who went on to say the Aggies have a team goal of racking up a “minimum” of 50 sacks this season. “And the thing I like about that is we don’t care where we are (on the depth chart). I know that I can trust the second group, I know that I can trust the third group, so it doesn’t matter who’s in the game.”
Likewise, Lapuaho raved about the depth and talent the Aggies have in their arsenal on the defensive line, and is looking forward to how the season plays out.
“I’m very superstitious, but these guys potentially they can be the best, to me, in the Mountain West,” Lapuaho said. You know, they’re stout against the run, we have great pass rushers on the edge with our defensive ends. I think Wyoming, they always have a great D-line. They’re big, they’re fast. Boise State is always solid, but I think we can definitely bang with those guys this year.”