There’s no question a few positional battles are still unfolding after the first full week of fall camp for Utah State’s football team.
However, one of the question marks doesn’t appear to be the punter position. Three-year starter Aaron Dalton is back after missing all of the 2018 season with a back injury, and he looked very good during the seventh practice of fall camp, which took place Friday at Maverik Stadium.
The redshirt senior booted several booming punts, ones with ideal hang time and distance, during Friday’s practice. Dalton was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA prior to spring camp.
For the most part, special teams play was a strength of the Aggies a year ago, but consistency in the punting game was lacking without Dalton. USU only averaged 39.0 yards per punt last season and there were a couple of very shaky performances by the punting unit, especially in the Boise State contest.
The punting game should be in good hands with Dalton in 2019.
“It’s huge and he handled it so well,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said of having Dalton back. “There was a time frame to see how he was going to heal and we were extremely patient, so was he. He rehabbed, he was with the docs, the trainers. He was very consistent, got himself back to where he is today. ... He can boom them and so we’re looking for a consistent punting game out of him, and the guys covering like crazy and protecting him, so we expect that to be a big weapon just like all of our special teams (units).”
Once again, USU’s coaching staff dedicated a good chunk of their most recent practice to work on special teams play. Like Wednesday, Friday’s practice began with the field goal units rushing onto Merlin Olsen Field and attempting FGs with the final seconds ticking off the clock.
Friday’s practice was a little more low-key than others this week, inasmuch as there wasn’t as much 11-on-11 live scrimmaging. Toward the beginning of the practice, some limited 11-on-11 action took place inside the red zone, and there was some good give and take between the Aggie offense and defense.
Starting quarterback Jordan Love connected with tight end Travis Boman for a short touchdown pass, and back-up signal caller Henry Colombi hooked up with wide receiver Derek Wright on a very well-executed fade in the corner of the end zone. Wright made a few nice receptions during the practice and saw some time with the first-stringers when Siaosi Mariner exited for a short time after coming up gimpy on a throw and catch drill.
Colombi, who is entering his third year in the program, looked very sharp Friday. The redshirt sophomore threw a 35-yard sideline strike to true freshman wideout Ajana Carter in tight coverage during a third down scripted scenario. A couple of plays later, Colombi lobbed a beautiful 45-or-so-yard tight spiral off his back foot to Boman, who just missed securing the catch.
During a skelly (7-on-7) drill, Colombi showcased his touch in a pinpoint accurate TD pass to Jordan Nathan just over the outstretched arms of an Aggie linebacker. Nathan also caught a TD pass from Love during the skelly drill.
“Henry really understands he’s one play away (from getting into the game),” Andersen said. “And us coaches, we say that all of the time and I think some kids take that to heart, and some kids probably think ‘we’ll see what happens.’ But Henry definitely trains that way and he’s played a lot too. You know, he had some opportunities to get himself on the field and play some good, solid reps, and (he) had a lot of productivity. So I think his confidence level is very high and it’s a great luxury to know that you have a young man that understands the system, that’s been in it and, at any moment, could go in and we’d expect if he walked on the field, he’d play at a high level.”
Likewise, Love and Andrew Peasley also made some impressive throws Friday. A couple of dropped passes prevented explosive plays by both QBs. Sean Carter couldn’t quite corral a well-delivered 50-or-so-yard pass from Love. Deven Thompkins split a pair of defenders on an outstanding 45-yard strike from Peasley, but the ball went through his fingertips. Although they failed to catch those passes, Carter and Thompkins have performed well so far during fall camp.
The Aggies added University of Utah graduate transfer Nick Heninger to their roster earlier this week, and the defensive end was seeing some time with the second-string unit during Friday’s practice. Andersen praised Heninger, who has two years of eligibility remaining, for how well in stayed in shape while finishing up summer school at Utah.
“Nick, in the first place, has played a lot of college football and he’s an experienced defensive lineman, and he brings a lot of toughness to us,” Andersen said. “He passed 21 (credit) hours of summer school to get here, so he really obviously wants to be here in the worst way. ... He’s very, very much a team player and that’s why I think he fits us so well. But like all of those transfers and those JC guys, we expect them to come in and be a contributor for us.”
The battle for playing time in the defensive trenches is pretty intense as Heninger, Dalton Baker, Elijah Shelton, Logan High product Jacoby Wildman, Hale Motu’apuaka, Sky View product Jake Pitcher and converted linebacker Christian LaValle were all rotating with the second unit.
Based off Friday’s practice, it appears Eric Munoz has the inside track to be the third starting linebacker alongside All-American David Woodward and Kevin Meitzenheimer when the Aggies go to a 4-3 defense.
Zahodri Jackson was running with the first team secondary Friday as normal starter DJ Williams was limited. Williams appeared to tweak his hamstring during Wednesday’s practice.
Just like Wednesday’s practice, USU’s first-string offensive line consisted of Alfred Edwards (left tackle), Heneli Avendano (left guard), Demytrick Ali’ifua (center), Karter Shaw (right guard) and Andy Koch (right tackle). Likewise, the second unit was once again comprised of Jacob South (LT), Ty Shaw (LG), Chandler Dolphin (C), Mohelika Uasike (RG) and Jackson Owens (RT).
Friday was the final fall camp practice open to the public and media. The Aggies will hold a closed scrimmage Saturday. Fans are invited to attend the annual Family Football Fun Day next Saturday at 5 p.m. at Maverik Stadium.