There are a lot of unknowns about Utah State's football team heading into its season opener this Saturday evening against Washington State.
The Aggies return several veterans on both sides of the ball, but both units struggled during an abbreviated 2020 campaign. USU has brought in 15 transfers from FBS programs since the beginning of the year to help remedy the offensive and defensive woes from a year ago.
One of those transfers is inside linebacker Justin Rice, who was a first-team all-conference selection at his previous two schools, Fresno State (in 2019) and Arkansas State (in 2020). Rice joins an already experienced group of USU inside backers in rising star AJ Vongphachanh and sixth-year senior Kevin Meitzenheimer.
With the addition of Rice, the Aggies now have one of the best collection of linebackers in the Mountain West. This alone provides reason to believe USU can be significantly better on defense in 2021. The Aggies allowed 35.17 points and 485.3 yards a game a year ago, plus 6.6 yards per play.
When asked if Utah State could potentially have the top inside backer corps in the Mountain West, assistant coach Mike Zuckerman refused to get caught up in the hype.
"I just want our guys to play the best they can play," he said. "To say anybody's the best, there's so many different factors and measureables that make somebody the best linebacker group. I just want us to be the best linebacker group we can be."
In Rice, the Aggies have a bona fide Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The Modeston, California, native was picked to be the league's preseason Defensive POTY last summer as an incoming senior at Fresno State, but ultimately elected to transfer to Arkansas State when the MW initially indicated it would be moving all fall sports to the spring of 2021.
In his lone season with the Red Wolves, Rice ranked first nationally in tackles for loss with 18.5, plus he also contributed with 76 total tackles and 7.0 sacks in 11 games. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder made plays all over the field as a junior at FSU as he finished with 112 tackles, including 8.0 for a loss, 3.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two interceptions and 10 passes defended.
Simply put, Rice, who has 22 career collegiate starts, is a legitimate NFL draft prospect. Rice's intangibles make him a complete football player, Zuckerman asserted.
"Justin just has one of the best football minds I've been around," said Zuckmerman, who assisted with Miami's program from 2014-20 and followed new defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda to Logan. "He's like a coach on the field. The way he can see offenses, the way he processes (what the offense is doing is impressive) because linebacker is such a feel position and he just has incredible, nature instincts for how to play backer. And that combined with his athleticism and ability to tackle makes him an excellent player."
USU's other starter at inside backer will either by Vongphachanh or Meitzenheimer. Zuckerman feels he essentially has three starters for the two spots on the field.
Vongphachanh (6-2, 230) is coming off a breakthrough season in which he garnered honorable mention all-MW accolades. The junior led the Aggies with 50 tackles last fall and matched Nick Heninger with a team-best 3.0 sacks. No. 10 also recorded a tackle for loss that resulted in a safety against Nevada.
Meitzenheimer (6-0, 245) started in all five games he played in a year ago and tallied 37 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs. No. 33 racked up 89 tackles during the 2019 campaign and has appeared in 37 career games for the Aggies, starting 18 of them.
Zuckerman has been impressed by how much football IQ his three primary inside backers possess.
"Their strengths overall is their intelligence," he said. "They can handle a lot and everything I throw at them, they've done a great job with. They do an unbelievable job of pre-snap recognition, which just makes you a better defensive player, so I'm really happy with how they process the game."
Zuckerman has also been very pleased with the development of sophomore Kina Maile, who will be Rice's primary backup. Maile (6-1, 230) played in four games a year ago and made nine tackles, plus he scooped up a fumble and returned it for a memorable touchdown against New Mexico, which was USU's lone win of the season.
"Outside of those top three guys, I think Kina's really had an excellent camp," Zuckerman said. "I've been very, very pleased with Kina Maile and I'm really excited to see him (in action). He's an excellent special teams player and I think he's done a great job."
Two other inside backers who will likely see playing time this season are sophomores Jaymason Willingham (6-1, 225) and Kaleo Neves (6-1, 190). Willingham didn't play in his first two seasons in Logan, but looked sharp in both scrimmages during fall camp. Meanwhile, Neves played sparingly in all six games a year ago, plus appeared in four contests in 2019.
Both athletes were very disruptive as high school seniors. Willingham contributed with 124 tackles, 22.0 TFL and 15.0 sacks for Steilacoom (Washington) High, while Neves accumulated 11.5 sacks in just eight games for Timpview.
Another inside backer who could figure into the mix this season is sophomore Simon Thompson (6-1, 215), who was a dual-threat quarterback in high school. Other ILB's currently on USU's roster are freshmen McKay Breshears, Sione Moa and Johnny Alo.
Only one outside backer/striker will be on the field at all times in Banda's base defense, which is a variation of the 4-2-5. All of USU's outside backers are essentially hybrid safeties/linebackers and are as big as a prototypical collegiate safety.
This unit will be led by graduate senior Cash Gilliam, who made big strides and emerged as a leader during spring and fall camps. No. 5 played in the first three games for the Aggies last fall before entering the transfer portal. USU's new coaching staff was able to convince Gilliam (6-0, 200) to come back, as well as standout wide receiver Deven Thompkins, who entered the transfer portal one game later.
"Those two (Thompkins and Gilliam) were probably our two biggest recruits when we got on campus," USU special teams coordinator/OLB coach Nick Paremski said. "You know, that was really the first thing we did when we landed and spent that week here in December was we hit the phones hard with guys that were in the portal that were looking to leave and just asked them to give us an opportunity to coach them and prove ourselves to them. And so luckily DT and Cash obviouslyn both came back, and I'm really glad Cash came back with me coaching him on an everyday basis. He's a great player, great leader, great person."
Gilliam, who started his collegiate career at Kentucky, made 20 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, a year ago and has played in 12 games in two seasons for the Aggies. Gilliam's primary backup will be former high school wide receiver AJ Carter (6-0, 185).
Carter arrived at USU as a wideout in 2019, moved to safety last year and transitioned to OLB/striker during fall camp when Breaker Mendenhall decided not to play this season. Carter was a special teams standout during his first two seasons as an Aggie and has 19 career tackles.
"Yeah, AJ's an unbelievable athlete," Paremski said. "He's probably one of the best athletes I've ever had at this position. Just the combination of his length, his size, his speed and quickness, we'll be able to do a lot more things with him. And Cash can run too, but AJ definitely brings a different dynamic to the position just from how well he can run and cover and do things like that, so it's definitely a unique skillset for sure."
Junior Patrick Maddox (5-10, 205) took snaps with the third-string defense throughout fall camp and will provide depth at OLB/striker. No. 30 is entering his third season with the program and has appeared in four games for the Aggies. Maddox spent his freshman season at Linfield (Oregon) College.
Adding depth at the position is another former safety is sophomore Keith Harris (5-11, 170). Likewise, this is Harris' third season in the program.
When asked about the goals of his OLB/striker room, Paremski raved about his athletes' team-first mindset.
"Obviously, we want to be assignment sound," Paremski said. "... You know, those guys are really unselfish. They want to do whatever it takes to help the team, but we've got to be great tacklers. But whatever we've got to do to help (this team) win, that's what we'll do. And those guys don't have an ego about that, so it's exciting to coach guys like that."