The 2020 college football season was cringeworthy for the Aggies in a few different ways, one of which was how poorly they moved the ball through the air.
Only six FBS programs averaged fewer yards passing per game than Utah State's 135.83 a year ago and four of them --- Air Force, Army, Navy and Georgia Southern --- rarely throw the football. Indeed, it was a far cry from USU's Jordan Love quarterbacked offenses from 2018-19, and even 2017 for that matter.
Throwing the football should not be nearly as much of a struggle for the Aggies in 2021, though. After all, new offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker helped spearhead UCF's prolific passing attacks in 2019 and 2020. Additionally, new USU passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Kyle Cefalo was a big reason why Arkansas State had so much success airing it out while coaching the program's wideouts from 2017-20.
Another reason the Aggies are primed to make significant improvements in the passing game this upcoming season is their experience at the wide receiver position. USU has six wideouts that have started all least three games at the FBS level and four of them are super seniors.
Cefalo has been very encouraged by what he has seen from his wideouts during fall camp, although it's taken some time with a new offensive scheme.
"We're still working to get better, we're still working to get a better knowledge of what we're doing on offense --- team philosophy, offensive philosophy," Cefalo said. "So every day we're definitely progressing, but we're still learning a lot. And then moving forward as we get to the season, we want to be consistent, we want to play really hard and have a aggressive mentality in the room. ... At the end of the day, probably the biggest part of our job is making plays down the field and, when the ball comes to us, having that mindset that it's our football."
The Aggies signed several talented transfers as part of their 2021 recruiting class, but one of the new coaching staff's biggest wins on the recruiting trail was convincing dynamic receiver Deven Thompkins to stay in Logan. The 5-foot-8, 155-pound playmaker entered the transfer portal after playing in USU's first four games last year.
No. 13 ranked first on the team in receptions (20) and receiving yards (214) despite missing the final two games. Thompkins caught 40 passes for 536 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore in 2019.
Cefalo is expecting big contributions from Thompkins, who is also an explosive punt returner, this season.
"Deven Thompkins has continually elevated his play from the spring to the fall, so I've been really, really proud of him," Cefalo said when asked who stood out during the first two weeks of fall camp. "Justin McGriff and Savon Scarver the first week especially I felt like they made some huge strides, and we've just got to keep building there. But I was proud of the work they put in the offseason. And the other kid is Kyle Van Leeuwen. He continuously shows up and especially in scrimmage scenarios, he ends up with the football. So between those guys and then obviously Brandon Bowling, I trust him and I know he's going to do what he's supposed to do, and make the tough plays for us."
The 6-6 McGriff was USU's second-leading receiver a year ago with 15 receptions for 185 yards, while former walk-on Derek Wright ranked third on the squad with 11 catches for 122 yards. Both McGriff and Wright hauled in a pair of TD receptions last fall, and Wright, who is on scholarship now, also had two scores in '19.
McGriff (6-6, 215) and Wright (6-1, 195) will be two of Utah State's primary options at the outside receiver position this season, along with All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver (5-11, 175) and Jordan Nathan (5-9, 185). Wright, Scarver and Nathan are super seniors, as is fellow wideout Sean Carter (6-3, 190). Nathan will also line up in the slot.
Nathan and Bowling, a graduate transfer from Arkansas State, are entering their fifth season of college football. Nathan has made 32 career starts for the Aggies, which is the most on their current roster. During his first four years at Cache Valley, No. 0 contributed with 1,259 yards and seven TDs on 117 receptions.
"Jordan and Brandon have both made plays in big games and you can't really substitute that experience that they have," Cefalo said. "And then Jordan's a really good leader in the group too. He likes to talk to the group and they listen and they respond to him."
The Aggies arguably have the deepest collection of slot receivers in the Mountain West, led by Thompkins, Bowling (5-9, 185), Nathan and emerging star Kyle Van Leeuwen (5-9, 180), a sophomore who was the biggest standout offensively in both fall camp scrimmages. Bowling was an honorable mention all-Sun Belt Conference selection a year ago after finishing with 507 yards and seven TDs on 39 receptions for ASU.
Another talented slot receiver the Aggies have at their disposal is true freshman NyNy Davis (5-8, 150), who has blazing speed and was a track & field standout in high school. Davis saw a lot of playing time in both scrimmages.
"We are developing some depth and I think that's really good, especially on the inside with the inside guys between DT and Brandon and Kyle and NyNy coming along, we've got guys that we can rotate out there," Cefalo said. "With as fast as we play and as many plays as we're going to get, it takes more than two guys, three guys, so I think we're doing a really good job of developing depth."
In addition to the aforementioned four athletes, other outside wide receivers who could figure into the mix this season for USU are redshirt freshman Jamie Nance (6-1, 175), junior Tim Patrick Jr. (6-0, 180), sophomore Quinton Hadnot (6-0, 190) and true freshman Otto Tia (6-4, 220). Nance is a transfer from the University of Nebraska and, like Davis and Scarver, has legitimate track & field speed.
As far as blocking is concerned, Cefalo has been pleased with what he has seen from his receivers and he added "it's really important to what we do." Cefalo raved about Wright's blocking ability.
"Derek Wright does a really, really good job," Cefalo said. "He takes a lot of pride (in blocking) and he's a big, strong kid. Justin McGriff, same thing. Technically we're still working on some things with him, but being that big he gets his hands on people and he can displace people. And even my little guys in the inside, Deven, Brandon, Kyle, they fight really hard. And they give up some size, but they make up for it with their attitude and things like that.
Óther receivers currently on USU's roster are freshman Franky Jacobsen, D'Andre Randolph, Garrett Walchi and Ian Keever. Like Tia, Randolph (6-3, 220) is an in-state product who can ideally give the Aggies a mismatch with his size and strength in the future.