There's no denying the Aggies struggled in the secondary during the abbreviated 2020 college football season.
Utah State's defensive backs were matched up against some very good receivers --- especially in three of the first four games --- and the opposition was able to post some gaudy numbers through the air. Case in point: The Aggies allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 67.71 percent of their passes for 1,564 yards (260.67 per game) and 14 touchdowns, vs. just two interceptions.
Simply put, USU will need to make some significant strides in the secondary if it wants to return to a bowl game this fall. Fortunately for the Aggies, they should be much improved at the defensive line and linebacker positions in 2021. That will make things easier for a relatively experienced secondary that seemingly got better by adding a trio of transfers.
One very encouraging thing for the Aggies is talented safety Shaq Bond elected to return for his super senior season. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound former junior college baseball player was an honorable mention all-Mountain West selection in 2019 and 2020. No. 4 has started in all 27 games as he played in during his time in Logan and ranked second on the team in tackles (47) and tackles for loss (6.0) a year ago. Bond, who is currently working on a second bachelor's degree, intercepted five passes in those 27 games --- two of which he returned for touchdowns.
"I always call it senior urgency," USU defensive coordinator/safety coach Ephraim Banda said when talking about Bond. "When you have a kid that's in his last year, his urgency to do things the right way the best that he can is just better than anything else you can have as a coach. We've had really, really good kids came back their senior year over the years and have played great football, so I'm definitely excited for him. The best thing that he's done this camp is he's just played harder between the snaps and has been more consistent in that area. Shaq's senior intelligent, Shaq can cover and he's very twitchy, so his ability is never questioned, it's just him pushing himself every play to play at a really high level."
Bond will be counted on to anchor an Aggie secondary that has six seniors or graduate transfers listed on their official two-deep.
USU's other starting safety is Dominic Tatum, who was one of the breakthrough performers on the entire team during fall camp. Tatum (6-2, 175) played in 11 games during his first two seasons with the program and was in the starting lineup twice last fall. No. 23 made 13 tackles and broke up a pair of passes a year ago.
"His ability to cover you up with his length and his foot speed to be able to play man coverage has just really separated himself from (others)," said Banda, who was the co-defensive coordinator at the University of Miami from 2019-20. "He's as talented of a young man as I've had over the years and I think what's really been nice about him this camp is he's just been very physical, has thrown his body around and tackled well."
The Aggies brought in a pair of transfers at the safety position this summer, and both guys have earned a spot on the two-deep. Michigan graduate transfer Hunter Reynolds (6-0, 200) will be Bond's primary backup and Banda raved about how quickly he has picked up the defense.
"He's where i ask him to be all the time," said Banda, who added Reynolds, who is a junior eligibility wise, was a ball hawk during fall camp.
McGary, who transferred from Troy and is a junior, will back up Tatum, along with senior Jarrod Green (5-11, 185). Both athletes were listed on USU's first official depth chart.
McGary hasn't played in a college football game since 2018 as he suffered a season-ending injury prior to the 2019 campaign and elected to opt out of the 2020 season, inasmuch as his son was born a month before the COVID-19 pandemic shut things down. Nevertheless, No. 26 shook off the rust in a hurry and impressed Banda during fall camp.
"We made some big improvements over the summer in bringing in Hunter and Monte to help with depth ... so I'm excited about the group, but we still have a long way to go and they've got to go out there and prove it every day," Banda said. "And if they don't, someone else will take their job."
Green, a senior, played in 28 games during his first three seasons as an Aggie, although most of his action has been primarily on special teams. No. 25 has 12 career tackles.
"Jarrod's done a good job of just being able to learn both positions and being really sound in those areas, and just kind of being a guy I can count on to be able to play field or boundary," Banda said.
Another Aggie safety with some experience is sophomore Luke Marion (6-0, 190), who made three tackles and picked off a pass (vs. New Mexico) in three games last fall as a true freshman. The son of former NFL Pro Bowler Brock Marion has been limited by injuries this summer, though.
Converted quarterback Crew Wakley (6-0, 190) could see some playing time at safety this season. The sophomore had a nice interception during USU's second scrimmage of fall camp and is very athletic.
Former Sky View and Logan standout Ike Larsen, a true freshman, was recruited by the Aggies as a safety. Larsen (5-10, 170) made a big impact in all three phases of the game for the 4A state champion Bobcats last fall, and should be an immediate contributor on special teams for USU. Larsen blocked nine kicks as a prep senior.
"He's definitely an athlete," Banda said of Larsen. "He's very twitchy. He's got a long reach and really can cover ground. He has a very high ceiling, there's no question about that, but he still has a long ways to go. You know, people always want freshman to be right now players, especially when they're talented, but I will say this, it's not add water and instant player. It takes time to develop players."
The other safety currently on Utah State's roster is junior Dusten Ramseyer-Burdett, who spent the previous two seasons at Linfield (Oregon) University.
The Aggies welcomed back all four cornerbacks that were in the starting lineup at least once a year ago in Zahodri Jackson, Cam Lampkin, Andre Grayson and Xavion Steele. Jackson and Lampkin, who both made four starts last fall, emerged as the first-stringers during fall camp, and garnered the praise of USU cornerbacks coach Ray Brown for their leadership.
"Those are two guys that I push to the front of the room and try and force them to lead the younger guys, help them get acclimated to how we do things, and (their leadership) has been very pleasing to me," said Brown, who was Troy's CB coach from 2019-20.
This will be Jackson's (5-10, 185) fifth season with the program and he has appeared in 22 games for the Aggies. No. 14 finished with 20 tackles and broke up two passes last year.
Lampkin (5-10, 170) played in 19 games during his first two seasons in Cache Valley and contributed with 20 tackles, including 2.0 for a loss and two PBUs in '20. The junior was a wide receiver in high school.
The other three corners listed on USU's first depth chart are Grayson, fellow Aggie veteran Michael Anyanwu and Kansas graduate transfer Kyle Mayberry. Grayson will be Lampkin's primary backup, while Anyanwu and Mayberry will compete for second-string reps behind Jackson.
All three athletes caught the attention of Brown during fall camp.
"I would say Mike and Andre," Brown said when asked who elevated their level of play over the summer. "Those two have done a really good job. Those guys have been great every single day. (They provide) great energy, great attention to detail, great work ethic, and so those are two guys that have shown up as of late. And then also Kyle Mayberry, who hasn't been here long, but just got back from an injury. I think Kyle's done a really, really good job as far as learning what we're doing and being able to coach the younger guys up because he's got a little bit of experience playing in the Big 12, so I think he's been really good for us."
Grayson (5-8, 175) was in the starting lineup 10 times and saw playing time in 19 other contests during his first fourth seasons as an Aggie. No. 21's best season was in 2019 as he recorded 47 tackles, picked off a pass and broke up six others.
This is Anyanwu's fourth year with the program. The 5-9, 170-pound junior played in 11 games over the last two seasons and has four career tackles.
Mayberry (5-10, 180) is part of USU's 2021 recruiting class and participated in both spring and fall camps. No. 1 saw action in 43 games and made 12 starts during his five seasons with the Jayhawks. Mayberry contributed with 66 tackles and seven PBUs during his final two years in Lawrence.
Steele (5-9, 170) should also figure into the mix for playing time, especially now that former Arizona State corner Terin Adams has entered the transfer portal for the second time in less than a year. Steele, a transfer from Fullerton Junior College, played in all six of USU's games a year ago and tallied two tackles. He started against San Diego State.
Other cornerbacks currently on the roster are sophomore Jaden Smith and freshman Shawn Gates. Smith spent his first season at Incarnate Word and transferred to USU prior to the '20 campaign.
Brown was pleased with how his corners progressed during fall camp and feels good about his depth in the room.
"I think we have a good group of guys that push each other," he said. "The competition level this fall camp has been really awesome, but of course we're still going against each other, so we'll see once we get out into a game atmosphere and if we're able to handle all of the different details that you get during a game. I think that's when it will really show, but I've been very pleased with the group so far."
What, more than anything, does Brown expect from his corners?
"We want to play a very physical style of ball," he said. "We want to play with great energy and enthusiasm, and then our effort (needs to be very good). We want to be able to run to the ball, we want to swarm teams with our coverage and then, of course, we always want to do a great job of tackling."