The quest for a second straight Mountain West championship in football was resumed this week by Utah State.
It’s been a very productive summer from a strength and conditioning standpoint, Aggie head coach Blake Anderson asserted during Thursday’s media day press conference, and now preparations for the 125th season in program history are fully underway.
The first of 16 Fall Camp practices took place Friday morning on the USU practice fields. The team will start practicing in full pads next Thursday and the first of two scrimmages will take place Saturday, Aug. 6, at Maverik Stadium. All practices are closed to the public, with fans being encouraged to attend both scrimmages — the second scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 13.
“Honestly it seems like yesterday we were in LA finishing up a bowl game and a (Mountain West) championship weekend, and it really flew by,” Anderson said during Thursday’s press conference. “Great season, tons of fun, but reality sits in real quick. Fall camp of ’22 is here and (we have) a huge challenge ahead of us.”
Matching or exceeding the success of the 2021 squad will indeed be a difficult endeavor for the Aggies to replicate. USU was one of only three programs at the FBS level to experience a 10-game improvement in the win category from 2020 to 2021. The Aggies capped off an unforgettable 11-3 campaign — one that saw them overcome double-digit deficits in six of their wins — with triumphs over San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game and Oregon State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl.
The Aggies are tasked with replacing both starting offensive guards, their top three receivers from the most prolific passing attack in program history, six starters on defense and record-setting kickoff returner Savon Scarver. In addition to Scarver, gone are fellow all-Mountain West honorees Deven Thompkins (wide receiver), Derek Wright (WR), Justin Rice (linebacker), Jordan Nathan (punt returner), Shaq Bond (safety), Nick Heninger (defensive end) and Quazzel White (offensive lineman).
Fortunately for the Aggies, they have a lot more stability from a coaching standpoint than they’ve had in the recent past. For starters, this will be the first time since 2013 Utah State has returned its offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators, plus eight of Anderson’s 10 full-time assistant coaches from a year ago are back.
Nevertheless, beating out the likes of Boise State, Air Force, Fresno State and San Diego State as the top dog in the Mountain West will be a tall order for USU in 2022.
“We have a tremendous challenge when you consider the productivity that graduated, the new faces and shoes they have to fill,” Anderson said. “And the fact that the schedule’s going to be a bit tougher. You know, you trade Washington State for Alabama, you trade New Mexico State for UConn ... a BYU road game as opposed to playing them at home, and even Weber State over North Dakota. I think Weber State’s one of the best I-AA teams in the country, so everything just gets tougher and (then there’s) a conference that’s going to see you coming. There’s going to be much higher expectations, a sense of awareness of what we bring to the table and how competitive we can be.”
“... The expectations are through the roof both fan base and within the building, and we’ll get to work and see hopefully what we can create over the next month before we get the opportunity to play UConn here at home (on Aug. 27).”
There are 49 newcomers listed on USU’s fall camp roster and the team will add even more as Fall Camp progresses. That’s a significantly higher number than the program’s 32 returning letterwinners.
Perhaps, USU’s relative inexperience compared to other teams in the Mountain West is the primary reasons it was only picked to finish third out of six teams in the league’s Mountain Division. Additionally, no Aggies were selected to the media’s preseason all-conference squad.
As a result, the Aggies will be employing an us-vs.-them mentality, just like they did a year ago.
“It’s front and center when you realize that nobody respects this football team going in,” Anderson said. “It’s a little bit more (respect) maybe than a year ago, but not a lot. None of these guys have been picked preseason for much of anything, a couple of watch lists, picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the league, so I think they’ve just realized it’s what you earn — you earn respect, it’s not given. And that’s fine. We like kind of being in that environment. We’ll have more eyes on us than we did a year ago at this time, but I don’t think it’s drastically different. We’re going to have to go out and prove ourselves.”
As exciting as Anderson’s first season was at the Aggie helm, he has experienced plenty of hardships since arriving in Logan. The support Anderson has received from the community has helped him persevere through it all.
“The people in the valley and the fan base have exceeded every expectation of what I had coming in, of how they would support us, love us in good times and in bad. It’s not all been perfect,” Anderson said. “Obviously when you win 11 games, there’s a lot of positive, a lot of fun things. But there were times there were disappointments; there have been hurdles we’ve had to cross and none bigger than losing Cason like we did in February. Yeah, we feel very connected to the valley, the people in it and appreciate the support both on, but off the field maybe even more.”
Cason, the youngest of Anderson’s two sons, passed away less than three months after USU’s bowl victory over Oregon State. He was 21 years old.
It was the latest in a series of heartbreaking life events for Anderson, who lost his first wife, Wendy, and his father, Scotty, in 2019. Wendy battled cancer during the final three years of their 27-year marriage.
Coach Anderson teared up when asked how his he and his wife, Brittany, are doing in the midst of their latest trial.
“We are making it the best we can, to be honest with you,” he said. I’m glad to be getting back into football and around the guys every day, but we’re broken and we’re going to be that way for a while. ... I’m a different person than I was in February and I have to learn to do my job and be the person God wants me to be in the face of adversity, and it’s been the toughest four months of my life.
“And I’m hoping and praying that as the season progresses, that I can share our story, share our witness and our faith in Christ in the midst of the toughest time in a way that helps other people. And I also hope that I can be what these guys and the staff and our fans need me to be every day. So, I’ll just encourage people to continue to pray for us and lift us up where (they) can and understand that we’re coming to battle every day, are going to give the best we’ve got.”