It wasn’t a traditional recruiting class for new Utah State head football coach Blake Anderson, but one he is very excited about.
The former Arkansas State head coach announced his first signing class as an Aggie on Wednesday as part of the NCAA’s traditional signing period. Of the 19 players who comprise USU’s 2021 recruiting class, 10 are transfers from FBS programs, eight are high school signees — four of them are older as they served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and another is a junior college transfer.
“I think the first recruiting class with any new staff — we kind of call it a transitional class — is really, really important, and I’m proud of the way the guys on the staff have handled things,” Anderson said. “We were spread out all over the place ... due to some of the staff still dealing with bowl games (at their former schools) and when they could get cut loose and when we could all get back (together). I think they did a really good job of us kind of pulling together and putting together what I think is a really exciting class to start things off for us.”
Of the 19 athletes who finalized their commitment with the Aggies on Wednesday, 15 of them are already on campus, which is a much higher percentage than normal. Anderson is hopeful and confident that will pay off down the road.
“There’s no substitute for four-and-a-half, five months of working with a guy, (strength & conditioning coach) Paul Jackson working with a guy, learning Xs and Os from the coordinators and position coaches,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a big part of us being able to be a competitive team early next fall. I hope it is.”
The Aggies lost more than 10 players to the transfer portal — a few before the 2020 season, a few during it and a few after — so Anderson and his staff tried to offset that by bringing in experienced replacements, thus the larger than normal number of transfers. Of the 10 transfers, five of them have more than one season of eligibility remaining.
“It’s not something we want to do full-time, not something we want to do with every class, but in this particular class, we felt like it was something that could benefit us, maybe help us in the transition this first year,” Anderson said.
Three of the transfers — quarterback Logan Bonner, wide receiver Brandon Bowling and linebacker Justin Rice — followed Anderson and some of his assistant coaches from Arkansas State. All three are graduate transfers, although Bonner does have two years of eligibility left.
Anderson said he “encouraged every one of those players to go back to Arkansas State and to see how things go, but these three guys clearly were not going back and we’re going to move on with their careers, and we’re really lucky to have them here with us.”
Bonner and Bowling are close friends and were roommates all five years they were together at ASU, Anderson said. Bowling was strongly considering not coming back for his second senior season — the NCAA has deemed the 2020-21 academic year as a free one for all athletes — but ultimately elected to follow wide receivers coach Kyle Cefalo to Logan.
Rice is the most proven performer of all of USU’s transfers, and one Aggie fans are very familiar with. After all, he was a first-team all-Mountain West selection as a linebacker at Fresno State in 2019. In his lone season at ASU, Rice earned first-team all-Sun Belt Conference honors and led all FBS players in tackles for loss (18.5).
“I don’t think he ever would have left Fresno if (he knew) the Mountain West was going to play,” Anderson said. “We would have played and taken his chances trying to get to the NFL. But once he got (to ASU) he connected with me, coach Cefalo (and) coach (Nick) Paremski really, really well. We spent a lot of time one-on-one with him throughout the course of the (season) trying to get him acclimated, and for him, his decision was ‘do I go to the NFL or do I not.’ I think once he decided not to go to the NFL, he didn’t want to go through another coaching change, (but embrace) the opportunity to stay here with guys that he really knows and get back (close to) the west coast was just something that I think he thought just made sense for him as well.”
USU’s other graduate transfers are offensive linemen Maisen Knight (Liberty) and defensive tackle Quazzel White (Georgia Tech). Like Bowling and Rice, White and Knight are down to their final year of eligibility.
White is one of seven defensive linemen who finalized their commitment with the Aggies on Wednesday or during the early signing period. The other three transfers joining the program in the defensive trenches are Byron Hobbs-Vaughn (Texas), Patrick Joyner Jr. (Miami) and Aurion Peoples (College of the Canyons).
Defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda will be implementing a base defense with four down linemen, so this was a position of need for the Aggies. Joyner Jr. is following Banda to USU.
“I think the JC D-tackle in Aurion Peoples and the transfers from the Division I places all give us a chance to come in and plug in holes, and I’m excited about all of them,” Anderson said. “They all fit particular needs, especially when you think of the four D-linemen in Aurion Peoples, Jahaziel Lee — who just got here this week from Georgia Tech — Byron Vaughns and Patrick Joyner, with the changes we’re going to be making with coach Banda up front. I mean, that was something critical to build with the group that we already had here.”
Utah State’s other three transfers are running back Calvin Tyler Jr. (Oregon State) cornerback Kyle Mayberry (Kansas) and offensive linemen Quazzel White, who was a starter a TCU and has two years of eligibility left. Mayberry, a graduate transfer who started several games for the Jayhawks, was recruited out of high school by Anderson. This upcoming season will be Mayberry’s final one, while Tyler Jr. will be a junior eligibility wise.
Tyler Jr. has a close relationship with USU running backs coach Chuckie Keeton, who recruited him to OSU. The junior actually reached out to Keeton once he entered the portal, Anderson said, “and really didn’t open up his recruiting a whole lot.”
Of USU’s eight prep signees, two of them inked their National Letter of Intent on Wednesday in former Bingham High standout defensive end Tupou Maile and speedster Martavious Davis, who is from Alabama. Maile, who originally verbally committed to USU’s former coaching staff, is the nephew of former Aggie interim head coach/co-defensive coordinator Frank Maile.
“We gave him the opportunity from Day 1, (that) ‘we’d love to have you, we want to keep you, we want you to be a part of this,’ even though we know Frank is not going to be continue to coach here,” Anderson said. “And he was like, ‘coach, this is where I want to be.’ And we’re excited to get him. I think he’s going to get big. He’s going to end up moving from (defensive) end down to the three-technique position and be a really good player as his career develops and as he develops.”
Davis is a versatile player Anderson has known for a while and was recruited by USU as a wide receiver. Davis once ran the 100-meter dash in 10.47 seconds, which is faster than any Aggie recruit in recent memory, if not ever.
“You never can have too much speed, so I’m excited about him signing today,” Anderson said. “... We had recruited him at Arkansas State and coach (Anthony) Tucker recruited him at Central Florida, and so we already had a relationship build with him and just feel like he fits what we do offensively. Like I said, 10.4 (in the) 100 meters is hard to recruit. You’ve got to get in and take your chances when you can, and we love having him.”
Of the four high school players the Aggies signed, four of them are returned missionaries in former East High defensive linemen Johnson Hansen and Seni Tuiaki, former Davis High tight end Jack Rigby and former Weber High linebacker Sione Moa. All four athletes are already on campus, as is wide receiver Otto Tia (Northridge High), who originally signed with the Aggies last February.
Moa, Tuiaki and Hansen inked with the Aggies during the early signing period, as did Sky View star Ike Larsen. Anderson is excited about Larsen’s potential, especially on special teams. Anderson is looking for fast guys that operate well in space on special teams, “and he definitely fits that on film.”
“We feel like he’s going to grow into a safety at this level,” Anderson said of Larsen. “I know he’s played corner, has played some wideout, but typically a guy’s going to put on 15, 20 pounds of muscle once they get into a (college strength & conditioning) program and are playing one sport. ... I feel like he’s got the frame to grow. I expect him to probably end up playing safety for us and special teams.”
Larsen, Davis and Maile are the only three signees who will not be around for spring ball. Tyler Jr., the only transfer currently not on campus, is expected to arrive in March.