Heading into the 2020 college football season, Utah State faced several question marks in regard to its depth in several position groups.
Six weeks into the season and it’s apparent USU lacks experienced depth in some key areas. Nevertheless, talented performers have emerged for the Aggies in all three facets of the game, and that was especially evident in last Thursday’s 41-27 victory over visiting New Mexico.
Granted, it was against a reeling Lobo squad that has now lost 13 straight games overall and 20 in a row in Mountain West play, but USU put together a solid all-around performance. Arguably the most encouraging thing for the Aggies is those strides were made without a handful of veteran players, all of whom have entered the transfer portal.
Seniors Troy Lefeged Jr. (safety) and Cash Gilliam (safety/linebacker, and junior Deven Thompkins (wide receiver) entered the portal less than two weeks ago, while senior running back Jaylen Warren followed suite sometime in the past few days. Linebacker Maika Malagei, who hasn’t been on the roster since prior to the start of fall camp, also recently entered the portal.
Indeed, losing players to the transfer portal midseason has been a sobering reality for the Aggies this fall — one that typically wouldn’t happen much in a non-COVID-19 year. The NCAA elected to freeze eligibility for all fall student-athletes, meaning nobody will lose a year, regardless of how many games they compete in.
It’s a challenge USU interim head coach Frank Maile has had to face head-on the past two weeks.
“For me, it’s all about where your heart and your mind’s at, and so if it’s not here, than it’s probably best that you walk (away) and find another place where you can feel that way,” Maile said during Monday’s press conference. “And so for us, man, we have too many kids here that care. The foundation, the culture here is rock solid, and so that’s not going to change here. And a lot of that has to do with the leaders at each position group holding the fort down and rallying the troops, so our coaches have done a great job with those guys. But, again, we’ve got great leadership on this team right now and I love the (direction) they’re headed.”
USU’s Andrew Peasley and Nick Heninger were also asked about losing teammates to the transfer portal during Monday’s Zoom call. Both athletes had similar viewpoints.
“I feel like that dudes leaving on the team, people have gotta do what’s best to them and their situations,” Peasley said. “You know, I don’t know everyone’s situation and no one else does (except that person), so they have to do what’s best for them. I don’t look at anyone who’s transferred or whatever as a quitter or as giving up, and I think the team knows that, so we’ve just got to continue to do us and get better every day.”
Heninger echoed those sentiments, but also talked about the silver lining a situation like this can present.
“I’m a big believer that there are always guys top to bottom on the depth chart that can play, and I’m just happy to see guys get more opportunities to catch the ball,” said Heninger, who has started games at defensive line and linebacker for the Aggies this season. “I feel like I saw that a little bit more (with) our offense this week, seeing guys who haven’t been as involved get the ball and be more involved. And obviously it worked. These guys have been preparing and I’ve been in a situation similar where you feel like you’re doing the work, you’re producing, you know you can play and you’re just waiting for your opportunity. And I know these guys are just as hungry as I was back then when I had to go through that.
“... And that’s nothing to say against those guys who have decided to leave. I respect their decision. I get it, but at the same time that’s a personal choice and this team is still a family, and we’ve still got to win games, right? That’s the ultimate goal.”
One of those Aggies Heninger is referring to is senior receiver Derek Wright, who finished with career-high tallies in catches (four) and receiving yards (70) against the Lobos. Fellow wideout Justin McGriff also had a career night as he hauled in four receptions for a career-best 99 yards and his second touchdown of the season.
Former starting signal caller Jason Shelley was dismissed from the program two weeks ago “for a violation of team rules.” Maile wanted to provide some clarity to that decision amid rumors on what Shelley’s actions might have been, and it’s something he brought up during the press conference.
“Jason did nothing illegal,” Maile said. “He’s a great young man. His dismissal was 100 percent my decision, and not due to any misconduct or violation of institutional policies or rules.”
The decision to dismiss Shelley was announced one day after USU lost at home to Fresno State, 35-16. That game was televised on Fox Sports 2, and the broadcast panned over to a visibly upset Shelley on the sideline during the fourth quarter. In the waning seconds of the game, Shelley was involved in an argument with Warren.
In the third quarter of last Thursday’s game, Aggie defensive lineman Marcus Moore went down with a left leg injury and did not return. The UCLA graduate transfer did not put any weight on that leg as he has helped to the sideline.
During his press conference Monday, Maile was asked if there’s a chance Moore will be healthy enough to play again this season.
“We’re not sure,” he said. “All of that’s going to depend on his progress. It’s an ankle sprain and so he’s on crutches and (in) a boot right now, so it’s going to be one day at a time.”
Moore has played in all five games with three starts this fall. No. 95 has been a consistent performer as he has contributed with 20 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, and 2.0 sacks.