Editor’s note: This is the sixth in an eight-part series profiling Utah State’s football team by position. Next: Linebackers.
Heading into the 2019 college football season, one of Utah State’s biggest question marks is the depth of its secondary.
Senior cornerback DJ Williams is not one bit concerned, though. In fact, the 2019 preseason all-Mountain West selection is confident the Aggies have the talent and depth needed to excel on the back end of the defense.
“If there’s one thing I can tell you, it’s you definitely don’t have to worry about the secondary because there’s a lot of hard-working guys in that room and there’s a lot of guys that want to learn,” Williams said. “And at the end of the day, effort and just wanting to learn is going to take you far. And so, I mean, the depth is there. We’ve got good players, man. It’s just finding out who the best (are).”
Williams is one of two returning starters in the Aggie secondary, along with junior safety Shaq Bond. As a junior, Williams led USU in passes broken up (11) and interceptions (four), which tied for the top mark in the conference.
And while Williams is the only returning starter at cornerback, the Aggies have some other experienced options at that position. For starters, projected starter Cam Haney has played in 37 games and made 10 starts during his time in Logan. No. 6 broke up a combined 13 passes as a sophomore and junior, and is primed to have a nice senior season.
“I like to call him the silent assassin,” USU cornerbacks coach Mark Orphey said of Haney, whose leadership he praised along with Williams. “I mean, he comes to work every single day, doesn’t say a word. ... He’s not ever going to complain or cry. He’s just going to go out there and he’s going to give you his all, which is why I have so much respect for him.”
Utah State will essentially start three cornerbacks in its 4-2-5 base defense. The third starter will likely be sophomore Andre Grayson, who played in 12 games a year ago. Grayson has performed well during fall camp and could be one of the breakout performers on the team.
“Andre Grayson is definitely a baller,” said Williams, who went on to praise Grayson for being a good teammate. “The big thing for him that’s making him better than what he was last year is he came this year with some confidence. You know, he was good last year, but he came with some confidence and that just took his game to a whole other level.”
Two other cornerbacks who should see a lot of a lot of playing time in 2019 are sophomores Zahodri Jackson and Jarrod Green. Jackson saw a fair amount of action a year ago, while Green had some limited reps. Williams has been very pleased with Green and Jackson and asserted they are both smart and talented players.
Three other corners who could figure into the mix are Arizona State graduate transfer Terin Adams and true freshmen Cam Lampkin and Dominic Tatum.
USU officially announced the addition of Adams, who has two years of eligibility remaining, Tuesday. A year ago, the native of Kirkland, Washington, played in all 13 games for the Sun Devils, recorded 30 tackles, including 3.0 for a loss, and broke up one pass. Adams played his freshman season at the City College of San Francisco, where he was a teammate of former USU CB Deante Fortenberry.
Lampkin was recruited to USU as a wide receiver, but recently made the switch to corner. Orphey said the native Texan “has a knack for the ball. If it’s a 50-50 ball, Cam Lampkin’s coming down with the ball. ... I think he’s going to end up being a great diamond at corner in this league.”
Although Williams is the lone Aggie corner with more than 10 career starts, Orphey is confident in the athletes he has manning that position.
“We’ve got a solid rotation, so now we can keep guys fresh, and we won’t miss a beat when one of those guys go in the game, and that’s the most important part,” he said. “... I think we have a solid two-deep and possibly even three-deep, so I think we’ll be OK.”
Adding depth at cornerback is sophomore Jared Reed, who is a Portland State transfer.
One of USU’s main defensive goals this season is “30 for 30,” which means 30 sacks and 30 interceptions, Orphey said. The Aggies racked up 32 sacks and 22 INTs a year ago. The players the Aggies returned this season accounted for 25.5 of those sacks and exactly half of those INTs from last fall.
“If you do that (30 for 30), you’re probably playing some good defense,” Orphey said. “That’s the goal and that’s what we’re going to strive for.”
In addition to Williams, Bond is an Aggie who has the ability of being a legitimate ball hawk. He proved that a year ago by bringing back an INT 100 yards to the house against New Mexico. Bond suffered a season-ending knee injury later in that game.
When asked if Bond is 100 percent both physically and mentally, USU safety coach Mike Caputo was quick to replay.
“Absolutely,” Caputo said. “The mental stuff was easy for him because that’s the type of guy he is. He’s a competitor, he’s a contender. He always wants to be on the field. ... He not only rises to the level of competition, but wants to push the guys to exceed that level, so that’s the guy he is in the room.”
Bond and fellow junior Braxton Gunther are battling for one of the two starting safety spots. Gunther, a former Woods Cross High standout, only played in three games last fall, but has earned a much bigger role in ’19.
“His mental development in terms of football IQ has improved tremendously,” Caputo said. “He’s a special teams demon. He’s that type of guy where I would hate to line up against him on any special teams unit.”
The two-deep appears to be set at the other safety position, with junior Troy Lefeged Jr. the clear frontrunner to start, and fellow junior college transfer Cash Gilliam, who started his collegiate career at the University of Kentucky, the backup. Both players have made some big plays during spring and fall camp.
“Cash Gilliam and Troy Lefeged, they also raise the (safeties) room up,” Caputo said. “... They want to exceed. They always want to do better. They always want to work, they’re always watching film. They’re in here before I am. They’re grinders and that’s just the type of guys they are.”
Other safeties who have garnered the praise of Caputo — “they’ll be contributors,” he said — are true freshman Keith Harris and redshirt freshman Sam Lockett. Lockett, who moved from receiver to safety prior to fall camp, was USU’s 2018 Scout Team Offensive MVP.
Caputo has also been pleased with freshmen Matthew Sterzer and Oakley Hussey and sophomore Patrick Maddox, who transferred from Linfield (Oregon) College.
“These guys are doing their roles, they’re doing their jobs, they’re learning every day ... and it’s just cool to see,” Caputo said.