There’s no doubt there was some rust, which is the norm for the first scrimmage of spring camp, but that didn’t prevent the Aggies from making several big plays on both sides of the football.
Utah State ran the ball extremely well and quarterback Cooper Legas showed a lot of promise, but the defense countered with four takeaways in the second half of the scrimmage Saturday afternoon at Maverik Stadium. Two of those turnovers resulted in touchdowns — the first a 59-yard fumble return by Xavion Steele, and the second a 36-yard interception return by Cash Gilliam.
“This is the day I can't really win,” USU head coach Blake Anderson said while chuckling. “If we're running it (well) and scoring points, I'm worried about stopping anybody. And if we're not, I'm worried about scoring points, so I saw good and bad on both (sides). Great teaching opportunities. There were too many turnovers offensively. We did run the ball well. I think we probably would have finished some of those drives too. We don't have (red) zone, goal line stuff in yet, so we shut it down.”
The offense only scored three touchdowns in the scrimmage — two on tosses from Legas to Derek Wright — but that was indeed misleading because every drive that approached the red zone was stopped, as Anderson explained. Running back Pailate Makakona did had a 7-yard scoring run in a red zone scenario at the end of the scrimmage.
It was a great day for USU’s offensive line, which routinely opened sizable holes for a slew of running backs. John Gentry, Calvin Tyler Jr., Devonta’e Henry-Cole and Elelyon Noa each had at least one carry of 19 yards or more, plus Noa had a 54-yarder called back due to a penalty.
“You see the offensive line starting to come together a little bit today,” Anderson said. “We had not run the ball like that up to that point, so that was really a plus.”
Noa, who burst through a gaping hole for 43 yards on his first carry, led the way with 112 yards on seven attempts. Gentry chipped in with 63 yards on 11 carries, while Henry-Cole and Tyler Jr., a transfer from Oregon State, combined for 117 yards on 13 rushes.
In fairness to the defense, it was missing several impact performers, including honorable mention all-Mountain West selections Nick Heninger (defensive end) and AJ Vongphachanah (linebacker), veteran defensive backs Andre Grayson and Jarrod Green, and Power 5 Conference transfers Patrick Joyner Jr. (DE) and Jahaziel Lee (defensive tackle). All of those guys were on the sidelines and didn’t appear to have any significant injuries.
The offense accumulated 412 yards on the ground, which is just fine with speedy wide receiver Deven Thompkins. That kind of success will open the field for playmakers like Thompkins, and he showcased his skills Saturday by racking up 129 yards on seven receptions.
“Having a good run game, that just opens up the pass game even more, so seeing the regular running backs run the ball today we absolutely amazing,” Thompkins said. “It was what I expected from them, honestly.”
Thompkins is one of three Aggies who entered the transfer portal last fall, but ultimately elected to return. Another is Gilliam, who looked very comfortable during the scrimmage in his hybrid outside linebacker/safety position.
Not only did Gilliam step in front of a Andrew Peasley pass for a pick-six, he deftly broke up a potential 40-plus-yard bomb to Thompkins and swatted a pass down at the line of scrimmage on a blitz. No. 5 was also credited with five tackles, including 2.0 for a loss, and 1.0 sack.
“Last year I was a middle backer, which I never did before, but they were asking me to do it and I just wanted to help the team any way I could, so I did it and I did it without complaining,” Gilliam said. “But the position I'm playing now, which is striker, is more natural for me. I came in here as a safety, so it's back to my roots. I'm back to playing way faster.”
Another Aggie who shined on the defensive side of the ball was Texas transfer Byron Hobbs-Vaughns. The athletic defensive end was credited with two sacks, put pressure on the quarterbacks a few more times, blocked a field goal and made an outstanding open field tackle for a loss.
“I think you saw a glimpse of (his potential) today,” Anderson said. “I mean, he was recruited and played at Texas for a reason. He's a phenomenal athlete. ... He's got a tremendously high motor, which is probably his biggest asset. He never slows down and that is going to be huge for us. (He) still made some mistakes today, a couple critical ones, but he always seemed to make the next play. He's got a short-term memory, which is good.”
In addition to his aforementioned fumble recovery for a TD, Steele intercepted a pass and deflected a Legas to Wright pass at the goal line just in the nick of time. Wright got his revenge later in the scrimmage when he beat Steele on perfectly placed 28-yard connection from Legas on a fade route.
Wright got behind the secondary on a 35-yard strike from Legas for the first score of the scrimmage. Wright finished with 82 yards receiving. Eleven different Aggies caught a pass Saturday, with wideout Quinton Hadnot and tight end Broc Lane hauling in four apiece. Hadnot made a really nice catch over the middle of the field as he high-pointed a ball with a lot of zip.
Legas, the second-string signal caller, completed 16 of 20 passes for 182 yards, while Peasley, the starter, went 12 of 29 for 174 yards. Legas and Peasley were each picked off once, as was fourth-string QB Garrett Larson. Cornerback Jaden Smith showcased his leaping ability while snaring a Legas offering. Arkansas State transfer QB Logan Bonner has been recovering from an injury.
The Aggies were missing a couple key offensive players Saturday, including starters Jordan Nathan (wideout) and Andy Koch (offensive line). Nathan did participate in receiving drills prior to the scrimmage.
USU, which got 10 tackles and a forced fumble from safety Luke Marion, will return to practice Tuesday from 4:15-6:15 p.m. and again Thursday at the same time. All practices on Merlin Olsen Field are open to the public, although the ones moved to the Stan Laub Indoor Training Center due to inclement weather are closed.
The annual Blue vs. White Spring Game is scheduled for Saturday, April 17, at 2 p.m. at Maverik Stadium.
“The guys are I think getting a good grasp of how hard we want to play,” Anderson said. “We're not there yet, but it's a good foundation (we've got). We don't quite understand how we play fast yet on offense, but we'll get there and it's getting better daily. I love the fact that the defense created some turnovers after giving up some big plays early. They created some turnovers, showed some resiliency and just finished it better than they started. But all in all, we're having a lot of fun. This is a group that's battling hard for us (and) is I think bought into what we're trying to teach. I told them at the end, 'I love coming to work every day.' They're a fun group to coach.”