As far as Utah State head football coach Gary Andersen is concerned, “you need to get through camp before you know who you are as a football team.”
Nevertheless, Andersen was still able to get a pretty good feel for where his Aggies were at prior to the official start of fall camp — at least at a few positions.
Andersen participated in a conference call last Friday, one day after it was announced the Mountain West would have an eight-game fall football season, starting Oct. 24. The former Ricks College and University of Utah player was asked about his team’s depth and what positional battles he was looking forward to seeing unfold during his team’s 29-day camp.
One of the positions Andersen is really excited about is running back, where the Aggies return former national junior college offensive player of the year Jaylen Warren, plus welcome in several talented newcomers. Three of those first-year Aggies are Utah graduate transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole and highly touted true freshmen John Gentry and Elelyon Noa, plus Colorado Mesa University transfer Pailate Makakona.
Gentry comes from one of the premier high school programs in Texas, North Shore, while Noa is the all-time leading rusher at Helix (California) High, where he broke the record of former USC legend Reggie Bush despite missing most of his senior season with an injury.
“I feel really good at running back,” Andersen asserted. “Jaylen Warren and DHC (Henry-Cole) have done a great job, (as well as) John Gentry, Makakona. We’ve got some really good depth at running back and I feel good about that.”
The man who will be getting this deep group of tailbacks the ball is still up in the air. Athletic dual-style threats Andrew Peasley and Jason Shelley are dueling it out to see who will replace current Green Bay Packer Jordan Love as USU’s starting quarterback.
This is Peasley’s third year in the program as he played in three games in 2018 and just one in 2019. The native of Le Grande, Oregon, blew out his knee against Stony Brook a year ago in a game he displayed his explosive feet with a 59-yard touchdown run.
Shelley elected to transfer from Utah to USU after seeing limited playing time as a sophomore. The native of Frisco, Texas, started five games for the Utes as a freshman after Tyler Huntley went down with an injury, and helped lead his team to the Pac-12 championship game.
“At quarterback we’ve got a battle,” Andersen said. “We’ve got two really good players going at it, and Andrew is doing a good job and Shelley’s doing a good job, and they’re battling through the offense. But we’ve got to get that (situated) because we’re going to need both of those quarterbacks.”
Although he didn’t name any players by name, Andersen likes the competition he has going on the wide receiver position and said there’s “a lot of guys fighting for those spots. I like where they’re at.” That group of led by senior Jordan Nathan, who has made an impact ever since his freshman season.
Regardless of who the starting signal caller is, he will have the luxury of being protected by an experienced offensive line — an advantage Love didn’t have a year ago. The Aggies have five athletes who each started at least four games in the offensive trenches last season in Alfred Edwards, Demytrick Ali’ifua, Karter Shaw, Ty Shaw and Heneli Bloomfield. Nevertheless, all five of these guys aren’t necessarily penciled in as starters.
“The offensive line’s got some battles going on for (some of those) starting positions right now, so we’ll see how it filters out,” said Andersen, who hopes to use an eight-man rotation.
As for USU’s defense, Andersen said he feels “good in the back end,” where his team has several veterans in cornerbacks Andrew Grayson, Terin Adams and a now healthy Zahodri Jackson, and all-conference safety Shaq Bond. The secondary also received a big boost when it gained USC graduate transfer CJ Pollard, who was a four-star recruit in high school.
Andersen said “we feel fairly settled” at the outside linebacker spot in USU’s 3-4 base defense. Converted defensive end Nick Heninger, a Utah graduate transfer who led the Aggies in sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (9.5) last season, and Elijah Shelton will fill those roles. Andersen also singled out hybrid safety/linebacker Troy Lefeged Jr., who paced the Aggies in tackles last year with 104.
“He’s one of our best players,” Andersen said.
And while Andersen feels pretty good about his team’s linebackers and secondary, he did say “the D-line is a concern.” USU’s most veteran player in the defensive trenches is senior defensive end Justus Te’i, who was a linebacker until last season. A couple of local athletes could see some significant playing time on the defensive line this season in Logan’s Caden Andersen and Sky View’s Jake Pitcher.
“We need to get better, we need to get tougher, we need to work harder and we need to grind at it,” coach Andersen said when talking about the D-line. “That’s a position that, once we get the pads on, we’ll see where we’re at, but they’re in good hands with Frank Maile.”
The Aggies lost All-American kicker Dominik Eberle, but Andersen said “right now I’m cautiously optimistic about the specialists, too. I think we’re punting the ball well and kicking the ball well, so I’m excited to see where that goes.”
USU returns 12 starters — seven offensive and five defensive — from last year’s squad that went 7-6. The Aggies will practice in full pads for the first time Tuesday and will hold their first scrimmage of fall camp Friday.
All fall practices and scrimmages are closed.