The wait is finally over for the Utah State football program, which will officially kick off its 123rd season this Saturday on the road against Mountain West power Boise State.
USU head coach Gary Andersen, plus a trio of Aggie players — quarterbacks Jason Shelley and Andrew Peasley and safety Shaq Bond — participated in a press conference via Zoom on Monday. They talked about fall camp and Saturday’s showdown against the Broncos, among other things.
The Aggies also released their depth chart Monday, and there were a couple of surprises. For starters, the battle for playing time in the offensive trenches is seemingly ongoing as the first- and second-stringers weren’t really distinguished in four of the five positions.
Two-year starter Alfred Edwards and Andy Koch are each listed as potential starters at two different positions — left tackle for both athletes, plus left guard for Koch and right tackle for Edwards. Additionally, true freshman Falepule Alo is pushing incumbent Demytrick Ali’ifua for the starting center spot.
“It’s fun to watch them grow up around each other and play different positions,” Andersen said of the O-line. “Andy Koch has played three different positions in camp and who knows where that’s going to be on game day, but you ask him about it, he looks at you and smiles and says, ‘coach, I’m excited. I’ll play right guard, left guard, left tackle, right tackle.’ So I guess that could be four positions if you call it that way, but two for sure. Heck, he might end up playing center for us ... who knows what will take place, but their attitudes have been very good on the offensive line. It’s fun watching them continually grow.”
USU essentially has four returning starters in the offensive trenches if you count Koch, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 3 (San Diego State) a year ago. Karter Shaw is currently penciled in as a starter at right guard, just like he was during the 2019 campaign.
One surprise at O-line is Heneli Bloomfield not appearing on the first two-deep chart. The sophomore made four starts last season and played in all 13 games.
Jacob South, who started three games last fall, is also in the mix for a starting position on the O-line as he is currently listed as the co-No. 1 at right tackle along with Edwards.
The rest of the two-deep on offense was fairly expected. Utah transfer Jason Shelley will start at quarterback against the Broncos, with veteran Jordan Nathan and one-time Nebraska tight end Justin McGriff starting at the outside receiver spots and speedster Deven Thompkins in the slot.
Carson Terrell is back as the starting tight end, as is fellow senior Jaylen Warren at running back, although Warren is listed as the co-No. 1 with Utah transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole. Former Logan High star Taylor Compton is battling Thompkins for the right to start in the slot, while former Sky View standout Bryce Mortenson is listed as the co-No. 2 at tight end with Mosese Manu.
Peasley, the second-string signal caller, raved about how well the Aggies have been running the football during fall camp, as did Andersen.
“I think we have as many as four or five running backs that we could put in a game,” Andersen said. “It’s been fun to watch those kids compete. ... I’m excited to see what they can bring to the table.”
Indeed, Andersen feels confident enough about his tailbacks that four of them — the other two being Colorado Mesa transfer Pailate Makakona and highly touted true freshman John Gentry — were included in Monday’s initial depth chart.
As for the defensive side of the ball, the Aggies are thin at a few positions, but have plenty of leadership as eight of 11 athletes who earned starting positions are seniors or graduate transfers. Putting more speed on the field defensively was certainly a priority for the Aggies, who are essentially using a 3-3-5 base defense, although that will be modified against run-heavy opponents.
“We are longer on the field and we are faster in all positions, but on defense that was a real important thing,” Andersen said. “We’ve got a bunch of young kids who are battling to get into spots and we’ve got some older kids that are trying to help them continually grow and develop, and get into a position to compete and to play. I will say this, I think they’re running to the ball well. Coach (Stacy) Collins and coach (Frank) Maile have done a great job, along with the rest of the defensive staff, to be able to get these kids understanding how hard we need to play on the defensive side of the ball consistently.”
Seniors Justus Te’i, who has 22 starts under his belt, and Ritisoni Fata will start in the defensive trenches for the Aggies this Saturday, as will UCLA graduate transfer Marcus Moore.
Utah graduate transfer Nick Heninger will start at outside linebacker for the Aggies. The converted defensive end gave USU a huge boost off the bench a year ago as he led the team in sacks (5.0) and tackles for a loss (9.5).
Incumbent Kevin Meitzenheimer and converted safety Cash Gilliam have earned the opportunity to start at inside linebacker for the Aggies. Gilliam, who started his collegiate career at Kentucky, was injured much of last season and will gave USU some speed and tenacity at ILB.
Andersen was impressed with his team’s secondary throughout fall camp, which is very encouraging when you consider the Aggies lost former Arizona State cornerback Terin Adams to the transfer portal, as well as safety Sam Lockett. USC graduate transfer CJ Pollard, who was in the mix to start at safety, also decided not to come back.
Nevertheless, the Aggies welcomed back a handful of veterans in the secondary, including both starting safeties in Troy Lefeged Jr. and Bond, plus a trio of experienced cornerbacks in Cam Lampkin, Zahodri Jackson and Andre Grayson. Grayson is penciled in as the starting nickelback, as are Jackson and Lampkin at cornerback. Jackson was injured for most of the ’19 campaign.
One surprise in the defensive backfield has been the emergence of true freshman cornerback Jakob Robinson, who was listed as the co-No. 2 with junior college transfer Xavion Steele at one of the corner spots. As a senior at Orem High, Robinson intercepted six passes and broke up 29 more.
Christopher Bartolic returns as USU’s starting punter — although he is getting pushed by true freshman Stephen Kotsanlee — while fellow senior Brandon Pada is entering his third season as the team’s first-choice long snapper. Bartolic will also serve as the Aggies’ holder on extra points and field goals.
For the first time since 2014, the Aggies won’t have All-American kicker Domink Eberle at their disposal. Nevertheless, Andersen is confident USU has a capable replacement in junior Connor Coles.
“Connor’s done a really good job kicking the ball,” Andersen said. “... Connor’s been on a roll lately. Again, he’s got to get into games and be able to get that done.”
Coles’ backup is Utah transfer Nels Haltom, who was on the Utes’ roster a year ago after putting together a good JUCO career at Grossmont (California) College.