Woodward anchors Aggies at linebacker

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in an eight-part series profiling Utah State’s football team by position. Next: Special teams.

Heading into fall camp, everybody knew who one of Utah State’s starting linebackers would be.

After all, David Woodward was one of the most impactful players in the Mountain West a year ago. As a sophomore for the Aggies, No. 9 paced the conference with 134 tackles, plus was among the league leaders in tackles for loss (12.0) and sacks (5.0) en route to garnering third-team AP All-America honors.

Indeed, every legitimate football fan in the Mountain West is aware of Woodward, but his supporting cast is much more unknown. As of a month ago, Woodward was the only Aggie linebacker with more than a few career starts at the FBS level.

However, with the emergence of junior Kevin Meitzenheimer and the move of Justus Te’i and Elijah Shelton to more of a rover position, Woodward’s supporting cast is starting to look quite promising.

“They’re getting smarter every day and that’s one thing that impresses me right now,” said USU linebackers coach Justin Ena, who is also the defensive coordinator. “Things are looking pretty good.”

Te’i and Shelton started fall camp listed on the two-deep at defensive end, but the roles of both athletes have shifted since then and they will also play a lot of reps at linebacker this fall. Te’i provides some much-needed experience as he started a combined nine games as linebacker as a sophomore and junior before redshirting in 2018.

“They’ve done such a good job,” Ena said. “They’re both so long. We didn’t really have that long athlete. Woody (David Woodward) is pretty tall, about 6-1. But you get Justus in there, about 6-3, and Elijah at 6-2, I mean, that range they have and again their striking ability is just phenomenal.”

Shelton only played in one game a year ago, but the redshirt freshman will be an impact performer for the Aggies this season. The former Highland High standout “is a very twitchy” and physical athlete, Ena asserted. No. 41 has the potential to be a very good pass rusher.

“Moving from defensive end to backer, it’s a learning period and it’s taken a little bit of time, but every day you see him getting better and smarter, and understanding the principles and fundamentals that good linebackers have,” Ena said of Shelton. “... He’s still learning the spot, but there’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be a great (player).”

Another Aggie Ena is expecting to have a solid year is Meitzenheimer, who was primed to be a breakout performer last fall but was hampered by a knee injury. No. 33 is the likely starter alongside Woodward in USU’s 4-2-5 base defense.

“It feels really good,” Meitzenheimer said. “I just want to stay healthy for my teammates because I know I have a pretty important role to line everybody up to where they need to be and make sure I’m doing my job for the team.”

Ena and Aggie head coach Gary Andersen have praised Meitzenheimer for his willingness and ability to take on a much bigger leadership role this season.

“I love what Kevin does,” Ena said. “Kevin Meitzenheimer’s become a really good leader. Him and Woody, they do it the right way. They talk and they get people aligned, and people respect him and Woody, and I’m excited for them.”

Meitzenheimer started developing some chemistry with Woodward during spring camp, and he is confident that trend will continue into the season.

“Our biggest strength (as a unit) is zone dropping,” Meitzenheimer said. “I feel like we really close down zones and me and Woody, we complement each other. He’s more athletic, I’m more (of a) downhill (runner), a run filler. He’s good defending the pass and the run; he’s a terrific athlete, and I just complement that.”

As sharp as Meitzenheimer, Te’i and Shelton have looked during fall camp, there’s no question who anchors USU’s linebacking corps. Woodward is a bona fide candidate to capture Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year accolades. In addition to being a tackling machine last season, the former high school safety and running back intercepted a pair of passes, broke up three others and forced two fumbles.

“David’s very instinctual,” Ena said. “He can find the ball and he finishes so well. He’s always making a tackle, he’s either getting his hands on a loose ball somewhere, either scooping and scoring or just getting an interception . ... The kid is just a very instinctual player. I want him to be more vocal and be more of a leader, but he’s coming into his own right now.”

Another linebacker who has been rock solid during fall camp is junior Eric Munoz. The former San Diego Mesa Community College player should receive a significant amount of reps in 2019.

The Aggies brought in junior college transfer Noah Young to the program this summer and the Florida native is among those backers fighting for playing time. Young does have four years to finish out his three seasons of eligibility, so he might be limited to four games to preserve his redshirt year.

“I love what’s he’s doing,” Ena said of Young. “You know, he’s been frustrated because he’s like, ‘I want to get more reps,’ but at the same time ... he’s stepped up and has pushed himself to be kind of the leader of the young guys. He’ll be a good player.”

The emergence of guys like Te’i, Shelton, Munoz and Young is extra important because expected contributor Maika Magalei hasn’t been able to practice during fall camp as he has been beset by foot and ankle injuries. The redshirt sophomore has the potential to be a good pass rusher, as was evidenced by his 2.5 sacks in limited action two years ago.

When asked if Magalei might be able to contribute this year, Ena said “fingers crossed. I don’t know what else to tell you. Yeah, it would be great to have him, but we’ve got to wait around and see.”

Although they likely won’t play much this season, the Aggies have a handful of talented newcomers at linebacker — athletes who could excel in the future. Meitzenheimer singled out the strides made by Shelton — “he’s very athletic and he’s getting the system down” — and true freshman AJ Vongphachanh, who started fall camp as a defensive end but has been moved to linebacker.

“He’s going to be a very good player,” Meitzenheimer said of Vongphachanh, who was a first-team all-state linebacker at Chiawana (Washington) High School.

Two newcomers who have caught Ena’s attention are also natives of the Pacific Northwest in true freshmen Jaymason Willingham and Simon Thompson, who was a standout quarterback and safety in high school. Vongphachanh, Willingham and Thompson were all 3-star recruits shepherded to USU by special teams coordinator/running backs coach Stacy Collins.

Adding depth to the linebacking corps are sophomores Ethan Vowles and Daniel Langi, and redshirt freshman Dustin Matthews. Matthews redshirted at USU in 2016 and then served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Matthews (Viewmont) and Langi (Bingham) were both first-team all-state selections as high school seniors in the Beehive State.

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

Please be aware the Herald Journal does not endorse, and is not responsible for alleged employment offers in the comments.