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LOGAN — For Utah State fans, the countdown until basketball season was forever the first clock to be watched.
These days, with the Aggies currently sitting in second-to-last place in the Mountain West, Aggie fans are ready to forget the woes of this season. Instead, fans are eagerly thirsting for football, with the spring game only 36 days away. With Utah State three days into spring football practice, now is a time of improvement for the Aggies.
Indeed, spring football is a time when mistakes can be made and growth is to be celebrated. The only opponent in the spring is one’s self, and it’s a time when a lack of work ethic on the part of one player can put an entire team behind. Still, this 2014 season at Utah State sits as a defining year for the program for several reasons.
First, it’s the second year in the Mountain West, meaning teams are now familiar with the brand of football the Aggies play; second, how will this recruiting class that is entirely Matt Wells’ fare; and third, Utah State is facing arguably its toughest schedule ever, with Wake Forest coming to Romney Stadium for the home opener.
With great struggle comes great opportunity, and the opportunity is there for Utah State to really make a splash on the national stage with its opener at Tennessee. The Volunteers are coming off a 5-7 season and haven’t looked dominant in almost a decade. The Aggies have threatened big-time SEC opponents before (Auburn), and this is a potential launching pad to a truly elite season.
Still, in order for the opportunity of 2014 to be recognized by Utah State, several different things have to happen during spring football. These goals deal with a variety of different issues, whether it is the health of individual players or the development of entire units. Still, spring football is the time for Utah State to address potential issues while also discovering opportunities to take advantage of later in the season. Answers to these issues/questions will decide how 2014 will be remembered by fans.
Chuckie Keeton’s health
Yes, Darrel Garretson led the Aggies to a bowl win over Northern Illinois, and yes, Garretson also took Utah State to a spot in the inaugural Mountain West championship game. Still, the Aggies aren’t nearly the team without Keeton behind center. Before he was lost for the season due to a knee injury against BYU, Keeton had thrown five touchdown passes in a game twice, and he was on pace to lead the Mountain West in the all-important points-accounted-for statistic, which determines how many points a player is responsible for contributing to.
Keeton will not be available for spring practice, nor will senior running back Joe Hill. Keeton’s injury is the one that most directly affects the team though, as he is the straw that stirs the Aggies’ drink. When he played, Utah State’s offense had greater diversity with Keeton on the field, and it will take a complete athlete to will the Aggies to wins at Tennessee and at BYU.
Offensive line play
Graduation has the opportunity to decimate some positions, depending on the depth of talent at that position. That is one of the often unnoticed sides of recruiting — have coaches signed players to each key position in each class who are prepared to take over? Utah State’s offensive line will lose five players who started at least five games over the course of the season, including Tyler Larsen and Jamie Markosian. Still, the Aggies return Kevin Whimpey, who has started 26 straight games for the Aggies.
Offensive line play is always the backbone of any good team, but it is especially so with Keeton and Hill returning from knee injuries. If the offensive line can’t provide sufficient protection, or open holes in the defense, both players will have their tasks of returning from significant injuries amplified.
While Utah State has earned acclaim over the past few years due to its offensive attack, the Aggies’ current run of success has been largely built on the backs of its defenders and their defense. Utah State led the Mountain West in four key categories (scoring defense, rushing defense, total defense and passing defense), and took second in total sacks and passing defense.
It is important for Utah State to continue its dominance on that side of the ball, as it allows for the offense to have more opportunities to score. While several stars are returning, including defensive end B.J. Larsen, the Aggies lost more than 50 percent of their tackling from 2013, and lost players who combined for more than 50 percent of their interceptions. Look for players like defensive lineman Elvis Kamana-Matagi and defensive back Frankie Sutera to step in and supplement an already-talented group of returners, which include Larsen, linebackers Zach Vigil and Kyler Fackrell and safety Brian Suite.