After finishing 11-2 last season and proving that they could win consistently – albeit against subpar WAC talent – the Utah State Aggies head into the 2013 campaign with plenty more to prove to the nation. The fact that they’re breaking in a new head coach won’t help, though.
The Aggies promoted Matt Wells this offseason to replace Gary Anderson, who jumped ship to take over as head honcho for Wisconsin. A Utah State alum and first-time head coach, Wells has high expectations to live up to as he attempts to fill Anderson’s shoes. Now a part of the Mountain West, the former Aggies Offensive Coordinator must keep the team moving in a positive direction.
In order to do so, he’ll need to stick to the ideals that Anderson instilled when he skyrocketed the Aggies to the top of the WAC: an emphasis on running and smart defense.
Last season, the Aggies finished No. 16 in the AP poll. While a repeat performance is unlikely, the program should continue its ascension with plenty of experience and talent returning for another go around.
This season, the offensive will revolve around quarterback Chuckie Keeton, a third-year starter who has been mentioned on numerous preseason award lists. Coming off a phenomenal 2012 season that saw him rack up 3,373 passing yards and 619 rushing yards, Keeton shouldn’t have too much trouble wreaking havoc on opposing MWC defenses with his dual-threat abilities.
The biggest problem, though, is figuring out what weapons Keeton will have to work with this upcoming season. The Aggies lost their top five receivers from 2012, leaving Travis Reynolds as the top returning option. Reynolds hauled in 25 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown last season, but should see a significant jump in opportunities this year. Others such as wide receivers Alex Wheat, Travis Van Leeuwen, JUCO transfers Ronald Butler and Ryan Watson, and tight end D.J. Tialavea should have the chance to carve a role for themselves in the passing game.
After losing four running backs to the NFL in the last three years, Utah State must again look to a new face to be the featured ball-carrier. This year, the top candidate is junior Joe Hill, who served as the main backup to Kerwynn Williams last season. Hill amassed 269 rushing yards last year, and appears primed to start in 2013. Hill will likely lose some snaps to JUCO transfer Rashad Hall, who put up 1,402 rushing yards in 2012. Senior Joey DeMartino could also be in the mix for some carries.
The most stable position for the Aggies is the offensive line, where all five starters return. Tyler Larsen, a fourth-year starter, will be the anchor for a promising Utah State front five.
The Aggies return seven defensive starters in 2013, which is a positive sign as they hope to maintain a certain level of success despite the increase in competition.
The defensive line will be a big part of whether or not they can compete this year. With sack-leader Connor Williams returning and A.J. Pataiali’i set to take over at nose tackle, the defensive front four should be stout. They led the nation in redzone efficiency in 2012, and should have similar success as long as the line remains relatively healthy. Other lineman such as Elvis Kamana-Matagi and Jordan Nielsen should make contributions as well as part of a rotation.
Three starting linebackers Kyler Fackrell, Zach Vigil and Jake Doughty return this season after earning all-conference honors last year. With Tavaris McMillian expected to fill in at the other inside linebacker position, this unit should be among the strongest for Utah State. Vigil notched 5.5 sacks last year while Doughty led the team with 109 tackles, so the Aggies are looking good at linebacker.
The secondary faces a tall order in replacing NFL draftee Will Davis, who led the team in interceptions and defended passes last year. The leading candidate is Tay Glover-Wright, who will slide in opposite Nevin Lawson as the other starting cornerback. Getting back free safety Maurice Alexander, who missed last season due to suspension, will be a big boost for the Aggies. Utah State also returns starting strong safety Brian Suite, who piled up 73 tackles in 2012.
A move to the Mountain West is going to make things a lot tougher on Utah State, who thrived last season against weak WAC competition. They will face off against conference opponents such as Boise State and San Jose State, who are far from slouches.
The biggest challenge, though, will be the Aggies’ non-conference schedule, which includes away bouts against PAC-12 schools USC and Utah and a home game against BYU, who Utah State lost to in 2012 by three points. If they can make it through the Cougars on October 4, they should be in good position to finish near the top of the conference.
Utah State’s final month of the season includes games against Hawaii, UNLV, Colorado State and Wyoming, all teams facing low expectations in 2013. The jump in competition is going to be difficult to overcome, but the Aggies have the talent to finish the season above .500.