Logan • Memories of Utah State football’s 2012 season will linger for a long time.
Trophies, banners and the bowl championship rings will remind the players and coaches of that success for years to come. Even around the country, football coaches have taken notice, as Utah State received votes for a top 25 preseason poll for the first time since 1966 on Thursday.
That’s nice, said coach Matt Wells, but that was last year.
“More than anything, it’s always a sign of hopefully earned respect from the past. Period. The past,” Wells said. “It doesn’t do anything for us right now.”
Utah State football made history last year by winning 11 games, a conference title, and its first bowl game in nearly two decades. But on Thursday, when the team officially reported for fall camp, the Aggies made clear that the 2012 season is history, and they aren’t focused on anything but the present.
Matt Wells is at the front of the program’s offseason changes, taking the helm after Gary Andersen’s departure in December. The first-year head coach has kept many things the same, but will have to prove he can win the same way on the field. Moving into the Mountain West sets its own challenges, namely tougher, unfamiliar conference opponents with the chance to play in a conference championship game in December.
There’s no resting on laurels in Logan: Utah State wants to have a worthy encore in 2013.
“The only thing that matters right now for us are the people in this building,” defensive end Connor Williams said. “A big part of what made this football team successful is we’re all a bunch of hard workers, and we’re all a bunch of blue-collar guys. We can’t lose that. We won’t lose that.”
Expectations have soared with 15 returning starters on offense and defense from last year’s squad. That includes quarterback Chuckie Keeton, the whole offensive line, and a star corps of linebackers and defensive linemen that made the Aggies a top-10 defensive unit in 2012.
But hunger and desire still rule at Utah State, where returners have set a higher bar for themselves. Even during the summer, when players are put in charge of their own practice habits, players said more Aggies have taken their responsibilities seriously.
In May, when players technically have a month-long break, a sizeable contingent stayed in Logan to work out twice a day.
“That’s one thing that I’ve already seen that’s changed the mindset of people,” Keeton said. “This upcoming camp is definitely going to build on that.”
Fall practices begin Friday afternoon, and while many positions appear set, there’s still a lengthy agenda. Although Joe Hill is the big favorite to start in the Aug. 29 season opener, the Aggies have to sort through who else might get carries. After graduating the team’s top five receiving targets last season, the onus will be on players such as Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen to fill the void.
On defense, there has been some reshuffling with Tay Glover-Wright and Mo Alexander penciled in for starting roles in the secondary. Brian Suite and Nevin Lawson provide the experience on the unit, but the coaching staff is looking to newcomers and faces down the depth chart to assert themselves in the team’s substitution packages.
On top of those pressing issues, the Aggies are looking for added depth, even at the positions of strength. Backup quarterback, backup offensive linemen, and subs in the front seven of the defense will be closely monitored throughout August.
At the same time, Wells said, coaches aren’t hanging the shadows of last year’s standouts, such as NFL draftees Will Davis and Kerwynn Williams, over this year’s team. Here, too, are the Aggies firmly rooted in the present.
“We celebrate [players] for who they are, respect them for who they are, and motivate them for what they can bring to our football team,” Wells said.
As the season-opener against Utah approaches, Wells said he’s found a comfort zone with his new role, with his coaching staff and with the expectations that come after an 11-2 season. The team was able to keep many things, such as the playbook, the team’s terminology, and the scouting methods, the same.
The Aggies hope the changes they have made pay off in a big way this fall. They’ve already seen encouraging signs for a future that they wish to be as fruitful as the recent past.
“We’re a lot more ahead than where we are usually,” center Tyler Larsen said. “We have a lot of older guys, we know what is needed to actually be successful. Compared to the last four years I’ve been here, it’s a big difference because of the leadership we’ve got going on the team.”
Utah State seeks to keep building
The Aggies bring back many returners from their 11-2 campaign in 2012:
QB Chuckie Keeton, Jr. • Finished No. 17 in the nation in total offense per game
C Tyler Larsen, Sr. • Tough blocker is on the watch list for several awards
DL Connor Williams, Sr. • Had 6.0 sacks last season for the Aggies
LB Kyler Fackrell, Soph. • Both a pass-rushing and coverage threat
LB Jake Doughty, Sr. • Led the team in tackling last year with 109 wrap-ups
DB Nevin Lawson, Sr. • An aggressive coverage man and four-year starter