Utah State football's big spring storylines O-line, secondary and more
Logan • Set your alarm, because Tuesday morning, the Aggies are going early.
Utah State football's spring practices start on March 4, and every one is invited as long as you like waking up before the sunrise. The Aggies will practice every Tuesday and Thursday (except spring break) at 6 a.m., with three Friday afternoon sessions at 3:45 p.m. Starting on March 21. The whole thing wraps up on April 12 with the Blue vs. White Spring Game at 2 p.m. that Saturday.
Now you know when to watch - how about what? Here are some of the biggest storylines I see heading into spring ball for the Aggies.
Oh, that O-line • Last year on media day right before the start of fall camp, Matt Wells said, "The question you guys will ask next year is can we run for a yard."
It's hyperbole, but even eight months ago, Wells had a point: Utah State has graduated a lot of good linemen. Tyler Larsen, Jamie Markosian and Eric Schultz are done. With a new job, Kyle Whimpey seems unlikely to come back to football, even if he could get an extra year of eligibility. Even Sini Tauauve'a, who filled in for Whimpey after he was injured, is gone. So it falls to a young group to replace one of the most experienced positions Utah State had last season, a group that was critical to protecting a young quarterback and paving the way for a 1,000-yard rusher.
It seems to be a safe bet that Bill Vavau, Taani Fisilau and Jake Simonich will each play some role on this line, but there are other names in the mix. Bryce Walker is coming off an injury from last year at guard, while Joe Summers and Austin Stephens are battling at center. Brandon Taukeiaho played some snaps last year in various spots, including tight end. There are rumblings this might be the year Tyshon Mosley pushes his way into the fray after redshirting last season.
Size likely won't be an issue: Simonich and Austin Albrecht are the only ones in the two-deep who weigh under 290. Only Fisilau and Summers are listed under 6-foot-3. What will define this group is how quickly they learn to play together.
"Size wise I think we're already bigger than last year's offensive line," Kevin Whimpey said. "What we're missing is experience. Last year's group had taken a lot of snaps together. This year we have a lot of raw talent but not much experience to date. That's what we're looking to get in spring ball."
Secondary is a primary focus • Losing Nevin Lawson, Quinton Byrd, Tay Glover-Wright and Maurice Alexander is a huge blow for the defensive backs. While the Aggies bring in a lot of help in the latest signing class that hasn't arrived yet, this will be a chance for the current group to try to show their potential now.
Zach Vigil said last week he thought Stewart was due for a big season. The senior has been reportedly studying film and running drills on his own. He looked as if he might over take Glover-Wright as early as fall camp last year before a minor injury seemed to slow him down a bit. But he's an athletic and experience corner in a secondary that lacks quite a bit of the latter right now.
Daniel Gray, who transferred last summer from Tennessee, is a player the Aggies feel good about. At the moment, he's at the top spot on one of the corner positions. Marquan Ellison and Ladale Jackson have mostly stood out in scrimmages and practice so far, but they'll have a chance to show up before the junior college guys get in.
Strong safety could be an area of intense competition, with Frankie Sutera and Marwin Evans on the two-deep. Sutera is the top guy at the moment, and he started for Alexander in the Poinsettia Bowl. But he'll likely face a push from Evans, a junior college prospect who started out as a corner and has good speed for the position.
"I'd like to see some young DBs step up," Matt Wells said. "I'd like to see some guys you can say, 'Yeah, we can count on him.'"
Coaching changes in front seven • The Aggies have plenty back on the defensive line and among the linebackers. This is arguably the biggest strength of the team: With B.J. Larsen and Jordan Nielsen rushing from the edges and Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell at the outside linebacker spots, the Aggies should be experienced on the flanks this year.
But the questions lie with coaches. Utah State loses two respected figures on the staff: Kevin Clune from the linebackers, and Frank Maile from the defensive line. Clune took the defensive coordinator job at Hawaii, while Maile took his same position at Vanderbilt.
The Aggies have already replaced one: Arizona State assistant Joe Lorig has been on campus for the better part of the last month, and early reviews are that he's blended well. Zach Vigil said that Lorig has been diligent thus far about learning the Aggies' hefty playbook and get aquainted with his new personnel.
Wells said in general, he felt like the overall stability of the staff with all other assistants returning would help keep a consistent flow to the spring.
"I think players have done a good job of teaching our coaches by showing them how we prepare, how we practice," "The new coaches have done a nice job of coming in, humbling themselves and ingraining themselves in our systems. With the nature of college football, there's always going to be a new face or two, but the players have done a nice job of maintaining ownership in their meeting rooms."
Experience for skill players • The glaring absences this spring are Chuckie Keeton and Joe Hill, which probably isn't fun for Utah State fans. But it will be fun for the players who stand to get a lot more reps this spring.
One of the chief benefactors is Darell Garretson, who was thrust into the fire as starting quarterback last year. He had some very good games and some not-as-good-games, which you can expect from a rookie. But Garretson will get some extra snaps this season as Keeton works his way back to full health. It should help him grasp the offense more fully while giving him preparation if he needs to fill in again this fall. As a back-up, Craig Harrison will also get some reps. Presumably Jordan Brown and Tanner Curtis will have a chance as well to get some looks.
The running back position is a wide-open group right now. Kelvin Lee has the most overall experience, Kennedy Williams had the most looks last year, but Rashad Hall and Karris Johnson both have some solid physical gifts. Any guesses today as to how the depth chart might shake out by the spring game would be highly premature.
Year two for Matt Wells • With a winning season at his back, Matt Wells has a little bit of pressure off of him. He's won in his first year - won close games and even a big game - and maybe a comfort level starts to grow at the controls.
Wells said schematically, the Aggies will be mostly the same except for personnel tweaks. It could be interesting to see if perhaps Todd Orlando adds more of his own flourishes on defense in his second year after proving he could maintain the standard set by Dave Aranda and Gary Andersen.
As he's wont to do, Wells said the stamp of the program will always belong to the players. But it will be interesting to watch if he changes anything and maybe starts showing more of his own style and leadership. In 2013, everyone wondered how Wells would hold up the team that Andersen built. 2014 may be the year where Wells shows where the program is headed long term in his own tenure.
"Even for [Wells] I think he can take a deep breath," Vigil said. "He had a successful season last year. This year he's just going to get better as a head coach."
Here's that spring practice schedule just for you guys:
Tues., March 4 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m. - No PadsWed., March 5 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m. - No PadsThur., March 6 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m. Tues., March 18 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m.Thur., March 20 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m.Fri., March 21 - 3:45 - 5:30 p.m. - Scrimmage Tues., March 25 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m.Thur., March 27 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m.Fri., March 28 - 3:45 - 5:30 p.m. Tues., April 1 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m.Thur., April 3 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m. or 3:45 - 5:30 p.m.Fri., April 4 - 3:45 - 5:30 p.m. - Scrimmage Tues., April 8 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m. or 3:45 - 5:30 p.m.Thur., April 10 - 6:00 - 8:00 a.m. - No PadsSaturday, April 12 - 2:00 p.m. - Blue vs. White Spring Game
If you want to check out the Aggies' spring football prospectus, you can click here.
See you on the field.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon