Utah State fall camp: Aggies offense shines in the red zone
Logan • For those who are worried about Utah State's receiving targets, Tuesday's practice offered some hope.
And some heat.
With temperatures sweltering in the 90s at Romney Stadium, the first-team offense had some explosive plays in a full team red zone drill that saw three touchdown plays. On back-to-back possessions, D.J. Tialavea wrapped his mitts around a Chuckie Keeton end zone pass under durress, then Jojo Natson ran a reverse 10 yards for a score.
A Brandon Swindall touchdown catch near the sideline wrapped up arguably one of the offense's most impressive displays since the start of camp.
Utah State's defense has looked impressive early, controlling the line of scrimmage on many runs and batting down passes in the secondary. Natson said a disappointing Monday inspired the receivers to come out a little harder this afternoon.
"We came back and bounced back today. We put it on the defensive backs," Natson said. "Down in the red zone, coach had confidence in me."
Natson has had one of the more evident transformations this summer: The 5-foot-7 receiver gained 15 pounds - roughly 10 percent of his body weight - in the offseason under the team's new strength regimen. As his speedy reverse showed, he hasn't really lost a step, either.
The defense had some other good showings, flustering a few other plays in the red zone and continuing its dominance on second- and third-string drills. But defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said plays like the ones the offense showed Tuesday are virtually inevitable now and then.
"It's just strict execution: The guys know what they're doing, but there's just a couple technique errors on that part of it," Orlando said The majority of the time, you rate the overall practice. "And we have an explosive offense, so to sit here and think that we're gonna dominate those guys is a little bit ridiculous. "
Defense stressing stripping the ball
On many plays, Orlando runs up to the ball carrier and makes a stripping motion - a reminder for his defense to follow the lead.
The Aggies' first-year coordinator is trying to get his players in all positions to try to get at the ball more consistently. On Tuesday, a few Utah State running backs were feeling the pressure to hold on as piles of players gathered around them, attempting to liberate the ball from their hands.
"It's a big part of what we're trying to do with how explosive our offense is," Orlando said. "We're trying to set them up with good field position. If you can win the turnover battle like you saw last year with this group, you'll be in pretty good shape."
He said he's been seeing several players do it on every down, but wasn't ready to praise anyone in particular. He'd like to see a few more loose balls this week.
Special teams to be firmed up in the next week
The Aggies worked on special teams formations for a sizeable portion of Tuesday's practice, working on installing kickoff returns on their first fall practice in Romney Stadium. Nevin Lawson, Travis Reynolds, Jojo Natson, Ronald Butler and Kennedy Williams took turns receiving.
Both Matt Wells and special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer have pointed to Aug. 13 as the date when they'll nail down a few more decisions on who will play which roles on special teams. Both said it was still early to name any favorites.
As far as kickers go, the Aggies still have Nick Diaz as their field goal and extra point man. But Ungerer acknowledged he's been impressed with Josh Thompson, who was the main kicker in 2011. Of course, Thompson did lose that job, but as a senior, he's made some progress.
"Josh Thompson is having a really good camp," Ungerer said. "He had a really good spring, so I feel like 1 and 1A there. We've got two guys who've got game experience and are both quality kickers. Diaz is our guy, and Josh is really pushing him."
Butler makes a splash
Junior college Ronald Butler turned a few heads Tuesday, making a number of catches, all without shoulder pads. He got a late start to camp, getting on the field Monday, but is trying to make up for lost time.
Butler still has a few rookie tendencies, Wells said, but there's promise.
"It's still early but he's not lost," Wells said. "He understands where to line up. As soon as he learns to play at our pace, I think he'll be a welcome addition to the receiving corps."
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: Kyle Goon