Logan • As Zach Vigil termed it early in the week, padded practice is when teams start figuring out "who can play football."
Thursday morning practice started at the same crack-of-dawn time, but with actual hitting, Utah State players and coaches were tested more fully, and it drew out a little more fire. The crunch of pads and helmets added a fulfilling soundtrack to what has been a productive three-day start to spring ball.
Matt Wells was impressed that three straight morning sessions had gone so well, at least from an effort standpoint.
"Just confirmed that this is a team that is going to understand how to work," he said. "They understand energy and enthusiasm, and it's not false [energy and enthusiasm]. That's what I appreciate about them. To go back-to-back-to-back 6 a.m. and grind through it I think says a lot about them. It's not perfect, but nothing is this time of year."
The trenches were in the spotlight in practice, particularly the running game. Replacing four starters on the offensive line and getting in a new load of faces on the defensive line, it's one of the most critical battlegrounds on the team.
Wells name-checked some early enrollees as players who were doing well: Siua Taufa, John Taylor, Ian Togiai and Chase Christiansen. Wells also said Kevin Whimpey, a third-year returning starter, is standing out on offense.
Tackle Jake Simonich, who gained some experience as a reserve last season, said he felt good about how the offensive line performed in the run game.
"We're going to be able to move people, as you could see today," he said. "We were moving the defensive line pretty well."
Tell that to Travis Seefeldt, the defensive tackle who thought the D-line was moving the offense around.
"I think we were doing well, striking them, tossing them to the ground," he said, smirking a bit as offensive linemen glared at him during an interview.
It's tough to get those guys to see eye-to-eye anyway. That rivalry should develop over camp. And the fortunate thing, for the program, is that it seems to be a give-and-take dynamic.
"They're good defense, man," running back Kelvin Lee said. "Last year they finished off pretty good. They make us better. We make them better. We'll bomb them one time, they'll come and get us back."
The Aggies have a week off for spring break until practice starts up again. Wells said he hoped to see retention from the earlier sessions, and that his staff was planning some strategies to keep players on their toes when they return.
His discerning eye will be on the team's youth in particular.
"We need those guys to be grinders and football junkies," Wells said. "If either one of those two things don't happen, we're going to be just OK."
Although the Aggies are replacing two productive senior receivers, spring ball has given them reason to feel good about the position.
Brandon Swindall, the 6-foot-4, 198-pound receiver who came on as an end zone threat during last season, has been turning heads this week. That continued in full team drills Thursday when he made a leaping catch over Daniel Gray nearly 30 yards downfield along the sideline.
Height seems to be a particular strength of Utah State's receiving corps this year. Wells also mentioned Braelon Roberts as a player who has been progressing in both team drills and one-on-ones. The 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman made a push late last summer after walking on the team to get involved in the passing game. Senior Alex Wheat, 6-foot-4, has also been among the productive wideouts, making catches near the sideline, and Thursday hauling in a midrange pass over the middle of the field.
Alternatively, Wells said he wanted to see improvement from his secondary to limit some of the big passing plays.
"Honestly, probably the offense got the better of the day," he said. "They won the drill right out of the gate. They took some long shots. We can't let those long shots over top of the defense."
As a junior, running back Kelvin Lee probably doesn't want to be thought of as the older vet. But yet, that's what he is to the running back group as senior Joe Hill recovers from his knee injury.
Lee is suddenly the most tenured healthy back in the room. And he's getting used to it.
"I'm young myself, but I've got a little experience," he said. "So I'm just trying to teach the young guys, help everybody get better."
Lee was a bit snakebitten last spring, injuring himself early in the season and falling behind Hill and Joey DeMartino on the depth chart when he returned. Hill ended up injured, DeMartino ended up a 1000-yard back, and Lee was more of a late-game reserve.
He's aiming for more this year. Lee, along with Rashad Hall, was one of the more explosive and powerful backs in the full team drills, and he's looking to use the spring as a step forward rather than taking one back.
"It's kind of a building block for me to get better and do what I've got to do to stay healthy," he said.
One member of the secondary who got some recognition from Matt Wells was safety Marwin Evans, who lit up tight end Jefferson Court in team drills after a catch. Evans is in the hunt for time at the strong safety spot vacated by Maurice Alexander. ... Jentz Painter managed to get an interception for the defense in the third straight practice, scooping up a ball before it hit the ground - or at least it appeared in the scrum of bodies. ... Rashard Stewart had another breakup, going against Ronald Butler on a long pass by the sideline and swatting it away. Stewart is listed as one of the Aggies' starting corners, and has made a good start locking it down. ... Sure the name is the same, and apparently so is some of the game. Receiver Zach Van Leeuwen is several inches shorter than his older brother, but the freshman had some good catches taking third team reps on Thursday.
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