Logan • The most difficult part for Luke Wells wasn't losing his biggest tight end, nor was it losing the senior leader of his position group.
It was watching D.J. Tialavea on the sidelines in street clothes for Boise State, knowing how much he wanted to be on the field.
Wells, Utah State's tight end coach and co-offensive coordinator, saw Tialavea play through a painful foot injury for weeks before it eventually required season-ending surgery a tribute to his dedication.
"It was hard to see the game he loves taken away from him," Wells said. "You know how much he wants to be out there. It's tough on us losing him, but it was harder for him because you've seen how much effort he puts in."
The Aggies find themselves without another key cog on offense in Tialavea, a heavy-duty blocker, a big short-range receiving target, and a vocal presence. The West Jordan native was "a guy that a lot of people respond to," Wells said.
Going forward, Utah State will have to find ways to replace him. That starts with junior Keegan Andersen, who has been a factor in the passing game already with 134 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
"He's done nothing but improve since I got here," Wells said. "He's playing really good football right now, and I'm encouraged by what he's brought to the table so far."
Wells said the team isn't planning on changing the offense around Tialavea's absence, so Andersen will have to assume some more blocking responsibilities that the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Tialavea excelled at. At 6-2, 231 pounds, Andersen is ideally more of an H-back player, but Wells said he's been happy at how he's assumed more duties.
Jefferson Court and Derek Keller, two tight ends that are program veterans, are also being evaluated for more snaps this week in practice, Wells said.
Finishing tackles a focus for Aggies
Going into a game against the No. 2 rushing offense in the country, the last thing Utah State wants is missed tackles.
Yet Saturday, there were quite a few. The Aggies struggled to bring down the Broncos' playmakers, particularly running back Jay Ajayi and receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes.
Linebacker Jake Doughty, currently the No. 5 tackler in the nation and fresh off a 19-tackle game himself, said it never hurts to revisit the basics.
"You have to get back to fundamentals: you have to get your eyes right, your feet right, you have to wrap up," he said. "We need to clean it up, that's for sure. Hopefully we can get those missed tackles back down."
The tackling struggles were surprising for an Aggie defense that has excelled at stopping the run this year. Opponents are only averaging 3.1 yards per carry against Utah State.
Nose tackle A.J. Pataiali'i emphasized that it would be important to make those stops, particularly up front. If running back Kasey Carrier isn't brought down early, he can bring a world of hurt.
"If the defensive line doesn't have a great game our chances of winning the game goes down, so it starts with us," he said. "We are the backbone of this team and it starts at the defensive line and works it's way out."
USU at New Mexico
O Saturday, 7 p.m.
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