Utah State football: Front seven setting tone for defense
Logan •Â Junior linebacker Zach Vigil is fine playing anywhere on the field.
One of Utah State's defensive packages puts the 6-foot-2, 232-pound Vigil at nose guard. It's a set designed to get as much speed on the field as possible something Vigil says is a misnomer.
"I don't know why they say that," he joked. "I'm not that fast."
Vigil is one of the most versatile pieces on a front seven full of versatile pieces. Utah State plays a multiple-look defense, so players are accustomed to moving and shifting, understanding an array of roles, and getting to the ball any way they can.
Something is going right. The Aggies are ranked No. 16 in the nation in scoring defense (18.9 ppg) and total defense (342.2 ypg) less than a year removed from hiring new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. Utah State has once made itself into a top-flight defense even without the most heralded prospects.
Orlando is quick to give credit: It starts with his experienced front seven.
"I always say the linebackers make us go, and when those guys play well, we play well," Orlando said. "In the same way, those three guys up front, when they play well, they open up the linebackers to make plays. It's a really neat group: They don't care about the credit. They just want to make plays."
There have always been great expectations: Utah State's front seven returned five all-conference players this season. Perhaps the greatest testament to the unit is when they do well, it no longer feels remarkable because excellence is the standard.
"We take huge pride in setting that example," Vigil said. "If we lose by one point, we've allowed too many points. If we lose 2-0, we haven't done our jobs. Our goal as linebackers is to rally everybody and hold ourselves accountable."
Schematically, the defense leans on its multiple formations and pre-snap adjustments. Orlando has added his own flair, but most of the packages are the same.
Orlando said his players just listen and nod when getting their assignments. His success, he said, is a reflection of their experience and willingness to adapt.
"They love football, it just comes down to that," he said. "They understand that if I can learn this scheme, I can get matched up with this person on the offensive line, and this is the reason we're doing it. I can add in new things without blowing their minds. They're very, very sharp."
The linebacking corps has a fairly rich tradition, but the defensive line's growth has truly helped elevate the group as a whole. Linebackers coach Kevin Clune said in the days of Kyle Gallagher and Bobby Wagner, the linebackers had to make plays and pick up slack for the defensive line. With Connor Williams, B.J. Larsen, A.J. Pataiali'i and the rest of the rotation, that's not really the case anymore.
"They make my life at linebacker so much easier because they take care of business," Clune said. "Now we have more guys making more plays, and we split the statistics."
That doesn't mean there aren't some impressive numbers: Jake Doughty and Vigil are at the top of the conference in tackles. Kyler Fackrell has been one of the Mountain West's better sack artists and playmakers behind the line of scrimmage.
But these numbers aren't what matter, Williams said.
"We get pats on the back and coaches tell us some things about how we played," he said. "We're not looking for that. We're just looking to go out there, do our jobs, and get the W."
Utah State at UNLV
P Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV • ESPNU USU defense has another strong year
The Aggies lead the Mountain West in a number of categories, and are also ranked top 25 nationally
Scoring defense • 18.9 ppg (No. 16)
Total defense • 342.2 ypg (No. 16)
Turnover margin • + 0.78 per game (No. 17)
Rushing defense • 124.8 ypg (No. 19)
Passing efficiency defense • 115.8 rating (No. 24)