It was five years ago when athletic director Scott Barnes and then-coach Gary Andersen crafted a vision statement for the struggling Utah State football program.
The Aggies wanted to compete for conference championships. They wanted to win bowl games. In the previous 15 years, the program hadn’t done much of either.
Utah State football’s 2013 acheivements
» Third straight winning season and bowl berth
» Won Mountain Division to play for conference title
» Topped Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl
» Matt Wells was conference coach of the year
» 14 Aggies made all-conference teams
Position-by-position key returners
Quarterback » Chuckie Keeton, Darell Garretson
Running back » Joe Hill
Tight ends » Keegan Andersen, Wyatt Houston
Receivers » Brandon Swindall, Jojo Natson, Ronald Butler
Offensive line » Kevin Whimpey, Bill Vauvau
Defensive line » B.J. Larsen, Jordan Nielsen, Ricky Ali’ifua
Linebackers » Zach Vigil, Kyler Fackrell, Nick Vigil
Secondary » Brian Suite, Jeremy Morris
Specialists » Nick Diaz, Jaron Bentrude, Jake Thompson
Coaches, players and conferences have turned over, but the vision remains. The Aggies just wrapped up a 9-5 year in the Mountain West, in which they played in the conference championship and had one of the biggest bowl wins in program history.
But this, the Utah State brass have suggested, is not the peak — at least not one they envisioned. There’s more to do, and the Aggies will have a busy offseason trying to make sure they can keep winning.
"What we have, you can’t ever rest on your laurels," Barnes said. "You always got to be sharp, you always got to be working harder than the next guy. But I think what we have is very sustainable. And the level we’re at suggests that we can continue to improve and grow."
In coach Matt Wells’ first year, the program found ways to keep winning in conference games despite more injuries than they imagined. Like a car that has run down its treads, the Aggies were sputtering to the finish in terms of health, but still had something to celebrate when they got there.
But the challenge now is to refit the car.
Utah State must step up to replace the winningest senior class in program history. Eight seniors were all-conference honorees, and all three first-teamers — center Tyler Larsen, cornerback Nevin Lawson and linebacker Jake Doughty — are gone.
The offensive line and secondary will have to be nearly rebuilt, with only one starter returning for each. Chunks of the defensive line are gone, and so are the Aggies’ top two receiving threats this year. Other key pieces to next year’s team, such as quarterback Chuckie Keeton, are coming off of season-ending injuries.
As always, younger players and recruits will have to come into new roles. The coaching staff is hoping that some of the culture that’s developed over the last few years has soaked in to the younger group.
"I don’t know if we are there yet; we will know in a year or two," Wells said. "Those guys have to buy into that and they have to understand that that’s what it takes, and how they act."
With a head coach solidly in place, players from two bowl-winning teams returning, and the recently built weight room available throughout the offseason this year, the Aggies do have factors edging in their favor. The program knows it can compete in the Mountain West, and the confidence from a 21-14 win over Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl could keep momentum surging in Logan.
The schedule next season is potentially a hefty one, with 13 games and some of the toughest opponents on the road. But Wells, Barnes and others at the top of the football program believe it will continue to build on its established foothold.
The Aggies expect to win.
"I think the model that we have here has proven to be true," Wells said. "It’s not a one-year flash in the pan. It wasn’t last year, and I think that we proved that again this year."
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