Utah State football: Aggies hope defense gels quickly under Lorig
With Chuckie Keeton returning and the Aggies on a bowl win streak, Utah State was one of the media darlings during Mountain West media days in Las Vegas.
The preseason hype isn't making everyone happy in Logan, though. The normally affable Zach Vigil, Utah State's star linebacker, was walking around preaching a little caution.
"The new guys coming in think winning is easy and going to bowl games comes naturally, and it doesn't," he said. "They don't know what that is like. I can't wait for camp to start to show them."
The Aggies start their grind on Tuesday with the opening practice from 2-4 p.m. All preseason practices are open to the public.
The top orders of business, other than knocking some egos down a notch or two, will be solidifying the offensive line and corner spots.
The line lost five players who had started at least five games last year. Discovering who will help standout left tackle Kevin Whimpey protect Keeton is a priority in camp, coach Matt Wells said.
Right now Bill Vavau (left guard), Austin Stephens (center), Taani Fisilau (right guard) and Jake Simonich (right tackle) are slated to start with Vavau (six games) and Fisilau (12 games) having the most game experience.
"We have to work on their communication and chemistry too," Wells said. "If you don't have that and everyone isn't working well together, things can go horrible for you."
The running back spot looks solid with senior Joe Hill ready to step in and replace Joey DeMartino, who earned honorable mention all-Mountain West honors after rushing for 1,221 yards on 221 carries and 13 touchdowns last year.
Not quite so set is the receivers spot where Bruce "JoJo" Natson and Ronald Butler, two guys slated to compete for starting roles, both face misdemeanor troubles. Butler was arrested for a DUI while Natson was arrested for a misdemeanor theft charge for diverting funds that were reportedly for another teammate.
Wells said both matters are being handled internally but declined to give any more details so it is unclear how the legal troubles might affect playing time for the two this season.
Defensively the Aggies must find depth and new leaders among the defensive backs after graduating four starters. Senior Brian Suite is the anchor while senior Rashard Stewart, senior Frankie Sutera, sophomore Daniel Gray and JC transfers Tyler Floyd and Deshane Hines are expected to be the top contenders for the other starting spots.
"Our defense has always been sound," Vigil said. "But we need those younger guys to come in and develop fast."
The linebacking unit is a different story with Kyler Fackrell, Zach Vigil and Nick Vigil all returning. While there is always an emphasis on depth, perhaps the biggest focus on the linebacking group won't be with the players but how new coach Joe Lorig influences the unit.
Lorig, formerly Arizona State's special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach, was hired to replace Kevin Clune, who left the Aggies to become Hawaii's defensive coordinator.
The defensive line lost some key players in AJ Pataiali'l, Paul Piukala and Connor Williams, but seems to have the depth to make up for the losses.
If they don't, they'll find it, Zach Vigil promised.
The Aggies are still bitter over their 24-17 loss to Fresno State in the inaugural Mountain West Football Championship game, a decision that was decided on a Bulldog interception at Fresno State's 17-yard line in the closing minute.
That close loss, plus a looming season opener at Tennessee on Aug. 31, is driving the Aggies.
"I'm excited to see how the season plays itself out," Vigil said. "We're going to work hard and the first thing you have to do is teach the new guys the culture we have here. Winning isn't easy, you have to work hard for it and we'll make sure they know that."
USU key dates
Tuesday • 2-4 p.m., first day of practice
Aug. 11 • Two-a-days start
Aug. 12 • 6:05-7:30 p.m., scrimmage
Aug. 16 • 6 p.m., scrimmage
Aug. 19 • 6 p.m., scrimmage
Aug. 23 • Last day of camp
Aug. 31 • Season opener at Tennessee Key areas • The offensive line and defensive backfield will get plenty of attention as players compete for starting roles.