USU Football: Aggies head into game week with plenty of optimism
Logan • Preseason camps often are filled with uncertainty, a little drama, and even controversy as players battle for positions, are sidelined with injuries or get accustomed to new systems.
But if you want drama, the Utah State Aggies aren't where to look. They had one of the smoothest-running camps that anyone can remember, leaving them in a great frame of mind as they had into game week.
The Aggies open the season Sunday at Tennessee with a 5 p.m. kickoff.
It is the sixth time in seven seasons the Aggies have opened on the road. Even though they are favored to beat the Vols, the Aggies know there are plenty of skeptics who believe they can't handle the atmosphere of Neyland Stadium or the talent of an SEC team.
Bolstered by a productive camp, the Aggies are eager to prove otherwise.
"I think we are a good team, but we don't know if we are a great team yet," Utah State coach Matt Wells said. "But I like the chemistry in the locker room."
Utah State feels so good about itself for several reasons, starting with the health of quarterback Chuckie Keeton and running back Joe Hill. Both players showed they have recovered from the knee injuries that cut short their 2013 seasons.
Keeton also seems to have found his timing with his receivers again, something he said he was worried about before camp started.
Of course, it helps that the receivers had an extremely good camp. Not only did proven returners Roland Butler, Brandon Swindall and JoJo Natson have good camps, but the Aggies' newcomers and young players also had big moments. Out of all of them, Hunter Sharp, a transfer from Antelope Valley Junior College, had one of the best camps. Not only does the 6-foot, 190-pound junior have good hands, but he also revealed an explosiveness that helped him create yards after catches.
"He has done a very good job mentally and physically," Wells said. "We've played him in multiple positions and he has done a very good job with them. He is going to help us a lot."
The offensive line had a solid camp too, although the Aggies continue to move guys around to find the right combinations.
Still, left tackle Kevin Whimpey likes what he sees.
"We're versatile so there could be some shakeups," he said. "But we've been putting in the work in practice on our technique and our non-verbal communication."
The running backs also showed depth as not only Hill and Rashad Hall had solid efforts, but also LaJuan Hunt.
Defensively, the Aggies' front seems solid and the defensive backs continue to develop. Sophomore safety Devin Centers made himself a guy to watch with his play and freshman Jalen Davis has also earned playing time in Wells' mind.
"You're going to see us using five DBs a lot," he said. "Both those guys are going to help us."
The only downside for the defense was the loss of Alex Huerta, who was expected to start at linebacker. However he has been sidelined by a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Luckily for the Aggies, LT Filiaga, a transfer from Utah, freshman Chase Christiansen and junior Torrey Green have all had good camps and will make up for his absence, Wells said.
"It's a deep position for us," he said. "LT is going to help us immediately."
Content with his own team's standing, the Aggies now turn their attention to the Vols for a game that the Aggies believe could be the lifting point to a great season.
"We know we have a lot of potential," Keeton said.
Utah State camp in review
What we learned • The big question going into camp was whether Chuckie Keeton or running back Joe Hill would be at full strength after suffering knee injuries last year. Both proved they have the endurance and mobility to handle the long hours of camp which bodes well for the season.
Who stood out • Receiver Hunter Sharp, a junior college transfer, has not only added depth to the receiver position but also brought some explosiveness with his ability to create yards after receptions. Safety Devin Centers also made his presence known with his knack for getting interceptions while LT Filiaga, a transfer from Utah, did well enough that he is expected to contribute immediately.
What we don't know • The Aggies' offensive line says it has improved its communication, but working effectively as a unit in practice is one thing doing it in a stadium with 100,000 fans yelling at you is another thing. If the Aggies can handle Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, the rest of the season should be a breeze.
Utah State at Tennessee
P Sunday, 5 p.m.
TV • SEC Network