Logan • Siaosi Mariner understood that switching schools at this stage of his college career would require some adjusting. He just never imagined football would feel like an entirely different sport.
Utah huddles. Utah State just keeps playing.
“I've never been a part of something this fast,” Mariner said. “The first day of practice was like a track meet for me.”
That’s life in Logan, where Mariner, tight end Caleb Repp and defensive lineman Nick Heninger have joined former Utah assistant coach Gary Andersen’s Aggie program as graduate transfers. The former Utes have stood in front of their new teammates and told their stories, and they’ve been embraced. “They fit in extremely well,” Andersen said. “Each one of those kids just felt accepted. … That’s a credit to the kids on the team.”
The three are thankful Utah’s academic support system enabled them to graduate ahead of schedule. They’re expected to help the Aggies, while completing careers that could be best summarized as cases of unfulfilled promise. The unfortunate, enduring image of Mariner as a Ute is the crazy play that decided the Pac-12 championship game last November, when his dropped pass turned into a Washington touchdown.
“I just took it upon myself to have a fresh start,” he said Thursday. “I didn't want to do the whole recruiting process over, so I went with familiarity.”
The three ex-Utes had a favorable impression of Andersen, who had returned to Utah for the 2018 season, working with the defensive line. The NCAA allows immediate eligibility at another school as a reward for graduating, and the former Utes appreciate how the school’s academic support system kept them ahead of schedule, with another year (or two, in Heninger’s case) to play.
The Utes' turnover is partly explained by a large senior class in 2019, after they had only nine senior starters last season. The three Aggies are among five players who moved as graduate transfers, counting running back Armand Shyne (Texas Tech) and defensive end Chris Hart (Alcorn State), in hopes of finding more opportunity.
“Good for them … they can get on the field,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “You work hard, you want to play and you want to have a chance to participate in games. If that's a better avenue for some guys, then I see that as a positive.”
Utah landed five grad transfers of its own, although linebacker Manny Bowen (Penn State) gave up football in July and kicker Andrew Strauch (UCLA) is a walk-on, with a scholarship promised to the winner of his competition with Nels Haltom.
In Logan, the former Utes are optimistic and determined to maximize their opportunities. Mariner’s memory of a conference championship game might be spoiled, but the current Aggies haven’t been on that stage at all. “They have some unfinished business here, too,” he said.
Mariner caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in the 2018 opener vs. Weber State, then injuries and reduced playing time altered his year. In a 3-3 game in the third quarter of the Pac-12 title game, he slid to catch a pass from Jason Shelley. The ball bounced off his hands and the back of his thigh and landed in the hands of Washington cornerback Byron Murphy, who returned the interception 66 yards for the game’s only touchdown.
Mariner said later, “I'm going to be known as that kid that lost Utah's first-ever Pac-12 championship game.”
That’s harsh, considering the Utes probably could have figured out how to score more than three points. Mariner then made four catches for 38 yards in a 31-20 loss to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl. Prior to that game, as he looked ahead to 2019, Mariner said of his frustrating season, “This whole year’s going to make a monster out of me. … Call me crazy, but I still feel like I’m the best receiver in [the Pac-12]. I just can’t wait to get the chance to prove it.”
That opportunity will come in the Mountain West.
Repp went back and forth between defense and offense with the Utes, sometimes switching positions in the middle of a season. As a tight end in 2015, he caught two touchdown passes in a 62-20 rout of Oregon. Defensively, he forced two fumbles in 2017.
He played mostly on special teams last season, and wanted a bigger role. He marvels about how playing as a 215-pound defensive end developed his relationship with Andersen. Having decided in the middle of the 2018 that he would move on, Repp said, “I was pretty sold on wherever [Andersen] was going to go, I was going to go.”
Heninger, from Bingham High, was a late arrival in Logan. He signed with USU last week, after a frantic process that included completing 21 semester hours of credit this summer, so he could graduate. Having worked out on his own, Heninger is in “the best shape of my life right now,” he said, and he was able to scrimmage last Saturday. He should find a place in the Aggies' defensive line rotation, and Mariner and Repp will be among quarterback Jordan Love's targets.
“I'm glad they're here,” Andersen said. “I thought it was a great opportunity for them.”
The three will remain part of Utah’s history, as members of the program’s first Pac-12 South title team. They’ve started over at USU, with a chance to write their own endings.