Utah State football coach Gary Andersen described his Christmas and New Year holidays as “anticlimactic.” But that doesn’t mean he’s been chill about assessing what he wants to see from the Aggies in 2020.
Two weeks after USU lost to Kent State in the Frisco Bowl — a game that saw quarterback Jordan Love say goodbye to the Aggies and left the team shy of eight total wins — Andersen spoke earnestly about what was lacking with his team last season, and how to address those issues.
One of his takeaways from 2019 was there wasn’t enough physicality at the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. And if the Aggies want to reach the heights they always talk about — namely, a Mountain West Conference title — that’s an area of their game that needs a quick turnaround.
“Our mentality and our strength and everything that comes around that in this program needs to get better if we’re going to have a chance to knock off the best of the best,” Andersen told The Salt Lake Tribune. “That’s exactly what we’re striving to do.”
Utah State struggled with inconsistency in their offensive and defensive lines in 2019 for various reasons. On the offensive side, many of those players were young and inexperienced, forced to learn on the fly with a new coaching staff.
The defense had seniors on it, but many of its linebackers lacked experience, Andersen said. Plus, that side of the ball was led by star junior linebacker David Woodward, who suffered a season-ending injury about midway into the season.
USU’s defense had to adjust and at times played well, Andersen said, but it wasn’t consistent enough throughout the season. He said the Aggies need to improve in technique, fundamentals and tackling.
“We didn’t do a good enough job on any of those areas,” Andersen said. “And that’s core defense. I don’t care what you drop on the board. I don’t care what your scheme is. It doesn’t matter to me. If you don’t do those things on defense, you have no chance to be successful.”
Andersen said he anticipates changing the scheme next season to fit his defensive personnel, and the efficacy of that strategy will be something to watch as early as spring. But with the new recruits that came to Utah State during the early signing period, the coach feels he’s on his way to solving some of what went wrong last season.
Five of the seven players that recently signed with the Aggies work on the defensive side of the ball. Andersen said most of those recruits, including the running back and punter, will arrive at the school early.
Andersen likes the pieces he got, and anticipates getting five more by the next signing period. In an ideal world, he said, those positions would be a defensive tackle, one more defensive back — either cornerback or safety — a tight end, a running back and a wide receiver.
“Those are critical needs,” Andersen said, adding that his staff will look at high school players, junior college transfers and players in the transfer portal.
What isn’t on Andersen’s list of needs is quarterback, even though Jordan Love left the program with one year of eligibility remaining to declare for the NFL Draft. But he expects a battle for the position between Henry Colombi and Andrew Peasley, who is rehabbing from an injury and is on track to return next season.
For the moment, Colombi is the the frontrunner for the starting spot due to Peasley’s injury, Andersen said. But no matter who ends up with the job, he feels a change in offense will help his quarterbacks.
Andersen said he wants 2020’s offense to look more like what it did in 2012, the final season of his first stint at Utah State. That means, for instance, his quarterbacks will run the ball more often.
Love’s main weapon was his arm. In 2018 and 2019 combined, he massed 437 rushing yards. Former Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keaton, who played for Andersen, ran 619 yards in 2012 alone.
“We want to have a physical mindset to us,” Andersen said. "We want to put, at times, more on the quarterback’s plate to give us an opportunity to get in runs [so] we’re not outnumbered in the run game. The quarterback can help us do that with the identification of the box.”
USU averaged 152.2 rushing yards per game and allowed 201.9.
Andersen also wants to utilize different tempos on offense. For the last two years, the Aggies have been known for their breakneck pace, often scoring touchdowns on drives lasting more than a minute.
While Andersen still wants to play fast sometimes and said USU will “have that identity” with it, he also wants to have his team use huddles and take a more methodical approach.
In regards to how he’ll use his personnel on the field, Andersen said he’ll use his base setup with a running back, tight end and three wide receivers. But he also wants the option to have two, maybe even three tight ends on the field together.
That flexibility, Andersen believes, could help the Aggies on multiple fronts next season.
“I think that’s when we’ve been at our best,” Andersen said. “It allows our run game to be effective, it allows our play action game to be effective, it allows our throw game to be effective. And it gives you an opportunity to, I think, recruit all positions at a high level because all positions to have an opportunity to be productive.”