Utah State’s Gary Andersen bullish on Aggies after first week of camp; coach walks back opt-out comments

Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum (14) carries the ball as Utah State safety Troy Lefeged Jr. (3) defends during the first half of the Frisco Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

The Utah State football team has to go through Boise State to get to the Mountain West Conference championship at some point. So, why not Week 1?

That was Aggie coach Gary Andersen’s attitude Saturday when asked about having to play the defending conference champion on the road in both teams' season opener on Oct. 24. Like the rest of the MW, the Aggies have been scrambling to fit six months of preseason preparation into just 29 days after the league — which had said it wouldn’t have any fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic — announced an eight-game schedule last week.

Still, what Andersen saw during his team’s first week of fall camp and after its first scrimmage Friday did nothing to sway him from his belief that the Aggies would be ready.

“It’s a tremendous challenge, [and] is something that we look forward to,” Andersen said. “I’m sure these kids look at that and say, ‘If you want to be the best, not just on our side, but to have an opportunity to be the best in this conference, you know, that’s going to go through Boise.’ Each and every year, at some point, is going to go through Boise.”

Andersen added, “But I think our kids are looking forward to preparing first and then having an opportunity to get on that bus and go up and play against a quality football team.”

The coach pointed out that he and his staff had plenty of time to break down film over the spring and summer, when the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted teams' practice schedules. But the Aggies will spend at least another week worrying about basic preparations before honing in on Boise State’s schemes.

Despite voicing some concerns over USU’s defensive line prior to the start of the fall camp, Andersen deemed the defense the overall winner of Friday’s scrimmage. Senior safety Troy Lefeged, a key cog in the Aggies' defensive backfield last year, is adapting well as USU explores a 3-4 scheme, he said. And at outside linebacker, a nice competition is developing between two local products: Nick Heninger, a graduate student out of Bingham High, and Elijah Shelton, a sophomore out of Highland High.

In addition, the defense was let loose on special teams and made some impressive plays, including blocking two punts.

With two new quarterbacks in the mix trying to fill the shoes left by NFL first-round draft pick Jordan Love, the Aggies stuck primarily with the ground game on offense. Andersen said both Andrew Peasley, who sat out last year with an injury and Jason Shelly, a transfer from Utah, evenly split their shares of the roughly 80 snaps in the scrimmage.

“You know, [Shelley’s] not doing backflips over the performance of the offense yesterday, nor should he be. Neither quarterback is quite frankly. Andrew is the same way,” Andersen said. “So we need to work to get better at all positions. And that’s not to say the quarterbacks didn’t play well overall. It’s just offensively, it always goes to the quarterback.”

Once their air game starts developing, the Aggies no doubt hope one will be able to connect with new wide receiver Justin McGriff, as well as returners Nathan Jordan and Deven Thompkins. McGriff, a transfer from Florida’s ASA College, has turned the head of passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Jason Phillips

“Justin McGriff is a special talent,” Phillips said in a statement provided by USU. “The guy is 6-6, 220 pounds. We need to take advantage of those match-ups when we get them.”

Another area where the Aggies appear to be in good shape is in the running game. It is being led by Utes graduate transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole and senior Jaylen Warren, an East High product. They didn’t see much action Friday so the coaching staff could get a better look at some of the younger running backs.

Having a strong ground game is a good starting point in a season that will mostly be played in cold weather. Most MW teams are scheduled to play eight straight games from Oct. 24 to Dec. 12, with the championship slated for Dec. 19.

Andersen on Friday apologized for saying his players cannot opt out of the coronavirus-tainted season, a right mandated by the NCAA.

“At least in our program, we don’t have an opt-out. And it’s not an option,” Andersen said last week during a conference call with reporters. “If you opt out, you’re not with us.”

When later asked by the Tribune to clarify his statement Andersen said through the USU athletic department that he did not feel comfortable doing that. The NCAA has said any player in any sport can opt out of the 2020 season while still keeping their financial aid, including books and board, and their eligibility.

In a radio interview with 1280 The Zone out of Salt Lake City, Andersen said Utah State is abiding by that policy.

“I was basically saying we have no one in that situation in our football team right now that has opted out. So our policy ... doesn’t exist right now, we’re not using it," he said. "I should have, obviously, clarified that much cleaner and said that we have nobody who has currently opted out, or who is currently opting out, in our football program.”

He added, “Our kids, if they did decide to opt out, we are in support of that.”