It was only three years ago that Utah State’s football team was firing on all cylinders. A breakneck offense, double digit wins and a future NFL quarterback defined that season and portended more success.
But the Aggies eroded both on and off the field in 2019 and 2020. Former coach Gary Andersen ceremoniously came and unceremoniously went. The team won just eight games over two seasons. Several starters transferred. The university’s president became embroiled in a controversy involving her alleged comments about two-time interim head coach Frank Maile, for which she was eventually exonerated.
So as the 2021 season approaches, there’s plenty the Aggies need to do to right the ship.
The brand new coaching staff led by Blake Anderson is a start. And while he’s not putting any concrete goals on the team yet, he sees potential.
“Our goal is to get to be one degree better every day,” Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Based on film, I think we have a chance to be a really competitive football team. It’s hard to even know what that looks like until we spend a good bit of time on the field with them. But if we’re the best we are capable of being, then it’ll be good enough.”
Anderson wants his version of the Aggies to play fast. He said it during his introductory news conference. He said it during halftime of a recent USU basketball game. It’s the type of offense he’s honed since his days coaching at Middle Tennessee State, where he learned to blend a no-huddle system with the air raid throw game.
Anthony Tucker, Utah State’s new offensive coordinator, will be tasked with implementing Anderson’s offensive vision. Tucker coached under Anderson for three seasons at Arkansas State.
“I think we’re very much aligned in what our vision is with how we want to move forward with what we’re creating here, what I’ll be creating here, what our staff will be creating here, and what everyone brings to the table,” Tucker told The Tribune.
Anderson also wants the Aggies to be physical on defense. He appears to have hired the right man for the job in Ephraim Banda, whose resume consists of several high rankings in categories such as tackles for loss, yards per pass attempt and sacks.
Banda told The Tribune that while the numbers tell one story, what’s often overlooked is the connectivity between the defensive coaches and how that translates to the players doing the tackling and pass rushing.
“We got to the point where we can finish each other’s sentences,” Banda said of his past coaching compatriots. “We enjoy being around each other. And what happens from there is the players sense that and they feel it. And then they now have to fall in line with us in terms of getting connected within their group and then getting connected with us.”
It’s that relationship building that creates an environment conducive to sacrifice, which then manifests itself into on-field success and accolades, Banda said. Anderson not only agreed with Banda; he put the onus on himself to set the tone when it comes to trust.
“I have to be the best version of myself,” Anderson said. “I have to be somebody I know that when I say something, the people that are listening can trust that I’m telling the truth and that I actually follow through with what I say.”
Anderson knows that building trust between his staff and new players will take time. In his first address to the team after his hiring, he asked for patience. Tensions were high after many players lobbied for Maile to become to Utah State’s next head football coach and later refused to play the final game of the season after their Zoom meeting with Cockett and Hartwell went awry.
Anderson said that his interactions with the players so far have been positive and they have been honest about their frustrations over what occurred last season. Anderson added that the players made clear those frustrations were not about him becoming head coach.
“They just wanted to be heard, and I think they found out real quickly that we’re listening,” Anderson said. “And I think also they just want to be coached by somebody that is going to care about them. I think they found out real quickly that we brought in a staff of guys that will spend time with them and care about them and coach them hard.”
The coaching staff’s makeup could function as an olive branch to the players. Anderson made a point to hire individuals who represented multiple cultural and religious backgrounds because, he said, it’s time people “quit talking about it and actually do something about equality and inclusion and diversity.”
“I stood our entire staff in front of our team the other day and I said, ‘You should see yourself represented on this staff in some way, shape or form,’” Anderson said.
Banda credited Anderson for intentionally hiring coaches of color, particularly because he sees other coaches in college football talking about diversity but not making those hires. He added that a coaching staff should be a reflection of its players.
“When you walk into a locker room, you see many different-color faces, many different ethnicities, many different people from different places, different backgrounds,” Banda said. “So if you’re going to have that in your locker room, then you’d better have that on your staff.”
Anderson said he and his staff are going to get involved in the community and with the Aggie fans as much as possible in an effort to create enthusiasm around the program. But football is still about winning games, and Anderson is cognizant of that as well.
“Ultimately, we want to go out and put a great product on the field that makes everybody proud,” Anderson said. “And if we do that, then I believe the tradition [and] the history speaks for itself. We can do some great things.”