Spring football is an opportunity for a coaching staff to get a first look at what players can do, where they fit and how they compete. And if Saturday’s game was an indicator, the Utah State football is off to a good start for 2021.
The Aggies put to the test coach Blake Anderson’s new hurry-up offense and other principles set forth by the new coaching staff. While the offense prevailed in the final seconds, the competition was fierce throughout — a welcome sign for a USU team that won just one of six games last year.
While the game was only a spring scrimmage for bragging rights and to show fans the team’s progress, there was plenty to glean as summer approaches and the Aggies start preparing in earnest for the 2021 season.
Here are four takeaways from Utah State’s spring football game, which the Blue Team took 53-46 as it roared back after a slow start.
QB competition is between two players, with a caveat
Anderson brought on his former quarterback Logan Bonner, from Arkansas State, to compete for the starting spot against returners Andrew Peasley and Cooper Legas. But Bonner has been recuperating from a broken bone in his foot all spring, Anderson said, so his inclusion into the fold will have to wait.
Bonner’s injury left the bulk of the quarterback minutes to Peasley and Legas, who both played well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Peasley went 16 of 24 for 234 yards with one interception and threw three touchdown passes. Legas was more efficient, going 11 of 16 for 132 yards with two TD passes and no interceptions.
Two other quarterbacks saw time, but Peasley and Legas seem like the current frontrunners.
“Competition is still out there. We still have a lot of work to do at that position,” Anderson said. “But I do think they’ve both improved through the course of the spring and have a good grasp of what we’re wanting to do in this offense.”
Peasley became the starter last season not long after Jason Shelley was dismissed from the team. In Saturday’s game, he showed his experience, and his command of the offense and the pocket, highlighted by some long throws and keeping drives alive.
Legas is younger and struggled in the early portions of Saturday’s game, but settled in quickly. He’s only a sophomore this season after graduating from Orem High two years ago, but his poise was an indication he’s a serious contender to get minutes this season.
Peasley wants to retain his starting spot, but said there’s support among the quarterbacks for each other while also trying to improve individually.
“The thing about the competition is it’s just going to make everyone else around us better,” Peasley said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
The defense is feisty
One of the biggest issues for the Aggies last year was defense. Former coach Gary Andersen talked ad nauseam about missing tackles and overall lack of toughness.
But the defense on Saturday looked sharp for the most part, forcing missed passes and pass rushing effectively to point of creating some sacks. That phase of the game had a sense of competitiveness that was few and far between last year.
“This year we have a lot of new faces that are bringing a lot more energy than past,” senior safety Shaq Bond said. “I’m not saying anything bad. But we had a couple of holes to fill and I feel like they came in and stepped up and brought some intensity back to those positions.”
Bond said part of the uptick in defensive energy comes from the coaching staff setting the tone and “getting us back pumped up or getting us back to the old Aggie way of believing in ourselves and getting that toughness back.”
The defense narrowly lost the scrimmage, but Anderson said he was pleased to see the defense compete after falling behind.
“You can’t let one drive or one big play get you down,” Anderson said. “We talked about it in the meeting room before we came out. ‘There’s going to be give and take. You have to respond. Get back up off the turf and step back into the next punch and the next play.’ And they did that.”
If the Aggies can sustain that type of defensive effort when the games matter, they could surprise some people in 2021.
Deven Thompkins hasn’t missed a beat
One of USU’s best wide receivers last year almost didn’t return to the team. Thompkins put his name in the transfer portal as the Aggies were searching for their next permanent head coach.
But Thompkins, a senior this year, decided to return, and showed Saturday why he will be a key ingredient to Utah State’s recipe on the field this season.
Thompkins was by far the most productive wide receiver as he caught six balls for 121 yards and two touchdowns. He even provided an exciting play when he caught a ball with defenders draped around him for a first down, leading directly to a TD on the next play that he also caught.
“He’s pretty fast,” Peasley said of Thompkins. “It’s good to have a guy like that to always just rely on to have speed and good hands.”
Thompkins is one of the many veteran wide receivers on this iteration of the Aggies. Nine of the 11 returning players in that position saw the field last year. It’s the most experienced position group on the team that also features Jordan Nathan and Savon Scarver.
But Thompson’s performance in the scrimmage could portend a breakout season, which would be good news for USU.
Deep running back rotation
Anderson played six running backs Saturday, but four of them stood out.
Cooper Jones, John Gentry, Pailate Makakona and Calvin Tyler Jr. combined for 40 carries — they averaged exactly 10 each — and amassed 253 of the 277 total rushing yards. Jones himself had 94 rushing yards, the highest of the group.
While only two of the team’s seven touchdowns came on the ground, it seems clear Anderson will incorporate a healthy dose of the run game in his offense this year. He said he expects the depth chart at running back to be “really tight.”
“I can see where we’ll play a lot guys,” Anderson said. “If we can get the amount of reps that we’d like to get — which means we’re moving the chains and getting first downs — it can take several. It’s not going to be just a one-man show.”
Anderson also said he is “really pleased” with the running back group, who he described as productive and efficient within the offense.
Chuckie Keeton, a former Aggies football who is coaching running backs this year, said recently that the group has been working hard to adjust to the fast-paced offense.
“The running backs have been doing a great job putting in the work and diving into our playbook,” Keeton said. “I’ve got some old guys and I’ve got a lot of young guys, and it’s been great to see them put forth everything they have.”