The Utah State football team turned heads in the 2021 season. In the first season under the helm of coach Blake Anderson, the Aggies claimed their first-ever Mountain West Conference championship and won the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl.
Not many people around the country saw the Aggies pulling off an 11-win season after the struggles they endured the year before.
Now as the 2022 season looms, the Aggies are looking to build on last season despite losing some key players and bringing experienced but still unproven transfers. Here are three things to watch as Utah State prepares to start the season.
Questions on offense
Utah State lost heaps of production from last year’s team. Much of that came from the wide receivers, who amassed 3,742 receiving yards among Deven Thompkins, Brandon Bowling, Derek Wright and Justin McGriff. Only McGriff has returned from that group.
Anderson brought in a few transfers at that position that could potentially make a big impact, but they haven’t participated in game action with the Aggies other than spring ball.
“I love what they brought in the spring,” Anderson said. “But I just feel like there’s so much respect that has to be given to the game itself against an opponent on a weekly basis. That’s still a remain-to-be-seen kind of conversation.”
The Aggies in 2021 averaged 143.1 rushing yards per game. But the more telling stat, perhaps, was the 3.6 yards per carry.
Anderson is still looking to fill both guard the left and right guard positions on the offensive line. He hopes that whoever those two players end up being, they can elevate Utah State’s rushing attack to a new level.
“Those two guard spots have to materialize in a way that we can run the ball better than we did a year ago,” Anderson said. “We were adequate, but not explosive. We have to be better.”
Part of the effort to move the chains on USU’s hinges on finding depth at running back behind Calvin Tyler Jr., the 5-foot-8, 210-pound graduate who to this point has the starting job.
“I think that’s a big question,” Anderson said. “We need to find that fairly quickly, I think, so that we can get up and running.”
Finding new leaders
With the attrition Utah State experienced over the last several months, whether it be via graduation or the transfer portal, the team may be looking for some new faces to step up as leaders.
Thompkins left for the NFL and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he’s already making an impression. But the hole that left in Utah State’s offense standpoint is such that Anderson felt the need to mention it as camp opened.
“I think on offense, [Thompkins’s] presence, his energy level, his leadership that he brought to the practice field every day … he has an infectious energy and work ethic about him, and [not having that is] going to show on offense,” Anderson said.
On the other side of the ball, players like Nick Henninger, Justin Rice and Marcus Moore are gone. As with the wide receivers, Anderson brought in some transfers that he hopes can help replace last year’s production by those three.
But when it comes to who will be a voice in the locker room or a leader by example, the jury is still out.
“I think the leadership role [on defense] kind of remains to be seen,” Anderson said.
Anderson did mention a few defensive players who could fill a leadership role or two, though. One of them was senior defensive tackle Hale Motu’apuaka, who Anderson described as the “father” of his position group.
Junior defensive end Daniel Grzesiak also impressed Anderson with his energy level, which the coach said is similar to Henninger’s.
“There are some big shoes to fill, no doubt,” Anderson said. “But I think we’ve got some guys that can do that, and maybe in a different way.”
The efficiency of Logan Bonner
Perhaps one of the biggest questions as the Aggies go through fall camp is how much their starting quarterback has improved.
Bonner, who transferred to Utah State last year from Arkansas State, threw 36 touchdowns and tallied 3,628 yards in 2021. But his big bugaboo was interceptions. Bonner threw 12 of them, which was tied for eighth most in the country, per ESPN.
Backup quarterback Andrew Peasley left via the NCAA Transfer Portal, and Cooper Legas appears to be Peasley’s replacement on the depth chart. Legas led the team to the LA Bowl victory after Bonner injured his knee during the game.
But if the Aggies want to replicate what they did in the Mountain West in 2022, Bonner will have to have a more efficient season now that his team has gotten some attention after last year’s surprise run.