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Expectations sky-high for an Aggie squad enduring huge personnel shift
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Utah State’s road to success in ’19 relies on the adaptability of its veterans
There are two basic narratives guiding Utah State fans through the doldrums of this long offseason preceding the 2019 season. The first and most obvious is the Andersen hire. Former head coach Gary Andersen is now current head coach Gary Andersen, retaking the reigns of the program he once pulled from cosmic obscurity and inserted into the realm of dangerous mid-majors.
The second is a schedule unlike anything Aggie fans have seen in recent memory. Coin-flip games at San Diego State and Fresno, visits to LSU and Wake Forest, a home loser-leaves-town match against Boise State and even a sneaky difficult draw at Air Force makes for a season that could spiral out of control in a dozen different places — or launch Utah State back into the Top 25 for a second straight year.
However, a third potentially more impactful narrative requires a more nuanced analysis. In the midst of antagonizing Ute fans and taking numerous victory laps around BYU (both completely warranted), a colossal personnel shift has taken place. There is perhaps nothing more difficult in sports than to perform under the weight of expectations, and this season an entirely new coaching staff will bring a host of new philosophies and styles into a locker room loaded with expectations set at the close of last season — plus, there are a ton of gaps to fill.
Success for the Aggies in 2019 requires veteran talent to adapt and evolve under new management. In the attitude of looking months ahead to an unsure Mountain West landscape, here are four players most likely to define the Aggies’ 2019 season:
Most likely to miss all of his friends — Jordan Love
Too often sports fans advance through each offseason placing disproportionate emphasis on a team’s exciting additions, blissfully imagining a fresh season immune to regression.
That’s a dangerous game under any circumstance, but particularly after a 2018 campaign spent shoving most of the Mountain West in a locker with an ultra-efficient attack ranked No. 10 nationally in total offense. That historic offense technically returns just two starters this fall — QB Jordan Love and left tackle Alfred Edwards.
As noted in Bill Connelly’s annual dressing-down of the entire college football landscape, Love’s top four pass-catchers are gone. All-conference center Quin Ficklin and the rest of his experienced line (minus Edwards) are also gone. Backfield wonder Darwin Thompson? He’s gone too.
Experienced offensive weapons do remain (WR Jordan Nathan and RB Gerold Bright to name a few), but turbulence on the offensive line and the exodus of last year’s receiving corps will likely cause some growing pains as Love enters his junior year — not to mention the installment of an entirely new coaching staff.
Love (3,567 yards, 32 TD, 6 INT) might’ve had an all-time great season had he played all four quarters of each game, seeing drastic improvement over his freshman year in both completion percentage (55% to 64%) and passer rating (119.3 to 158.3). His bulk passing stats saw an increase too, but a string of sportsmanship-threatening leads late in most games kept Love’s season totals under the national radar.
Still, the Bakersfield native managed to set five school records with 32 touchdown passes, 3,567 passing yards, seven 300-yard passing games, 234 points responsible for and winning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week five times — which apparently wasn’t enough to make All-MW’s first team, but I digress.
Love also tied the single-season school records with a pair of 400-yard passing games and the single-game school record for touchdown passes with five against both UNLV and San José State. The point is, even Aggie superfans reading this offseason post in early June probably don’t remember just how dominant Jordan Love was on the field last season. And now, despite losing nearly everyone and everything that made his situation ideal, the third-year top-tier MW starter will leap back into a difficult 2019 lineup carrying massive expectations.
Most due for increased usage — Savon Scarver
Did you know Utah State fielded a consensus All-American last year? And that it wasn’t Jordan Love or David Woodward?
Too often overshadowed by the Aggies’ immense offensive firepower, Scarver’s season on special teams was a big one. Utah State’s primary return man earned first-team All-America honors from the Walter Camp Football Foundation (WCFF), Football Writers Association of American (FWAA) and Phil Steele’s Magazine, returning 22 kickoffs for 742 yards and two touchdowns. His yards per return mark (33.7) ranked first in the country.
And yet, his limited usage as a receiver leaves plenty of room for Scarver to deliver an even greater impact. The return specialist has seen virtually no time as the Aggies’ first option in the passing game, tallying just nine catches last year and 11 in 2017. The 5’11 junior speedster is a perfect match for Love’s strong arm, capable of busting coverages for explosive plays once or twice a game and now one of the only returning Aggie wideouts with some in-game experience with his quarterback.
Slot extraordinaire Jordan Nathan and Utah transfer Siaosi Mariner will both factor into USU’s new-look passing game, but an opportunity for Scarver’s role to expand could make for even more go route fireworks this fall.