Loss of Ferguson, Wade leaves this unit with some question marks
Utah State had a surprisingly robust defensive backfield last season. Seniors Aaron Wade and Gage Ferguson were excellent against the run and made big plays when their team needed it most. Deante Fortenberry also had some good moments and was consistent. Altogether, they helped this defense be one of the best in the nation with 22 interceptions recorded, including six taken back for touchdowns.
With those players gone, it will be up to players like JR strong safety Shaq Bond and SR nickel back DJ Williams to pick up some of the slack. Getting close to the amount of interceptions and big plays this unit had last season will be a tall task, though not an altogether unreachable one.
Coming into the 2019 season with a firm hold on the SS position is Shaq Bond. Despite having his season cut short by a nasty ACL tear against New Mexico, Bond put up excellent numbers. He amassed 37 tackles and six pass breakups in 2018 while also managing to get a pick six. Though not the largest DB in the Aggie backfield, Bond plays physical and makes his presence known in the backfield. Assuming he is 100% back from his injury, there should be no reason he doesn’t pick up where left off in production.
JUCO transfer Cash Gilliam is expected to back up Bond, though there could be changes to the depth chart in fall. Gilliam comes from Arizona Western JC where he logged 46 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. He also got seven pass breakups and two interceptions. Slightly taller and heavier than Bond, he adds excellent depth to the position in case Bond isn’t fully healed.
At the free safety position, is senior Cameron Haney. In 2018, Haney had his most active season in Aggie blue, recording 26 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. He also got seven pass breakups. Haney has gotten progressively better each season and can make this position all his as long as he maintains the consistency he established last season.
Pushing Haney at this position will be Troy Lefeged, Jr., coming in from Fullerton Community College, Lefeged. recorded a solid 37 tackles along with four pass breakups, two interceptions, and even a blocked kick. Fast and nimble, Lefeged, jr. may even be able to take the top FS position in fall camp if Haney doesn’t play in top form.
Other players at safety are JR Braxton Gunther and redshirt FR Sam Lockett. Both of these players have limited experience behind the known commodities. As such, the amount of playtime they get this season is up in the air. Gunther has the most experience of the two, playing in 12 games last season and finishing with 11 tackles. Lockett changed positions from wide receiver and has much to prove.
Many options at corner
This group has a spoil of riches for the Aggies. Ja’Marcus Ingram is expected to grab hold of one of the top spots entering fall camp. Ingram played excellently as a freshman and was making serious noise until an injury cut his 2018 season short. Until getting hurt, Ingram had strong numbers and impact plays, totaling up 19 tackles and six pass breakups, the third-best mark on the team. He’s a proven disruptor and ballhawk that will only get better.
Playing opposite Ingram will be senior DJ Williams. He finished the 2018 season with 42 tackles, including a sack and three tackles for loss, while adding a team-best 11 pass breakups, four interceptions, and a forced fumble. When Williams was on, he was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks to deal with. Fully expect him to continue excelling in his role. By year’s end, he may even be the best corner on the team.
Looking to expand on their roles from last season will be sophomore CBs Zahodri Jackson and Andre Grayson. Both of these players redshirted in 2017 and saw plenty of game action in 2018. Grayson played in 12 games and finished the season with four tackles and two pass breakups while Jackson played in all 13 games, recording six tackles. With the experience they gained last year, they’ll be well prepared to bolster this unit and take it further in 2019.
Rounding out the CB group are FR Michael Anyanwu, FR Dominic Tatum, and sophomore Jarrod Green, who played in 11 games last season. Anyanwu redshirted the 2018 season and could serve as an effective backup to Zahodri Jackson. Tatum is new to the program and has very high potential. As a senior at Culver City High School, he recorded 94 tackles, including 10 for a loss, to go along with seven pass breakups, two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, even returning one for a touchdown.
The defensive back group has plenty of potential for the Aggies, but there are undeniable holes to fill. Williams is a terrific corner and Ingram is a terror to opposing teams when healthy. However, the safety position gives me some pause. After Shaq Bond, Cameron Haney is the only other safety with substantial game experience. Braxton Gunther still has plenty to prove and he needs to be ready should Haney or Bond sustain an injury.
Coming close to matching last year’s interception total and locking down some of the better receivers in the conference will be a tall task for this group. The athleticism is there, but the experience is lacking in some areas. In order for this group to be at its best, the rest of the Aggie defense will need to step up and mount pressure on the line. If health remains intact for the group though, I expect another solid year for this position group.