Who will stand out and elevate the Aggies?
With the 2020 season (hopefully) coming up on its opening date, Aggie fans have plenty to look forward to in terms of on-field talent being displayed. I expect many of the players on this list will flourish compared to where they were last year. Some are in their final years of eligibility, and others have much to prove after being sidelined for various reasons.
Without further ado, here is my list of the top players to watch on offense and defense for the 2020 edition of the Utah State Aggies.
1. CJ Pollard, S
USU hit the jackpot with portal transfers this off-season. Pollard comes in as a graduate transfer from USC with one year of eligibility remaining. For a young defense that needs all the help it can get, Pollard is a greatly needed addition to bolster the defensive backfield.
With the Trojans, Pollard totaled up 30 career tackles, 3.5 for a loss and 0.5 sacks in three seasons. Though these numbers are modest, Pollard was nonetheless a very highly rated prospect coming out of high school. The physical talent and measurements are certainly there to succeed in Utah State’s scheme. His presence in the backfield will greatly help out senior Shaq Bond as the defense looks to do better than its 86th rank in 2019 for 238.6 passing yards allowed per game.
2. Hale Motu’apuaka, DL
The sophomore defensive lineman recently made it back to the team after an off-season hiatus. As a freshman in 2019 for the Aggies, Motu’apuaka tallied 13 tackles (5-solo, 8-assist), which included 0.5 tackles for loss, to go along with one quarterback hurry. He red-shirted in 2018.
With the Aggies abandoning the 4-3 base defense in favor of the 3-4 scheme they have traditionally run, this player is ripe to make a jump in production for the team. He has excellent size and measurements and he’s certain to be a key part of the defensive line rotation along with SR players Soni Fata and Caden Andersen.
Even if he doesn’t get a ton of tackles or make flashy plays, Motu’apuaka will be able to take up blocks and clog the middle against opposing rushers with ease. His natural fit in USU’s traditional scheme will significantly bolster the rush defense, which gave up a dismal 201.9 ypg in 2019.
3. Eric Munoz, LB
Aggie fans no doubt remember Munoz’s memorable heroics in a slugfest vs the Pokes in 2019. Though it was just his first career start, Munoz made the most of it as he recorded a career-high 13 tackles, including 0.5 tackles for loss, and nabbed two interceptions, including the game-winner. After the game, he opened up on his struggles to find playing time at different schools and how he finally broke through for the Aggies.
Making the story even sweeter, Munoz earned a scholarship within a week after the Aggies retained the Hawkin rifle trophy against their Mountain division rival.
With the switch over to the 3-4 scheme, Munoz will have an excellent opportunity to put his stamp on this year’s defense along with fellow SR Kevin Meitzenheimer. He’ll be afforded more opportunities to blitz opposing QBs and more chances to ensure his final year of eligibility ends with a bang. His emotion is as refreshing as it is inspiring.
1. Jaylen Warren, RB
My regular readers know how high I am on this senior running back. Nonetheless, I don’t think it can be overstated just how important Warren is to the rushing attack this season. If he were to go down with an injury, it would be a savage blow to a position group that struggled previously struggled to establish genuine consistency. Ranking just a modest 73rd in 2019 with 152.2 ypg, USU’s run game needs to do better this year if they want to improve on their 7-6 record.
When Warren is healthy, he’s a load to tackle and he runs angry. He’s also a legitimate pass-catching threat as well, so it helps stifle any temptation opposing defenses have to stack the box against him. Warren carried the ball 112 times for 569 yards (5.1 ypc/47.4 ypg) and five touchdowns last year. Those are strong numbers in a vacuum, and they will get better if he avoids the injury bug in 2020. His spot on the 2020 Doak Walker Award watchlist is well justified and he may just be the best offensive weapon USU has going forward.
2. Jason Shelley, QB
With Henry Colombi transferring to Texas Tech, the Aggies desperately need strong leadership at the QB position to calm the team waters. Fortunately, Jason Shelley may be just what the Aggies need to succeed in 2020.
Shelley is a true dual-threat QB, which is very much in line with the QBs Andersen has recruited to USU in the past. Combined with the run-heavy emphasis the Aggies will be relying on this year, his skillset is naturally-attuned to this offensive scheme. Shelley earned five starts at QB for the Utes and overall produced 1,428 yards of total offense, combining 1,205 passing yards and 223 rushing yards. If runners like Warren ease the pressure on him, don’t be surprised to see this QB turn into an All-league talent by season’s end.
3. Justin McGriff, WR
USU’s passing game last year was good, but it nonetheless left something to be desired. The recent addition of JUCO transfer Justin McGriff will hopefully boost the passing offense closer to where it was in 2018.
He is the third-highest rated commit in Utah State history, according to the 247 sports composite ranking. In his one year at ASA Miami, Justin pulled in 25 receptions for 360 yards and 8 touchdowns, some very solid numbers. In terms of size, he’s quite similar to former Aggie star receiver Ron’quavion Tarver. With McGriff’s presence on the field, the Aggie offense will have a chance to be multi-dimensional again. McGriff can also win the jump ball battles USU often failed to get in 2019.
No disrespect to senior receivers Savon Scarver and Jordan Nathan, but they’ll produce more for the team with McGriff’s services, which makes him a player that both fans and opposing teams will need to keep a close eye on.