USU Football: Five Questions We Need Answered
The schedule is out, now we just have to figure out what the Aggies are doing and if they’re any good and holy crap football is back
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USU Football: Five Questions We Need Answered
Just to be clear, Utah State football’s 2020 outlook was a big bag of mystery even before a global pandemic spilled a little extra spice on this whole unknowable college football enchilada. But with Mountain West football finally back on the menu this fall and a solidified conference-only schedule now in place, this team is just a little more than three(!!!) weeks away from a real-life game that really counts.
Here are my five big questions for the Aggies.
1. Will Switching Base Defenses Revive This Front Seven?
Utah State pivots to a 3-4 base defense this fall, and if the team wants to justify all this effort to finally play football their run defense needs to improve considerably.
The bad news is the Aggies will be without six of their top nine defensive lineman from 2019, so continuity isn’t exactly their biggest ally — the better news is those guys could hardly stop anyone anyway, so adding some new blood should net some degree of improvement. Last year’s rushing defense ranked 110th in the nation, allowing 202 yards on the ground per game (4.3 per carry). Not to dwell on the uncomfortable past, but however bad you think you remember that front seven being, I promise — it was worse.
Enter this year’s heroes to guide the Aggies on their journey to defensive redemption. Redshirt senior Justus Te’i takes on the mantle as the Aggies’ most experienced man in the trenches, looking to build on 51 tackles, 1.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries in this critical transition year. Te’i will likely be flanked by RS senior Caden Anderson and grad transfer Marcus Moore.
While the defensive line appears to be a bit of a reconstruction project, the linebacking corps provides a stronger dose of optimism. Senior Linebacker Nick Heninger returns as one of the Aggies’ true defensive studs, tallying five sacks, a forced fumble and 9.5 TFLs last season.
Us: Hey Nick, is there anytime to be tired?
— USU Football (@USUFootball) September 30, 2020
A veteran with an enviable propensity for showing up in the biggest games of the year, Heninger will lead a unit that includes RS senior Kevin Meitzenheimer, now-scholarshipped Aggie legend Eric Munoz and a cluster of underclassmen newcomers.
2. How Will Last Year’s Breakout Defensive Star Perform in a New Position?
Let’s start off acknowledging one of Utah State’s most underrated finds in recent years: star safety Troy Lefeged Jr.
A lot went unnoticed but we still build’n brick by brick 🧱 👣 pic.twitter.com/e9Jm8TbbzA
— Troy Lefeged Jr (@COUNTIES_HERO) December 29, 2019
The RS senior was everywhere last year, totaling 103 tackles, four passes defended, three forced fumbles and a pair of sacks. Lefeged Jr. has evidently proven versatile enough to warrant a rumored switch to OLB, stepping into a hybrid role to bolster the run defense and potentially unleash his pass rushing prowess more frequently.
The presumed benefit to moving last year’s best defensive player out of position in 2020 is two-fold — it aids Coach Andersen’s quest to hold teams under 200 rushing yards per game by involving a freak athlete in the linebacking unit, and it could also help Lefeged’s future prospects as a professional football player.
What that means for the Aggie secondary is a bit shaky. Shaq Bond is an all-conference level safety when healthy and should get the start at SS. The CB room of Jackson, Grayson, Lampkin and Adams might even surprise this year. What remains is a gap at FS with no obvious solution on the current roster, leaving RS juniors Jared Reed and Jarrod Green to answer the call.
Lefeged succeeding in this new role might be the single largest determining factor to this defense’s rejuvenation.
3. Does Shelley Have The Stuff?
Oh, right! We should probably mention Utah State has a new man under center, and while we don’t exactly know if he’s “good” yet, BYU fans seem to really hate him so he’s probably doing something right.
Jason Shelley exchanged his Utes jersey for the Aggie blue this summer following a cascade of other QB transfers and causing one or two of his own (would-be starter Henry Colombi left for Texas Tech almost immediately after Shelley’s arrival).
You might remember Shelley starting five games for the Utes back in 2018 in relief of injured starter Tyler Huntley, including promising wins over Oregon and Colorado en route to Utah’s first Pac-12 South title. The 5-11″, 200-lb dual-threat QB also popped off a 21-point fourth quarter against BYU that year, including a 33-yard TD run that delivered a win in Utah’s final regular season game.
Jason Shelley with his #HolyWar moment. What a football game. #BYUvsUTAH pic.twitter.com/qSjvu4WlOZ
— Porter Larsen (@Larsen_ESPN) November 25, 2018
A career 58% completion rate leaves something to be desired, but his ability to largely avoid sacks and keep defenses honest with his scrambling should aid a young Aggie offensive line and give USU some extra breathing room in the red zone. He’s shown flashes of good QB play against Oregon and BYU, as well as a few disasters like his 3-INT, 10-3 loss to no. 11 Washington.
Much of this season’s outlook relies on which Shelley appears early in the year when USU’s schedule is at its harshest. If he can string together some promising outings against a strong Boise State team and a pretty-ok San Diego State, it could mean big things for the offense down the stretch.
4. Will Warren, Henry-Cole and Gentry All Split Carries?
Utah State’s running back room returns 2019 stud Jaylen Warren, but also adds Shelley’s old pal Devonta’e Henry-Cole, formerly of the Utes’ backfield. The Aggies are no strangers to splitting up the RB duties, as last year’s Warren/Gerold Bright duo managed to give both players plenty of opportunities.
In 112 rushes last year, Warren gained 569 yards and 5 TDs on 5.1 yards per carry. He also added a small dose of receiving work, catching 15 passes for 182 yards. His monster 141-yard day at Wake Forest also saw his longest run of the season (59 yards). He had moderate success against conference foes, but struggled to break loose on big runs and was all but erased from losing game scripts with just 12 total rushes against Air Force, BYU and Boise State.
Henry-Cole enters as a bit of an unknown, seeing just 33 carries last year for 185 yards but averaging 5.6 ypc and punching in a pair of touchdowns on the ground. His 2017 usage was similarly limited but efficient (53 touches for 266 yards, 5.0 ypc, 2 TDs). The intrigue here is the timing of his transfer, leaving Utah for Utah State less than a week after Shelley’s move was announced. Teammates for three years, the pair could be a source of some fortunate continuity on offense.
None of this touches one of the more enticing breakout candidates for the Aggie offense in 2020, surprise true freshman John Gentry. Gentry, a 3-star recruit out of Houston formerly committed to Utah, is reportedly competing for touches in the offense already and might force his way onto the field depending on his performance in fall camp. It’s unlikely for a true freshman to pick up the speed of the college game so quickly, but in a year of unusual preseason preparation his presence might be felt earlier than expected.
5….Uh, is Everything Okay With Gary Andersen?
News broke this morning via the Salt Lake Tribune that Utah State is the only MW/PAC-12 school without a protective opt-out policy in place for athletes disinclined to play football amidst Covid-19 concerns.
But it’s not like the team just hadn’t got around to it yet — Gary Andersen went on record with this whale of a quote, which he later declined to clarify to the Tribune, but then *did* decide to clarify once it became obvious it was the exact wrong thing to say regardless of context or inflection:
“At least in our program, we don’t have an opt out. And it’s not an option. If you opt out, you’re not with us.”
Not only was this a dangerous departure from the NCAA’s repeated stance that player health is in fact a top priority, it seemed extra rich coming from the lips of infamous opt-outer Andersen, who’s currently fighting to rekindle his first love at USU after his second and third marriages to Wisconsin and Oregon State each ended in abrupt divorce. Of course, the drama was quickly addressed by Andersen later this morning with the following statement:
“I should have clarified my words better. We have no players that have opted out or are opting out. If we had kids who decided to opt out, we would honor that — he can do that and we will honor his scholarship and support him. I didn’t explain myself well enough.”
…We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions as to what that initial quote was about, or why Andersen declined the chance to straighten out his comments when the Tribune reached out before publishing the story, but for now it seems this distraction has been neutralized.