A Revamped Defense and Revamped Attitude
I’ve harped and preached about how USU needs to play much better defense if they want a chance at a successful 2021 campaign. The Aggies looked completely out of sync and utterly helpless at times last season. Most of the teams played were able to run the ball with ease against this front, with USU surrendering 224.7 yards per game and 35.2 points per game. Altogether, the unit was a hot mess and there is seemingly nowhere to go but up from there.
Heading into 2021, USU is going back to a base 4-3 defense and they’ve recruited heavily at the defensive line position to accommodate for it. The hope is with an improved and heavier front four, the talented linebacking corps can finally make plays proactively rather than having to react to an opposing rusher that has already burst through the line. The Aggies gave up too many big runs before and if they struggle again in this metric, then they need to at least make disruptive plays and create pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The good news for USU is the pieces are there to greatly improve on last year’s 1-5 record. It will be a question of coming together and developing good team chemistry. However, there is no shortage of talent at key positions for this defense to at least give the offense more chances to score more points. With the addition of some proven playmakers from the transfer portal, we should see an immediate impact at the most important spots on defense.
This will almost certainly be the strength of this year’s defense.
Along with the returning talent USU has, Coach Anderson has brought in Arkansas State transfer Justin Rice to helm the weak side. Last season at ASU, Rice easily led the defense with 76 total tackles and seven sacks. He’s got terrific quickness and he frequently makes disruptive plays. The Aggies are going to need him week in and week out to limit the damage running backs will try to do on the ground. Younger backers like Kaleo Neves and Kina Maile need more time before taking on larger roles, but they will benefit tremendously learning from Rice in the meantime.
In the middle, Aggies have AJ Vongphachanh returning. One of the few bright spots from 2020, this hard hitting bruiser is looking to improve upon strong numbers from last season. Vongphachanh led the team with 50 tackles, which included three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He also added one forced fumble, one safety, one pass breakup, and one quarterback hurry. His role is expected to be even bigger than before and he’s likely the undisputed leader of this group.
Backing up Vongphachanh will be no easy task, but super senior Kevin Meitzenheimer adds high quality depth to the spot. He’s overall had terrific production for USU going back to the 2018 season. In 2019, he finished third on the team with 89 total tackles. Though his numbers weren’t up to his usual standard in 2020, tallying up only 37 tackles and just half a sack, he’ll figure to bounce back meaningfully in 2021 now that he’s healthier. With a stronger line in front of him, he’ll have many more opportunities to wreak havoc on opposing offenses and help keep Vongphachanh rested. Sione Moa and Jaymason Willingham may also contribute here.
Rounding out the corps is Cash Gilliam at the striker position. He’ll be counted on to drop into coverage as needed, but also act as a linebacker if called upon. The hybrid position suits his lighter weight and smaller build and will maximize USU’s talent on the field at any given time. Last year, he got 20 tackles and one sack, so I expect his production will jump sharply with his added responsibilities in a hybrid role. If he can stay healthy, it will allow younger players like Breaker Mendenhall and Patrick Maddox to continue maturing in the program.
Anderson and company have made this unit arguably their top priority in the 2021 offseason. The Aggies have added several big transfers from the P5 and Juco ranks, which should help the position group take an immediate leap in production and disruptiveness against opposing offensive lines and rushing attacks.
At the tackle position, Aggies brought in Ga Tech transfer Jahaziel Lee. He did not play in the 2019 season due to injury. In 2018, he played offensive lineman for the Yellow Jackets. He’s got excellent size at 308 lbs and he’ll be counted on to eat up blocks so the linebacking corps can make stops faster. Backing him up will be the now very experienced Hale Motu’apuaka. Last season, he played in all six games and logged eight tackles and even a blocked kick. Motu’apuaka has consistently gotten bigger and stronger since he started playing in 2018 and he provides excellent depth to this bolstered line. Don’t be surprised if Michigan transfer Phillip Paea cracks the rotation and makes a tangible impact as well.
At the next tackle position, Marcus Moore returns for his final season in Aggie blue. He was another bright spot on the defense last season and his role will be further increased from before. Though perhaps a bit undersized at this spot, Moore consistently played above his weight, logging 20 tackles, including two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Behind him will be Juco transfer Aurion Peoples, who will certainly have a heavy role in the rotation along the line. He posted 18 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack. Peoples has size like Lee and should help improve the run defense and also make it more disruptive, something this defense sorely needs after getting pushed around last season.
At the defensive end positions, USU is in pretty good shape. Texas transfer Byron Hobbs-Vaughns is expected to start immediately opposite super senior Nick Heninger. Vaughns did not play in 2020, but he did get 14 tackles as a linebacker for the Longhorns in 2019. He’s undeniably quick and he’s just big enough to emerge as a viable pass rushing threat for the Aggies, something they sorely missed last year.
Heninger is expected to have his most productive year yet for the Aggies and improving on his numbers from last year will likely be a given. Heninger finished third on the team with 42 tackles, including three sacks and seven tackles for loss. With added help on the line, he’ll be better able to disrupt opposing rushers.
As backups, Jaylin Bannerman, Patrick Joyner, and newcomer Mata Hola will be learning from seasoned leadership. Addison Trupp will also have a great opportunity to get some meaningful minutes and help bolster the depth at this position. If they can do that, then it will be a good sign the defense will improve as the season wears on.
Though USU’s secondary was disappointing in 2020, the good news is that this unit has more experience at each spot for this season. Along with incoming transfers like Hunter Reynolds from Michigan and Kyle Mayberry from Kansas, there is plenty of reason to believe this part of the defense will improve noticeably.
At the corner spot, Cam Lampkin returns and he looks to continue developing in the position nicely. Lampkin started four games last season and recorded 20 tackles, a sack, and a couple of pass breakups. From the time he started in 2019, he has shown great athleticism and major promise at eventually becoming a lockdown corner. Andre Grayson and Xavion Steele should each take a step forward this year and help Lampkin shoulder the load.
At the other corner spot, Mayberry is expected to battle for the starting spot with Zahodri Jackson, who is now a senior. He logged 20 tackles and a pair of pass breakups in 2020. While he’s somewhat productive, he doesn’t have a lock on the staring job. Either way, there is more depth here than before. Rounding out the rotation here is Terin Adams, a corner who has been limited for the Aggie since 2019 due to some lingering injury issues. He opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 as well, so it’s a mystery to how much he will contribute this season.
At strong safety, Anderson convinced Shaq Bond to stay for his final season. Bond has been extremely good for USU since 2018 and he has a chance to put an exclamation point on his career here. Last hear, he was second on the team with 47 total tackles and first with a team-high three pass breakups. Bond has a nose for the football and simply has a knack for making big plays when USU needs them. Supposing he can avoid injury like from 2018, I expect Bond to take another leap and perhaps garner First-Team Mountain West Honors by year’s end.
At free safety, Dominic Tatum returns as well. Tatum logged 19 tackles last season along with two pass breakups. He has measurables similar to Bond and can exert himself nicely, though he hasn’t shown a lot of consistency yet. Ajani Carter and Jarrod Green provide decent depth here and should help limit the damage in the air opponents will try to do against USU, which was a major weakness last year.
There is likely going to be an adjustment period for this Aggie defense. The talent is there to successfully run this system, yet it needs time to gel with the major changes in a new coaching staff. It was only a few years ago in 2018 when USU went from a very successful 3-4 base formation under DC Keith Patterson to a 4-3 base with mixed results under DC Justin Ena.
The Aggies went back to the 3-4 base defense in 2020, but the sheer lack of depth and speed at key positions absolutely killed the Aggies last year. Anderson has shown his commitment to making the 4-3 work with major additions to the defensive line and he has also talked about making the defense be multiple with its formations. This coaching staff appears to want to maximize the best talent they have on field, as evidenced by having a striker and making key additions to DE as well.
USU’s defensive numbers were poor before, so they can only go up from here. As long as the defensive line stays healthy, I expect the other position groups to not have to carry too much of the load and improve noticeably from before. If nothing else, this defense should be more disruptive under Anderson and give the Aggies chances they simply didn’t have in 2020.
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