Three things to know about the 2016 Utah State football team
The offseason is officially over, that blissful period of optimistic expectations and Bachelorette gossip finally past. In the lazy summer months, football season seemed like little more than a dream in the distant future. It was a time for unimportant sports background noise like the ESPYs and Wimbledon to play on your TV at half volume while you hunted down an Eevee inside your apartment with the Pokemon Go app.
For months, we’ve pretended every weakness from last year’s Aggie squad has surely been addressed, every strength fortified and every position group gaining athleticism and experience. But, if you’ve been into sports longer than the average Warriors fan, you know that sometimes things don’t go according to plan.
So with all the nonsense chatter out there about various players’ “upside”, what can we realistically expect from Utah State football this fall? Here’s my totally subjective outlook for the Aggies’ 2016-17 season.
Kent Myers will get the start
There may be some drummed-up hullabaloo about a QB battle in training camp, particularly with Hobbs waiting as a viable backup, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Kent’s led this team through the heart of its conference schedule for two straight seasons, and has performed nicely. Cliche as it is to hype a guy’s potential in the offseason, Myers is entering his junior year with some decent experience already under his belt.
The inconsistency of sophomore college quarterbacks has been known to evaporate when a dude with real talent hits his upperclassman years, and Myers has shown he’s got some real talent. For all of you Keeton believers who aren’t ready to move on, let me throw some numbers at you —
Keeton and Myers threw the exact same number of passes last season (199). Keeton finished with four touchdowns, seven picks and 1,001 yards with a 52.3% completion percentage.
Myers notched 16 touchdowns, 1,593 yards and was intercepted just three times en route to a 60.8% completion rate. To put that last number in perspective, Aggie place-kicker Jake Thompson went 3-for-6 on field goal attempts last season, meaning Utah State literally had a better chance of Myers picking up a first down through the air (7.1 yards per passing attempt last year) than halting a drive in favor of a field goal.
I should take a moment to remind you all that I have no idea if the coaching staff reads my columns.
The defense will regress
Don’t give me that look, I didn’t say it would be terrible. I mean, it definitely could be, but this isn’t an article about could-be, this is about the things we can be certain of. Painful as it may be to admit, USU’s defense just won’t be the mid-major monster it’s been since 2012.
You can’t lose as much talent as Utah State did in the front 7 and expect to maintain the same level of play from year to year. Vigil and Fackrell are obviously gone, leaving big angry quarterback-terrorizing shoes to fill. But so are LT Filiaga, and Torrey Green, and Michael Okonkwo, and Jordan Nielsen, and David Moala. Those aren’t just names — every single one of those guys was a major contributor in 2015.
Need an example? Torrey Green, a verified defensive stud, notched 36 tackles last season, which was actually only good enough for a distant fourth-place finish among Aggie linebackers — and still earned himself an invite to Falcons training camp. Silver and Bronze medals went to Fackrell (59.5 tackles) and Filiaga (51). Vigil ran away with the most tackles title belt with 106.
USU’s best tackler heading into this fall based on last years totals? Chasen Andersen. Yeah. Look, Andersen is a fine player, but you won’t hear Mountain West defensive coordinators quivering where they stand game-planning around the guy.
With the front seven effectively gutted, the Aggies’ most experienced defensive position group will have to step up to the impossible task of providing halfway decent coverage while the new guys up front try to establish some semblance of a pass rush. No matter how athletic Jalen Davis and Devin Centers appear to be on the back end, a team just can’t get stops without the pressure up front. One should note that neither of those guys are exactly turnover machines anyway — the pair combined for six interceptions and a forced fumble last season.
For the sake of comparison, Boise State’s Darian Thompson and Donte Deayon combined for nine interceptions in 2015, and San Diego State’s Damontae Kazee led the conference with eight all on his own.
USU will lean heavily on the ground game
The Mountain West is a cold-weather conference full of physical ground-and-pound running backs. Boise’s got McNichols, San Diego has Pumphrey, heck even San Jose and Wyoming had stellar running backs last year — Tyler Ervin and Brian Hill both crossed the 1,600-yard mark.
USU’s Devontae Mays sniffed 1,000 yards last year despite splitting carries with the LaJuan Hunt, finishing with 966 on 5.9 yards per carry. Not only is Mays capable of being a workhorse back — he’s going to have to be.
The Aggies’ wide receiver group is a patchwork quilt of quick slot guys too small to send downfield and unproven former track stars on the outside. There is no replacement for Hunter Sharp’s reliable 76 yards per game or his big-play potential. What USU has instead is a good O-line protecting a good quarterback who will need to elevate his play to all-conference levels in order to make this team’s passing game go.
Question marks abound. What about Gerold Bright? Or Alex Byers? Who’s going to go off for two touchdowns in a desperate comeback attempt? How are the Aggies going to pick up those crucial first downs sitting at 3rd and 5?
After spending a few weeks observing fall camp, the solution appears to be twofold — find out if Rayshad Lewis is for real (he is), and finally incorporate the matchup nightmare called Wyatt Houston.
Lewis is a shifty guy who tends to haul in passes reliably and successfully evade defenders, and though I have my doubts about his ability to produce big total yards numbers, a two-score game for the freshman doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility either. He’s good. Maybe he’s great. We’ll find out early against a big-bodied USC defense, and then again soon after at Boise State. If he survives the brutal hits sure to stem from Myers under-throwing him a few times across the middle, it may be time to evaluate this kid’s star potential. Until then we’ll hold off on the Lewis hype train.
Now, Wyatt Houston is a whole different animal. Houston should be out there Gronking MW defenses on a weekly basis. Solid blocker, quick feet, acceptable hands, it’s a little sad he isn’t one of the biggest red zone nightmares in the mid-majors. It even sounded like Keeton and Matt Wells had big plans for him last year. All they talked about at media days was getting the tight end more involved in the offense and exploiting the physical advantage Houston poses.
And then USU just…didn’t. Houston tallied 307 yards last year on 6.8 yard per reception. So all those times the Aggies faced 3rd and 7 and decided to murder their X-receiver with a bubble screen, looking Houston’s way would’ve put them one bad spot away from a first down.
Houston could haul in eight touchdowns this year for the Aggies, or zero. It’s up to Wells to decide how to use him, but it would be shocking not to see the most seasoned pass-catcher on the team go wholly unnoticed for another season.