The legend of the linebacker

Copy of USU vs. ARK ST-4 (1)

A version of this story ran in the Utah State Football Preview magazine, produced by the Utah Statesman.

While the Utah State football team has had its ups and downs throughout the past decade, one thing has remained constant: A tradition of dominance and success by its linebackers.

The Aggie linebacker corps has become an integral part of the program’s success, being one of the biggest storylines and brightest spots on the field year in and year out.

Who could forget the heroics of players like the Vigil brothers, Kyler Fackrell, and Jake Doughty? Then of course there’s the man who wrote the defensive record book himself, Bobby Wagner.

In recent years, excellent linebackers have become as much of a tradition at Utah State as singing the Scotsman and eating Aggie Ice Cream. With so many linebackers doing well at both the collegiate and professional level, Utah State has gained a national reputation.

“That’s the reason I came here,” said sophomore linebacker Justus Te’i, who took many by surprise when he broke into the starting lineup last season as a true freshman. “There’s just such a high standard here set by the guys in the past.”  

Matt Halton

With player after player entering the NFL ranks what seems like every season, USU has gained a reputation as a linebacker factory, and Logan has become a must-visit place for pro scouts seeking young defensive talent.

Bobby Wagner set the standard for this generation of Aggies when he tied a school-record 446 tackles during his four-year career. After graduating in 2011, he went on to get drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, and eventually to win a Super Bowl his rookie year and later to lead the entire league in tackles in 2016.

Though Wagner’s college and professional football success can be compared to only a few players in USU football history, that won’t stop current players from trying to live up to it.

“If you’re ever going to compare yourself to Bobby Wagner I’m sure there’s going to be pressure,” Te’i said. “It makes you put pressure on yourself to hold yourself to those standards.”

Since Wagner’s departure, USU has had eight linebackers make their way to the NFL, whether by being drafted or signing an undrafted free agent contract. Jake Doughty, after brief stint in the NFL, was able to continue his playing career in the Canadian Football League. Bojay Filimoeatu played a season with the Oakland Raiders before breaking into coaching, and he is currently the linebackers coach at San Jose State.

In 2016 the national spotlight shined on the USU defense when Nick Vigil and Kyler Fackrell were drafted back-to-back in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals and the Green Bay Packers respectively.  

The elder of the Vigil brothers, Zach, entered the league as an undrafted free agent, but was given an opportunity to play for the Miami Dolphins and spent his first two years there. He recently signed on to play for the Washington Redskins.

“The reason we have so much success with the linebackers is because we’re set to such a high standard because of those guys, and we try to live up to that standard,” said senior linebacker Alex Huerta. “We care about that legacy. We care about keeping the legacy going.”

Tommy Sorenson | The Utah Statesman

Utah State co-defensive coordinator and outside linebackers coach Kendrick Shaver said that the coaches love to talk about the corps’ past success to motivate players, but try not to put too much pressure on their shoulders.

“That’s a ghost we’re all chasing,” Shaver said. “But those are special, special guys. I don’t think it’s pressure.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of the Aggies’ linebacker success is their player development. Shaver said he takes pride in being able to recruit players who were overlooked by larger programs and develop them into stars.

“This is a development program,” he said. “We rarely get the ‘ready-made guy.’ Zach Vigil was a walk-on. Bobby Wagner had one other offer besides us. Fackrell didn’t have any offers. It’s all about development.”

But not every standout high school athlete is cut out to be a Utah State linebacker, Shaver said. It takes a certain kind of player and personality to develop from an overlooked high school athlete to a college star or even NFL player.

So what’s his secret? It’s all about scouting the right guys.

When Shaver goes out on recruiting trips looking for the next Bobby Wagner, he likes to look for three traits in a player. First, great physicality and the ability to embrace contact rather than shy away from it. Second, natural speed and great instincts. Third, and most importantly, a deep love for the game of football.

“At the high school level it’s all fun and games,” he said. “You see these colleges on ESPN wearing their Nike uniforms and it seems all cool, but what about that 6 a.m. workout you’re gonna have to go to? What about that 8 p.m. tutor session you have to go to when you’ve been up since 5:30? What happens from Monday thru Friday to get to Saturday? It’s a grind, so you’ve gotta love it or you won’t make it. It will eat you up.”

Aggie coaches and fans alike are hoping this process has been followed and is successful as the team prepares for the 2017 season.

After a lackluster, injury-riddled season for the linebacker corps in 2016, this year’s group will need to bounce back and use their experience and depth in order to return to dominance.

Though the group lost two key starters to graduation in Brock Carmen and Anthony Williams, they welcome back seven letterwinners from last season, each of which got playing time during some point in the season.

Utah State fans will also see a slew of new faces playing linebacker this season, as the Aggies made bringing in strong new additions to the corps a big focus of the offseason.

“We knew we had to go out and create depth and competition at this position,” Shaver said. “There’s no secret that the linebacker corps lacked depth last year and we had to go address that.”

Among those newcomers who will vie for playing time this season are freshman Maika Magalei, Kevin Meitzenheimer and David Woodward. Meitzenheimer and Woodward each took advantage of a redshirt season last year and are expected to contribute in a big way this season.

The Aggies also welcome in some junior college talent at linebacker this season with Snow College transfer Ofa Latu, as well as junior college all-Americans Suli Tamaivena and Louy Compton.

Shaver said that with the new additions to the group, the linebacker corps is set to have a bounceback season and to use the combination of seasoned vets and athletic newcomers to its advantage.

“Hopefully depth is our biggest strength,” he said. “We hope that we can play by committee. If one guy takes a blow or gets tired, we’ve got another guy ready and it’s not a major drop off. That’s what we’re aiming at.”

As Utah State gets its 2017 campaign underway, all eyes will be on the linebackers. Including those of the players.

“We’ve got a very talented group, so I’m excited to see who’s going to blow up this season,” Te’i said.

It’s probably safe to say Aggie fans would agree.