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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...UTAH STATE AGGIES
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We hope, for the sake of all coaches, that Utah State’s Gary Andersen didn’t set a new precedent last fall when the Utags qualified for their first bowl game in fourteeen years.

Keeping a promise he made to his players if they qualified for the postseason, not to mention solidifying his connection to a school in which he was about to sign a nice contract extension, Andersen visited a tattoo parlor in Salt Lake City (we suppose they don’t have any of those in Logan; in fact, we’re a little surprised to hear of one in Salt Lake City, too), and now has a permanent reminder of the Utags with a school logo on the back of his shoulder.

We only wonder what might happen if Andersen someday re-joins the Utah staff from whence he came to Logan. Either a re-visit to another tattoo parlor to alter the message (perhaps make it “Beat USU” instead) or maybe getting it removed completely, which, from what we hear, isn’t the easiest thing to do.

But the tattoo stuff is all pretty trivial in the scope of things with Andersen and the Utag program, which has suddenly broken through the Cache Valley clouds and emerged as a low-level player in the new order of college sports. That’s mostly because Utah State has finally secured its long-term athletic future by escaping the burning building of the WAC and enlisting with the higher-profile Mountain West, beginning with the 2013-14 school year.

Of course, for years, membership in the WAC represented the end-game for Utah State sports, but that door stayed shut for decades thanks in large part to the presence of in-state league heavyweights Utah State and BYU, who were never too interested in allowing the Logan-based Aggies to join the club. Instead, USU took a circuitous route around the college sports map, from the old Skyline Conference to independent status for 15 years, then to the PCAA/Big West for a few decades before that league dropped football and the Utags enlisted with the Sun Belt (while keeping other sports in the Big West). Finally, the WAC opened its doors to USU in 2005, but it wasn’t the same WAC of Utah and BYU that had initially refused to invite the Utags into the new league in 1962 and had avoided USU for decades. Still, it represented a bit of safe haven for the Utags after their nomadic existence for the previous half-century.

Within the past year, however, the situation became critical again with members peeling away from the WAC in droves and threatening the future existence of the league. For the Utags, there was only one Hail Mary left in the playbook, and that was the Mountain West, looking to fill its recently-depleted ranks. Finally, in early May, USU and San Jose State were rescued from the WAC when tendered invitations to the Mountain West.

While the Spartans bring exposure to a new and vast Bay Area marketplace to the Mountain, USU’s contributions are a bit more subtle. But the Mountain saw a void in the Utah market with the Utes and BYU having jumped ship, and even though the Utags are based in remote Logan, 80 miles north of the Salt Lake City hub, the school is well-established in the region with lots of alumni. Indeed, it might surprise some that Utah State, and not BYU, has the highest percentage of LDS students in the Beehive State.

Practically speaking, USU can also thank basketball coach Stew Morrill for the invitation, as the Utags are an established and formidable hoops presence, whose addition to the Mountain figures to help conference rankings and, by extension, potential invitations to the NCAA Tournament.

As for football, the Utags have some history, too, although the glory days for the program were long ago. Those would be in the days when John Ralston, future Stanford and Denver Broncos coach, first established himself as a force to be reckoned with by leading the Utags to a 31-11-1 record in four seasons, two Skyline championships, and back-to-back bowls (Sun and the inaugural Gotham Bowl at New York’s Polo Grounds in 1961). Ralston’s 1961 team finished 10th ranked in the final AP poll. After the ‘62 season, Ralston accepted the job at Stanford.

Even then, Ralston had developed a scent for locating talent, as his best teams featured future HOF DT Merlin Olsen (left), future Green Bay Packer DE Lionel Aldridge (imagine Olsen and Aldridge on the same college line!), future 49ers OT Len Rohde (whose Burger King restaurant I used to frequent in Mountain View, CA when working in the Bay Area many years ago), longtime NFL QB Bill Munson, and QB/PK Jim Turner, the legendary Jets and Broncos kicker but also, according to Ralston, owning the “best arm” he ever coached, which would include another particular notable from Ralston’s Palo Alto days, Heisman winner Jim Plunkett.

Although the Utags seldom made noise on the national stage after Ralston’s departure, they would still occasionally produce NFL-level talent. QB Eric Hipple, DE Rulon Jones, and RB Altie Taylor were all familiar pro football names, and current ex-Utags in the NFL include Redskins TE Chris Cooley and Chiefs WR Kevin Robinson. Another ex-Aggie from long ago was legendary coach LaVell Edwards, later a Hall-of-Fame coach at BYU.

Now, however, it’s Andersen’s show, and he’s apparently comfy with the idea of staying in Logan (as the tattoo would suggest). We might even go for a tattoo if receiving the sort of generous contract extension (thru 2017) that Andersen received after last year’s breakthrough campaign that saw the Utags qualify for their first bowl game in 14 years, although that adventure would end bitterly when Ohio U rallied late to steal a 24-23 win in Boise’s Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Still, USU’s 2011 renaissance was something to celebrate in the Cache Valley.

As for Andersen, his commitment to the Utags is significant, although we suspect he could be tempted by several other suitors in the near future if the Utags keep winning. Andersen was apparently the number one target for Colorado State’s opening last December; Gary turned down the Rams, although accomplished offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin couldn’t, accepting the same job on new coach Jim McElwain’s CSU staff. The next calls for Andersen’s services could be coming from higher-profile locales than Fort Collins.

In the meantime, life is pretty good at Romney Stadium (that’s named for Dick Romney, long-ago Utag AD as well as football and basketball coach...not named for another famous LDS Romney, Mitt), especially with 13 starters back from Andersen’s bowl-qualifying side from a year ago. Those returnees, however, do not include a couple of high-impact performers and NFL draft picks, RB Robert Turbin and LB Bobby Wagner, both drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.

Turbin’s absence is hard to measure after he exploded a year ago when gaining a whopping 1517 YR (plus 6.1 ypc) and a staggering 23 TDs, pacing a Utag infantry that ranked sixth nationally (283 ypg) in rushing. New o.c. Matt Wells (last year's QB coach) is likely to use a RB-by-committee appoach to fill Turbin’s considerable shoes; sr. Kerwynn Williams (left; 542 YR and 6.7 ypc last fall) has the sort of pop that suggests the ground game can continue percolating, but at 184 lbs. there are doubts he can be as durable as the powerfully-built Turbin. An intriguing alternative is 145-lb. true frosh JoJo Natson, a gnat who reminds some in the Cache Valley of former Utag big-play threat Stanley Morrison.

More intrigue heading into fall camp revolves around the QB situation, where Anderson and Wells have a pleasant dilemma involving a pair of capable alternatives, soph Chuckie Keeton (right) and sr. Adam Kennedy, who both performed with plenty of flair a year ago. Keeton, named the starter just prior to the near-upset of Auburn in the opener, was breathtaking on occasion, completing 61% of his throws with 11 TD passes and only 2 picks, plus running for almost 300 yards, before going down with a neck injury in the eighth game at Hawaii. Enter Kennedy, the transfer from San Joaquin Delta JC who promptly led a wild late rally to win at Honolulu, then led wins in the next four games and into the bowl, while completing 69% of his throws, with 11 TD passes and 4 picks. Although Andersen and Wells will wait until fall camp before deciding upon the starter, the Utags look to be in good shape either way.

Wells’ offense will feature much more of the spread than did Baldwin’s ground-oriented theme, although WAC sources believe either Keeton or Kennedy can flourish in the new scheme.

The right side of the offensive line (G Eric Shultz and T Oscar Molinar-Sanchez), plus honors candidate sr. C Tyler Larsen, have combined for 64 career starts and are back in the fold from last year’s effective forward wall that spent spring adjusting to the tweaks Wells is adding with the spread looks. Juco Bill Vavau, from in-state Snow College, could step into the LG spot.

Meanwhile, last year’s leading receiver, 6'2 sr. Matt Austin (left vs. Auburn last September; 34 catches LY), granted an extra 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing all of 2009 with a foot injuury and almost all of 2011 with knee problems, figures to be busier this fall in the spread, while regional insiders alert to the arrival of juco WR Alex Wheat, Jr., a 6'5 big-play threat and nephew of NFL 49ers receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. The Wells offense is also likely to make better use of the tight ends than did Baldwin’s verison; look for sr. Kellen Bartlett, back from an injury-marred 2011, to be more involved in the passing game than were the TEs in the Baldwin version of the offense.

The highlight of the special teams is the return threat provided by RB Williams, who already holds the WAC record for career kick-return yardage. But Andersen will look for more consistency from his kicking game after jr. PK Josh Thompson hit only 6 of 10 FG tries as a soph in 2011.

After handling defensive coordinator duties himself, Andersen turns over the reins this fall to former Hawaii d.c. Dave Aranda, who became available after Greg McMackin’s staff dispersed from Honolulu after last season. Don’t expect much more than a few minor tweaks from Aranda after Andersen’s 3-4 looks delivered the best statistical Utag defensive performance (366 ypg, good for a 50th ranking nationally) since 1998.

Aranda, however, might find it a challenge to fill the shoes of graduated LBs Wagner & Kyle Gallagher, who combined for 247 tackles last season. Aranda is also tasked with coaxing some more difference-making plays out of a stop unit that forced only 15 turnovers all of 2011.

The strength of the platoon likely lies in the secondary that returns three starters, including both corners in sr. Jumanne Robertson & jr. Nevin Lawson. Another senior, FS McKade Brady (right, vs. Wyoming last fall), is the team’s leading returning tackler (86) and will likely assume the on-field leadership role so ably performed by the NFL-bound Wagner a year ago.

Andersen and Aranda believe soph OLB Tavaris McMillian (left, dragging down an Auburn ball carrier last September), who registered 7 ½ tackles for loss a year ago, can emerge into a big-time playmaker; without the graduated Wagner & Gallagher, he’ll have to assume that role ASAP. Another possible impact performer could be RS frosh LB Kyler Fackrell, who opened plenty of eyes in spring and likely starts on the inside, while sr. Bojay Filimoeatu is another potential playmaker on the edge.

The presence of Wagner and Gallagher also helped key a solid rush “D” that only allowed 3.46 ypc 128 ypg in 2011, good for a solid 31st ranking nationally and excellent for a WAC defense, but their absence in the middle of the LB quartet, plus a new NT, might make it difficult to replicate those numbers. Redshirt frosh Travis Seefeldt, a 296-pounder, moves to the nose, and will be get help on the DL from five letterwinners, including returning starter 289-lb. sr. DE Al Lapuaho.

The Utags aren’t going to be challenged in their opener as they were a year ago when traveling to defending national camp Auburn; instead, they’ll host Southern Utah at Romney Stadium. But they’ll face rival Utah (which was off of the schedule last year) in the “Battle of the Brothers” at Logan in a TV special the following Friday, then off to Big Ten champ Wisconsin the next week. Three weeks later, the Utags trek to Provo for the “Wagon Wheel” battle vs. BYU after losing a bitter, last-second decision to the Cougs a year ago. Otherwise, the only game in which we expect the Utags to not be favored will be a likely WAC showdown November 17 at defending league champ La Tech.

USU’s emergence in 2011 also meant it could no longer fly under the pointspread radar as it had often done in previous years. But Andersen’s troops still covered all three of their chances as an underdog last season, and the Utags’ extended dog mark since 2007 remains stellar (25-12).

Last, but certainly not least, note the Aggies' new logo, helmet design, and uniforms (right). We thought the old outfits and logo looked just fine, but as long as they don't replace "Big Blue" as their mascot, we have no problems with the new look.

Summary...Sometimes breakthroughs like the one authored by USU a year ago are false alarms, and that possibility exists in Logan this fall. But considering the many near-misses by the Utags in most of their defeats last season (losses by 4, 1, 3, 7, and 1 in the bowl game), USU was closer to a much-better record than a worse one a year ago. Granted, playmakers Robert Turbin (offense) and Bobby Wagner (defense) could be missed this fall, but the Ags have two very capable established QBs in Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy, and HC Gary Andersen (a respected d.c. at Utah prior to accepting the Logan assignment in 2008) appears to know what he’s doing. There’s only one guaranteed postseason spot (Famous Potato Bowl in Boise) for a WAC team this fall, but we suspect the Ags will again break .500 and find their way into some bowl game (perhaps even a return to Boise for the potato-fest) in December.


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