A lot has changed in the college football landscape since Gary Andersen first took over Utah State’s program 10 years ago.
For starters, teams no longer practice twice a day during fall camp, “which I believe is a positive thing,” Andersen asserted. Additionally, there’s no question USU’s program is in much better shape than it was prior to Andersen’s first fall camp in 2009.
When Andersen was hired as the head coach, the Aggies were coming off a 3-9 campaign — USU’s sixth straight season of three wins or fewer and its 11th consecutive losing record. Fast forward to 2019 and the Aggies are hungry to build off a record-setting 2018 season that matched the most wins in program history with 11.
Not only that, Andersen has much better facilities at his disposal than he did during his first stint in Cache Valley. The ICON Sports Performance Center, which is easily the largest strength and conditioning facility in the Mountain West, wasn’t completed until after Andersen accepted the head coaching position at Wisconsin.
It’s fair to say optimism abounds in Andersen’s first fall camp since being rehired as USU’s head coach.
“You know, 2009, that was a lot of rodeos ago,” Andersen said. “It’s marketably different for myself, for the staff. ... In all of those areas, there’s been huge upgrades in a positive way. ... The Mountain West has really helped us progress as an athletic department as a whole, which puts the kids in a good spot. You know, this is a team that’s expected to come in and play well. They except that, they understand their deficiencies and they except that they’ve made strides in these deficiencies.”
Andersen, star quarterback Jordan Love and other players were on hand for USU’s annual Media Day, which took place Wednesday at the Jim & Carol Laub Athletics-Academics Complex. Fall camp will officially begin with the first of 24 practices Thursday at 2:45 p.m. at the team’s outdoor practice field.
The first eight practices — Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Aug. 5, Aug. 6, Aug. 7, Aug. 8 and Aug. 9 — will all take place from 2:45-5:15 p.m. and will be open to the public. Aggie fans can also catch their team in action on Aug. 17 at 5 p.m. at Maverick Stadium for the annual fall camp scrimmage.
Andersen is expecting a hungry group of players for Thursday’s practice.
“I would say one thing that’s different about this camp, especially from the past, is this will be an extremely competitive camp,” Andersen said. “There’s a lot of kids on this football team that want to strap that starter tag next to their name and are excited to compete, so that will be fun to watch.”
Replicating last year’s success will be a formidable task for an Aggie squad that lost four starters on the offensive line and five of their top six leaders in receptions. Additionally, USU’s challenging preseason schedule is supplemented by a difficult Mountain West schedule that includes road games at defending champion Fresno State, San Diego State and an experienced Air Force team.
Andersen is motivated to help his players traverse these challenges and help the Aggies accomplish new levels of sustained success. USU has made it to a bowl game in seven of the past eight seasons, but has never posted double digit wins in back-to-back years.
“Like I say and I’m going to continue saying it, we don’t have Power 5 next to our name, next to our conference tag, but this is a Power 5 football program as far as the way student-athletes are treated, and that’s highly important to me,” Andersen said.
Many intriguing positional battles will take place during fall camp, but arguably the most important will be contested in the offensive trenches, at the wide receiver spot and in the secondary.
Stellar sophomore tackle Alfred Edwards is the lone returning starter in the offensive trenches, but the Aggies did sign several O-linemen who had Power 5 Conference offers during their past two recruiting classes. Andersen was confident enough is his young O-linemen that he elected not to pursue any junior college transfers at that position in the offseason.
“We walked in here in January and evaluated this group very closely, and looked at the offensive line and felt like that their were some young men who could replace those four starters and put us in a place to win football games,” Andersen said. “So, we put all our chips in, in January in that situation, and they’ve worked hard.”
Andersen went on to say how proud he is of his offensive linemen, but cautioned “we’ll see exactly how far they’ve come” when they square off against a very deep and talented group of Aggie defensive linemen during fall camp. USU was a little shorthanded in the defensive trenches during spring camp, but those players who had nagging injuries and offseason surgeries are healthy now.
Andersen avowed his team has some “very good players” at wide receiver, athletes who have excelled during the offseason. However, most of those players are relatively unproven at the FBS level. Only Jordan Nathan hauled in more than 25 receptions a year ago.
“When you lose 75-plus percent of your production at the wide receiver position, (we need people) to obviously step up and go,” Andersen said. “We’ve added numbers there, we’ve added new faces there and it will be extremely competitive for those spots. ... I believe we’re going to be good there, but what we believe right now, we’ve got to see.”
Depth could be a potential problem in the secondary and Andersen admitted “we don’t have great depth at the corner position.” Ja’Marcus Ingram, who started 15 games at cornerback during his first two seasons at USU, is currently not on the roster. Brian Phillips of 247sports.com reported last weekend Ingram had entered the NCAA transfer portal.
Andersen politely declined to comment on underclassmen who have left the program, and said “we’re just going to talk about the guys we have.”
Although the Aggies lack some depth in the secondary — returning letterwinners Baron Gajkowski and Chance Parker were essentially compelled to retire because of injuries — Andersen is excited about how competitive his defensive backs are.
“There’s going to be a little bit of moving with the chess pieces there to see where those young men fit,” he said. “(But) those kids are all ready to compete.”
Another question mark that will be answered during fall camp is which linebacker will start alongside All-American David Woodward in USU’s 4-2-5 base defense. Kevin Meitzenheimer is currently listed as the other starter, but Andersen suggested he will be challenged by junior college transfers Noah Young and Cash Gilliam, who is also projected to see playing time at safety.
Andersen raved about his team’s special teams units, which is headlined by consensus All-American kickoff returner Savon Scarver, All-American kicker Dominik Eberle and all-conference punt returner Jordan Nathan. The Aggies tied for first among all FBS programs with a trio of kickoff/punt returns for touchdowns a year ago.
“I feel great about the specialists, great about them,” Andersen said. “Like I said, they’ll win us games. I believe that.”
Andersen was asked about hiring Favero, Logan’s former long-time head coach, as an offensive analyst. Favero stepped down in 2015 after leading the Grizzlies to their eighth region and fifth state championship in his 17 seasons at the helm.
“You know, you can only play golf so many days a week, right,” quipped Andersen, whose twin sons Chasen and Hagen played for Favero at Logan. “You’ve got to have something to do, and his wife called me and said, ‘please kick him out of the house.’ But in all honesty, he has a tremendous football knowledge. He doesn’t have an ego; he’s not coming in here with any vision, other than he’s excited to be an analyst and helping coach (Mike) Stanford and the offensive staff out.”
Andersen stressed Favero won’t be coaching at all, “but he can put us in a position to stay ahead of opponents and he can put us in a position to understand our opponents even (better). ... It will be a big positive for us.”
A trio of former Logan High athletes were listed on the two-deep of the most recent depth chart, which doesn’t account for the newcomers who weren’t on the roster during spring camp.
Junior wide receiver Taylor Compton was listed as the starter at the H spot, while senior/graduate student defensive end Jacoby Wildman was listed as a back-up at defensive tackle. Junior Chase Nelson, who made the switch from safety to running back during spring camp, is currently USU’s back-up holder.