Keith Johnson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY —
Year two of the Gary Andersen era at Utah State is supposed to be a big one.
The Aggies have a load of experienced players coming back from a team that finished 4-8 and had all sorts of momentum and confidence heading into the offseason.
Then Robert Turbin blew out his ACL and the dark clouds had gathered over Logan — again.
But Andersen, an optimist if ever there was one, has managed to find a silver lining within those storm clouds.
"I hate to speak of it in those terms," Andersen said when asked Monday morning during the WAC Football Preview about Turbin's injury, "but the timing of it could have been worse, I guess."
As devastating as Turbin's injury was to Utah State's plans, the setback opened doors to the development of other players.
Turning to Plan B, Andersen said, was better as a pre-spring requirement than to have had to deal with the situation after the monthlong practices.
Practicing, game-planning and preparing for life without Turbin took a huge leap forward and, Andersen said, will allow the Aggies to make the transition more easily.
Players such as quarterback Diondre Borel and running backs Michael Smith and Dervynn Speight were more of a focal point on offense, and though the Aggies will certainly miss Turbin, USU will survive.
The Aggies, Andersen said, are slowly but surely becoming a team able to survive the loss of a star player or two.
Perhaps most importantly, Andersen's players agree.
"We're becoming more of a family," said Borel, a senior and entering his third year as a starter. "We're holding everybody more accountable. ... Everybody is trying to lead and make sure everybody is on the right path."
For the Aggies, that path will become a little less crowded.
Boise State, the kingpin of the Western Athletic Conference, is headed for the Mountain West following this coming season. In their wake, the Broncos leave a door wide open for another team to step in and establish itself as the new WAC power.
Andersen — just like every other coach in the conference — sees no reason why his team can't be that team.
"We have to take strides to catch the top two or three teams in this league," Andersen said. "The only way to do that is to play better football."
Last year, the Aggies indeed played better on offense — setting records for yards and points scored. It was defense, though, where USU struggled. Often playing undersized players at key positions, Utah State simply could not stop the larger, more experienced teams the Ags lined up against.
A second offseason — even with the injuries — has seen USU bring in bigger and faster players while a conditioning program has transformed those in the program as well.
At the WAC meetings, the conference coaches talked about the depth of the league and the need for a team or two to climb to the level of Boise State. Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii were mentioned by many, but so was Utah State.
The improvement and attitude change in Logan shown during Andersen's first season made impressions around the league.
Andersen said he, too, is learning what it takes to turn a program into a winner. After being an assistant coach for numerous years, he said he thought he knew the formula. The viewpoint of a head coach, however, has broadened that vision.
"We can learn a lot from how a team prepares for a game," he said, citing Boise State as the example. "They prepare at a different pace, and that is something we want to do as well."
Another way Andersen would like to emulate the Broncos is to sell a lot of tickets. With USU basketball and the Spectrum as his prime example, Andersen said his goal is to turn football games into a must-attend experience.
"We've got to have a winning football team," he said. "If we have a winning football program we'll have a packed stadium."
And even with Turbin sidelined for possibly the entire season, the Aggies are making those adjustments.
"That opportunity will present itself if we win," he said. "If we can get that (Spectrum environment) in football it will be a tremendous homefield advantage. We will pack it, I truly believe that, and it will be a very intimidating place."
The process has been spelled out. Andersen said the team has bought in.
Now, there is one thing left to do.
"Our goal is simple," Andersen said. "It's to get better."
As that happens, Andersen believes, Utah State can step right in to the hole Boise State is leaving.
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