What a difference a year makes in the defensive line for Utah State. Heading into the 2012 season, USU’s defensive line was filled with questions and unproven players. However, a year later, that same defensive line returns three starters and seven letterwinners from a group that spearheaded one of the best overall defenses in the nation as USU ranked among the top 15 nationally in five categories, including finishing tied for sixth in sacks (3.23 pg), seventh in scoring defense (15.4 ppg), 13th in rushing defense (113.8 ypg) and 14th in total defense (322.1 ypg). USU also ranked eighth nationally in passing efficiency defense (104.4) and 32nd in passing defense (208.3 ypg).
Utah State does have to replace two letterwinners here from a year ago in defensive end Al Lapuaho, who earned second-team all-WAC honors as a senior as he recorded 35 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, to go along with three sacks, and nose guard Havea Lasike who recorded 13 tackles, including 1.5 for loss in 2012.
Highlighting this group of returners is senior defensive end Connor Williams, who started all 13 games a year ago, and sophomore defensive end Jordan Nielsen. Williams earned honorable mention all-WAC honors in 2012 as he finished the year with 32 tackles, including 7.0 for loss, and a team-leading 6.0 sacks, which ranked fifth in the league. Nielsen earned second-team all-WAC honors a year ago as he led all USU defensive linemen with 35 tackles, to go along with 6.5 tackles for loss, and 5.0 sacks which ranked tied for ninth in the WAC. Nielsen also led the team with two blocked kicks on the season.
Another returning starter along the defensive line for USU is junior nose guard Elvis Kamana-Matagi who started eight games a year ago and finished the season with 2.0 tackles.
Other returners who made solid contributions in 2012 include senior defensive end Paul Piukala, junior defensive lineman B.J. Larsen, junior nose guard A.J. Pataiali’i and sophomore nose guard Travis Seefeldt. Piukala played in 12 games in his first year at USU and recorded 14 tackles, including 1.0 for loss. Larsen and Pataiali’i played in 13 games a year ago as Larsen finished the season with 19 tackles, including 5.0 for loss, to go along with 4.0 sacks and one interception. Pataiali’i ended the year with 24 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, to go along with one sack. Seefeldt also played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman and had 10 tackles to go along with one fumble recovery.
Arguably its most talented position on the field, Utah State returns a plethora of skilled players at linebacker, including three who earned all-WAC honors a year ago in senior Jake Doughty, junior Zach Vigil and sophomore Kyler Fackrell.
Even with all of its returning experience, Utah State does have to replace one starter here in Bojay Filimoeatu who finished the 2012 season with 71 tackles, including a team-leading 9.0 for loss. Filimoeatu also had 5.0 sacks as a senior to go along with one interception and one forced fumble in 13 starts. Another player that will not be back is Cade Cowdin who played in 12 games in his one year at USU and recorded 32 tackles, including 1.0 for loss.
Doughty, who has played in 38 games with 14 career starts at USU, earned first-team all-WAC honors in 2012 as he led the team and ranked second in the WAC with 109 tackles (8.4 pg). Doughty also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss during the year to go along with 1.0 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery.
Vigil earned second-team all-WAC honors as a sophomore as he finished second on the team and fifth in the WAC with 105 tackles (8.1 pg), to go along with a team-leading 9.5 tackles for loss, which ranked tied for sixth in the WAC. Vigil also posted 5.5 sacks in 2012, to rank tied for seventh in the WAC, and added one forced fumble and a blocked kick.
Fackrell earned first-team all-WAC honors in 2012 along with being named a Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American. Fackrell, who is just the fourth USU freshman in school history to earn first-team all-league honors, finished the year fourth on the team and 13th in the WAC in tackles with 87 (6.7 pg), which included 8.0 tackles for loss to rank eighth in the WAC. Fackrell also added 3.0 sacks, three interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one blocked kick on the season.
Another returnee with plenty of experience is junior Tavaris McMillian who has played in 26 games, including eight starts, during his first two years at USU. As a sophomore, McMillian recorded 39 tackles, including 5.0 for loss, to go along with 2.0 sacks.
Two other returning players who will be looking for more playing time in 2013 include sophomores La’Bradford Harold and Michael Okonkwo. Harold played in eight games a year ago and recorded 2.0 tackles, including 1.0 for loss, to go along with one interception. Okonkwo played in 11 games, mostly on special teams, and notched 6.0 tackles, including 1.0 sacks.
In all, Utah State’s returning linebacker core has combined for 48 career starts and 112 career games played.
Utah State also returns a lot of talent and potential in the defensive backfield in 2013 with the return of two starters in senior cornerback Nevin Lawson and junior strong safety Brian Suite.
Despite having two starters returning in the defensive backfield, Utah State must also replace two starters to graduation in free safety McKade Brady and cornerback Will Davis. Brady, who played in 37 games with 26 starts during his three year USU career, concluded the 2012 season third on the team and ninth in the WAC with 93 tackles (7.8 pg), earning second-team all-league honors. Davis, who played in 26 games with 18 starts during his two-year Aggie career, was named a third-team All-American by CBSSports.com and earned first-team all-WAC honors as a senior as he ranked tied for second in the nation in passes defended with 22 (1.69 pg) and tied for 17th nationally with five interceptions (0.38 pg). Davis also had 64 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, during the season.
Utah State also graduated two other players who saw playing time in the defensive backfield in Terrence Alston and Jumanne Robertson as Alston had 30 tackles and eight pass breakups a year ago, while Robertson recorded 8.0 tackles and three pass breakups.
Lawson is easily Utah State’s most experienced returning cornerback having played in 35 games with 28 starts, including each of the last 26. As a junior, Lawson recorded 63 tackles, including 4.0 for loss, to go along with 2.0 sacks, 10 pass breakups and one forced fumble.
Suite started all 13 games a year ago at strong safety and finished fifth on the team with 73 tackles to go along with six pass breakups and one interception.
Along with the return of Lawson and Suite, Utah State returns six other players with experience here in senior safeties Maurice Alexander, Clayton Christensen and Camerson Sanders, senior cornerback Tay Glover-Wright, and junior safeties Rashard Stewart and Frankie Sutera.
Alexander, who did not play in 2012, ranked seventh on the 2011 team with 45 tackles, including 7.0 loss, to go along with 3.0 sacks. Christensen played in 12 games, mostly on special teams, during his first year at USU and finished the 2012 season with 8.0 tackles including scoring a touchdown on a blocked punt by Vigil against Utah. Sanders played in nine games a year ago and had 12 tackles to go along with one fumble recovery. Glover-Wright played in all 13 games in his first year at USU on offense and defense, and recorded 17 tackles to go along with a blocked punt. Stewart played in 12 games a year ago and had 9.0 tackles, while Sutera played in all 13 and finished with 17 tackles, including 1.0 sacks.
Doug Hoffman is the assistant athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.