The mindset of this team hasn’t changed much. We were 11-2 last year and we are looking to build upon it. —Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton
LOGAN — In the Utah State football program, there are plenty of new things to adjust to. There is a new head coach at the helm and a new, more difficult, conference to play in.
But perhaps the biggest thing the Aggies are adjusting to is expectations.
Utah State is no longer a doormat. The team is coming off the best season in school history and will try to prove 2012 was no fluke, while competing in a tougher Mountain West Conference. Fans believe Utah State can be more than competitive and will make the leap to a title contender immediately. The Aggies were picked by the media to finish second behind perennial power Boise State in the MWC’s Mountain Division.
“I think we all understand the outside expectations,” head coach Matt Wells said. “We understand the outside pressures. We understand our internal expectations and internal pressures, which always supersede anything from fans or media or anything else on the outside.”
Wells has high expectations in part because the Aggies return plenty of players from last year’s squad, including 16 starters and 49 lettermen. No piece, however, is bigger than junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton. In his sophomore season, Keaton set school single-season records for touchdown passes (27), all-purpose yards (3,992), completions (275) and completion percentage (67.6). Those efforts have earned Keeton preseason buzz as a Heisman dark horse candidate from publications like Sports Illustrated.
Up front, Keeton will get the benefit of returning his entire offensive line, which garnered three All-WAC honors last year and paved the way for more than 200 rushing yards a game. At the skill positions, on the other hand, there is plenty of turnover. Junior speedster Joe Hill will take over for Kerwynn Williams at running back, hoping to become the next Aggie-turned-professional rusher. Tight end D.J. Tialavea has served as a road-grading blocker but figures to be more involved in the passing game this season. Travis Van Leeuwen, Bruce Natson, Travis Reynolds, Brandon Swindall and Ronald Butler will try to fill the voids left at the wide-out spots.
On defense, new coordinator Todd Orlando is keeping many of the same aggressive tendencies that made the Aggies one of the toughest teams to score against in 2012. Combine those tendencies with a deep and talented group of athletes and the Aggies could be even better than last season's unit that finished seventh in the nation in points allowed.
Sophomore linebacker Kyler Fackrell, a Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American, headlines the defense. As a freshman, Fackrell finished with 87 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions. At middle linebacker, Zach Vigil and Jake Doughty combined for 214 tackles last year, stymying almost every running attack they came across. Cornerback Will Davis is gone from the secondary, but his playmaking ability is expected to be replaced by Nevin Lawson. At safety, Brian Suite and Maurice Alexander can lay the lumber and should make any offensive player think twice about crossing the middle against them.
On paper, the talent level for the Aggies has never been higher, but it still must be proven on the field against a challenging schedule. USU opens the season with four out of five games on the road, including non-conference trips to Utah and USC and the first Mountain West Conference game at Air Force on Sept. 7. The October portion of the calendar looms large as the team will battle for in-state superiority against BYU on the 4th and may decide the fate of the division title at home against Boise State on the 12th.
On the outside, everything seems to be changing, but for the team it is business as usual as Utah State works to prove it is not a one-hit-wonder but a program still on the rise.
“The mindset of this team hasn’t changed much,” Keeton said. “We were 11-2 last year and we are looking to build upon it.”
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.