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Utah State football: Utahns and RMs fuel Aggie football success

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 2:34 a.m. MDT

Utah State Aggies defensive end B.J. Larsen (99) taunts the cord after getting called for a tackle after he lost his helmet during NCAA football in Salt Lake City  Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Utah won 30-26.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah State Aggies defensive end B.J. Larsen (99) taunts the cord after getting called for a tackle after he lost his helmet during NCAA football in Salt Lake City Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Utah won 30-26. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

LOGAN — Back when Brent Guy was the head coach at Utah State, the Aggies weren’t very good. During Guy’s four years, USU went a combined 10-38, never winning more than three games in a season.

Guy’s teams also weren’t big on Utah players — USU had just 20 on his final team in 2008 — or returned LDS missionaries — there were just six on the roster that season.

Fast forward five years, and the Aggies are suddenly a good team, the best the Aggies have been in a half-century, with more wins last season (11) than in Guy’s five years combined. And, guess what? The team is chock-full of Utah players and returned missionaries.

More than half of the players on this year’s roster are from Utah (59 of 112) and 24 have served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than the total number of Utahns that used to be on Guy’s roster. That's three times as many Utahns and four times as many returned missionaries.

While the increase in Utahns and RMs isn’t the whole reason for the Aggies’ resurgence over the last five years, it is one of the big factors, according to first-year coach Matt Wells, who gives the credit to former coach Gary Andersen.

“It’s a philosophy Gary started here five years ago and to me it’s the bedrock for the foundation of this football program,’’ he said. “First and foremost is recruiting Utah kids. Second is the returned missionary program. And third, the Polynesian pipeline — whether it’s in-state or out of state.’’

The Aggie program has surpassed the University of Utah (49) and BYU (42) in the number of Utah players and nearly has as many returned missionaries as Utah (27). Wells is big on the idea of having returned missionaries in his program.

“Those guys come in a little older and it gives your program some maturity as they continue to develop physically,’’ he said. “It has been a big part of this program and will continue to be so.’’

Already the Aggies are hearing the same old grumbles BYU and Utah have heard for years about the unfair advantage of having older returned missionaries on their team. Before his game against Utah State last week, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun complained about the advantage Utah State had with returned missionaries on its roster.

“Up front they have some guys that are 24-year-olds,’’ he said. “They have the advantage of being about to utilize the two- and three-year redshirt program, where you redshirt a year and depart for two years and you never burn any eligibility in two to three years.’’

At least that gave Calhoun a good excuse for losing by 32 points last Saturday.

Some folks might believe the Aggies are getting more leftovers among Utah prep players who aren’t being recruited by Utah now that it is in the Pac-12 or BYU as it has upgraded its program. But Wells feels his school is holding its own and getting more of Utah's better players as the Aggie program has grown. And the fact that the Aggies are playing the Utes and Cougars pretty even these days, bears that out.

“The success that our program has had allows us to get into more living rooms and to be viewed differently by in-state kids,’’ Wells said. “They understand what we believe in, our core values and that our plan to win up here is solid. We’re working hard, winning games and we’re doing it with in-state Utah players, with missionaries and with Polynesian players.’’

As for continuing to recruit in-state talent and potential missionaries, Wells says “absolutely” that will continue “as long as I’m the head coach.’’

So are all those 2-10 and 3-8 seasons of the past just a distant memory?

“Kids nowadays recognize recent success,’’ said Wells. “They see where are you’re at and where are you going, not so much where you’ve been. Right now we’re in the Mountain West Conference, have had a conference championship, back-to-back bowl games, an 11-win season and a top-25 ranking. It’s where you’re at right now and where you’re headed. For us that’s an advantage.’’

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company