After an offseason full of change, Utah State football finally laces up the cleats and begins fall camp on Friday afternoon. Gone is former head coach Gary Andersen and gone is the affiliation with the Western Athletic Conference.
New head coach Matt Wells will now lead the charge as the Aggies try to duplicate the magic from last season that led to an 11-2 record and Top 20 end-of-season ranking, all while trying to do it against a difficult Mountain West schedule. The Aggies will have expectations to meet, having been picked second in the Mountain division behind Boise State in their inaugural year, and receiving votes in the USA Today Top 25 coaches poll preseason for the first time in school history.
Here are five storylines to watch at fall camp in Logan:
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.
When Andersen jumped at the chance to move to Wisconsin, Wells became the obvious successor and was named the new head coach just days later. Wells, a former Utah State quarterback, is a young enthusiastic coach who excelled in two years as an assistant under Andersen. Now as the head coach, Wells gets a chance to put his own personal stamp on his alma mater.
“Players make plays and players win games,” Wells said about replacing Andersen, “50,000 people don’t come to a game to see nine coaches and a head coach run up and down the sidelines.”
With new coaches at both offensive and defensive coordinator, the Aggies will be on their third different coordinator on both sides of the ball in three years, but with the staff Wells has hired, he doesn’t expect the change to be a difficult one for players to adapt to.
“Internally it hasn’t been that big of a difference. The base nuts and bolts of what we’ve done hasn’t changed much. The verbage and X’s and O’s are the same,” Wells said.
Quarterback Chuckie Keeton will be looking to integrate some new faces during fall camp as the junior lost his top five receivers from last year’s squad. Brandon Swindall and Jojo Natson looked sharp in spring ball, but it will be a wide-open battle for the starting spots throughout fall camp.
“We are looking for consistent play and for players to define a role for themselves,” Wells said of his wideouts. “I think we will end up playing quite a few, and it will be a little bit by committee. I like the talent there, though. I feel better about it all the time.”
Natson, Travis Van Leeuwen and Travis Reynolds are listed at the top of the depth chart to start spring camp, but that should be taken with a grain of salt. Swindall and junior college transfer Ronald Butler are among the several wideouts that will look to earn their playing time during camp.
In the last two years, USU has sent three running backs to the pros in Robert Turbin, Michael Smith and Kerwynn Williams. Many people in the program think that junior running back Joe Hill will be the next in the line of great Aggie RBs.
“I have a lot of confidence in that guy,” center Tyler Larsen said of Hill. “He is one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. I’m excited to block for him.”
Hill toted the ball just 43 times in 2012, but made the most of his touches, finishing with 269 yards rushing and seven touchdowns while adding another 10 catches for 183 yards and two more scores. With the entire offensive line returning in front of him, Hill is expected to have a big year and was named as one of the preseason candidates for the 2013 Doak Walker Award, an honor given to the nation’s top running back.
One of the keys to last season’s defensive success was cornerback Will Davis’ ability to lock down top receivers and create turnovers. Davis collected interceptions in five straight games to end the season and led the country with almost two pass breakups per game.
The Aggies face some of the country’s best wide receivers in the country this season in USC’s Marquis Lee, BYU’s Cody Hoffman and San Jose State’s Noel Grisby among others. Wells will be leaning on senior starter Nevin Lawson to lock down those number one receivers.
“I definetly think I could play as good as Willie Davis,” Lawson said. “We have different playing styles, but at the end of the day my goal is to make sure I do what I have to do for our team to be successful.”
Safety Maurice Alexander comes back to the team after being dismissed prior to 2012 and is popular pick among the team to become a new playmaker. A former linebacker, Alexander hits like a truck in the secondary and will make receivers think twice about coming across the middle.
While Keeton, Williams and the rest of the Aggie offense provided the highlights last season, it was the defense that was the backbone of the 2012 Aggies. New defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will lean on a deep and talented linebacker group headlined by freshman All-American Kyler Fackrell and tackling machines Jake Doughty and Zach Vigil in the middle to try and replicate that performance.
“I’ve been going up against them for five years and I’m still in awe with some of the things they do,” Larsen said. “Whatever they are doing, I hope they keep it up, because it has been great for us.”
If the defense can find replacements for standouts like defensive lineman Al Lapuaho, linebacker Bojay Filimouateu and cornerback Will Davis, it expects to be able to repeat the defense's excellent performance from last year.