Utah State's second season in the Mountain West Conference begins in 183 days as the Aggies travel to Neyland Stadium to face Tennessee of the SEC. Even though spring camp opens on March 3, it's still way too early to do any sort of position-by-position breakdown.
We're doing it anyway. After all, is it ever really too early to talk college football?
Utah State is the state's program on the rise, and there's plenty of reasons for optimism headed into 2014. Chuckie Keeton should be healthy before the start of the 2014 season, and USU's defense looks as solid as ever. Utah State could very well be the favorite to win the Mountain West in 2014.
Here's Utah State's way-too-early position-by-position breakdown.
Lafe Peavler is a sports writer for the Deseret News. Follow him on Twitter @LafePeavler
First and foremost, Utah State fans can rejoice in the fact that Chuckie Keeton will be back this season. While he's not yet cleared to play in spring camp, he will be ready before the season begins. The simple fact that Keeton's returning gives this Utah State squad plenty of hope for a conference championship in 2014.
But not everyone returns on offense for the Aggies. Notably, the offensive line lost four starters, including center Tyler Larsen. USU's top priority on offense this offseason should be to sure up and gel the new offensive line, particularly with a quarterback like Keeton under center.
Utah State can feel pretty good about its quality and depth at quarterback.
Star quarterback Chuckie Keeton had 1,388 yards passing, 241 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns before his season ended abruptly against BYU. Subtracting what little he did against the Cougars, he was on pace for 3,813 yards passing, 627 yards rushing and 53 total touchdowns. Little wonder some thought that Utah State's season was over after Keeton was sidelined for the season with a knee injury.
But the Aggies were deeper at quarterback than many thought.
Then-freshman Darell Garretson did an admirable job of taking the Aggies to a division title with Keeton injured. While he wasn't perfect (his 43 yards passing and no touchdowns against Colorado State comes readily to mind), he still finished 2013 with 1,446 yards and 10 touchdowns. He'll probably return to his backup role once Keeton returns, but his time will come.
Both of Utah State's top rushers from last season, Joey DeMartino and Robert Marshall, are gone. Joe Hill is still recovering from tearing his ACL and won't be participating in spring camp, although he's expected to be cleared in time for the fall. Hill is a promising back with 252 yards rushing and a touchdown before his unfortunate injury. He was even named to the Doak Walker Award watch list last July.
Utah State will need its young talent to step up. True sophomore Kennedy Williams will get more chances to prove himself this season after walking on and even getting some playing time last season. The Aggies also have some decent recruiting coming into Logan, including three-star recruit Justen Hervey. He could see some playing time this season given Utah State's immediate needs.
The Aggies lose Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen to graduation, so it's up to Bruce "Jojo" Natson to step up and lead this season. Natson made an impact as an explosive punt returner as he had 351 yards and two touchdowns last season. While he's undersized at 5-7, has terrific speed and reliable hands.
There's plenty of other wide receivers who have been around the program awhile, such as senior Ronald Butler and junior Brandon Swindall. Both will need to step up with Reynolds and Van Leeuwen gone.
The Aggies have some solid depth at tight end. Wyatt Houston got some playing time as a freshman last season after D.J. Tialavea was sidelined due to injury. He finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns despite not recording a stat in the first seven games of 2013. Keegan Andersen also returns as a senior after making 14 catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns last season.
The Aggies also brought in Snow College transfer Landon Horne, who had 406 yards and five touchdowns last season. Two recruits, Joe Tukuafu and Derek Hastings, will both serve missions before playing ball at Utah State. However, the Aggies appear to be in good shape at tight end.
Second team All-American center Tyler Larsen just had a solid performance at the NFL Combine, but unfortunately it means that he won't be back in 2014. In fact, Utah State has to replace four starters on the offensive line headed into the 2014 season. Kevin Whimpey is the only returning starter at left tackle. This line will need to gel quickly in order to maintain the Aggies' momentum headed into this season. All Utah State needs to do to see what happens when that doesn't happen is look at what's happened over the past couple of seasons at BYU.
Senior Joe Summers will likely start this season at center, and it won't be easy to replace such an exceptional player as Larsen. However, the Aggies will likely look to junior Logan Malohifo'ou, senior and Snow College transfer Bill Vavau, Taani Fisilau and Jake Simonich to step up and fill the massive void left by last year's seniors.
It's true that Utah State has lost a ton of NFL-level talent, such as Nevin Lawson and Maurice Alexander. However, there's plenty of fantastic players remaining from last year's staunch defense.
The front seven returns four starters, but this defensive front looks as intimidating as ever. And while the secondary returns just one starter, Brian Suite certainly turned some heads after his fantastic performance against NIU at the Poinsettia Bowl. Solid defense has become a trademark at USU over the past few seasons, and 2014 should be no different.
USU returns defensive ends Jordan Neilsen and second team All-MWC B.J. Larsen. Both defensive ends combined for 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Nose tackle AJ Pataiali'i doesn't return, so Elvis Kamana-Matagi will likely step up after picking up 14 tackles last season. Plus USU recruited a small army of defensive linemen with six new recruits, including junior college transfers Edmund Faimalo, John Taylor and Siua Taufa. Two freshman recruits will serve missions, but the fact that the Aggies brought in three junior college transfers should tell you how important the defensive line is to the coaching staff headed into 2014.
Even though first team All-MWC linebacker Jake Doughty is gone to the NFL, the Aggies are still plenty deep at this position. They return second-team All-MWC linebackers Zach Vigil and Kyler Fackrell. Vigil is a monster linebacker with 124 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and an interception. Fackrell is another solid linebacker with 82 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception returned 99 yards for a touchdown.
Zach Vigil's younger brother, Nick, is no slouch either. He finished his redshirt freshman season with 57 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks and an interception. The Aggies will also look to Michael Okonkwo and Tavaris McMillian to step up their game. USU also brings in junior college transfer Sunia Tauteoli and three incoming freshmen. Even with Doughty gone, the Aggie linebacker core is as solid as ever.
Utah State loses both starting corners Nevin Lawsen and Tay Glover-Wright. Rashard Stewart is a likely starter as he had 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks and two passes broken up last season. USU brought in junior college transfer Deshane Hines to help out at this position, and he'll be competing with Ladale Jackson and Jeremy Morris for the starting position. Utah State still has some figuring out to do at this position between now and August.
Maurice Alexander is trying to break into the NFL draft, but the Aggies return Brian Suite at strong safety. Suite was the defensive MVP at the Poinsettia Bowl in USU's upset of Northern Illinois. His 11 tackles, interception and fumble recovery earned him a place on CBS and Sports Illustrated's all-bowl teams. As the lone starter returning in the secondary, he'll need to be the leader of this new group.
Frankie Sutera will likely replace Alexander at free safety. The Aggies also add three incoming freshmen to help add some depth at this position.