1. Will a healthy Chuckie Keeton live up to Heisman hopeful hype?
A year ago, the Aggies were headed into a much stronger conference with a rookie head coach. In a preseason filled with lots of questions, the one proven commodity was Chuckie Keeton — a junior quarterback so dynamic that Utah State put together a marketing campaign in an effort to gain the attention of Heisman Trophy voters.
A year later, Utah State is a proven force in the Mountain West Conference – the Aggies won the Mountain Division on their way to a 9-5 campaign — and Matt Wells is the reigning MWC Coach of the Year. However, those accomplishments came USU’s way despite the loss of Keeton on Oct. 4 with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. The Aggies rallied around true freshman Darrell Garretson, who went 6-1 as a starter, to turn a potential lost season into one of the best campaigns in USU history.
“My biggest joy was just being to watch all the guys come out and win, bond together and come out with some big wins,” Keeton said. Completely cleared for action this fall by the USU training staff, Keeton seems ready to take up where he left off in 2013 and was even named the MWC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.
But while Aggie fans are likely to cringe every time the senior sees contact or walks down a flight of stairs, there is also comfort in knowing that Garretson – and the entire program, for that matter – still knows how to win without the aid of their superstar. That said, the hope is that Keeton will be healthy and comfortable on the field come Aug. 31 at Tennessee.
Under his guidance, the Aggies have come painfully close to pulling off epic road victories at Auburn, Wisconsin and USC.
While Keeton’s knee is the No. 1 concern of Aggie fans heading into fall camp, some of those close to the program put the secondary as concern No. 1A.
Most of the notable names from last year’s unit, which ranked 52nd in the nation in passing defense at 224 yards per game, are now trying to make NFL rosters. Standout safety Maurice Alexander and cornerbacks Nevin Lawson, Quinton Byrd and Tay Glover-Wright are all gone, while backups Cameron Sanders and Clayton Christensen also graduated.
That leaves senior free safety Brian Suite, who is on the 2014 Jim Thorpe Award watch list, as the top returning defensive back, and plenty of opportunities for letterwinners Rashard Stewart, Frankie Sutera, Devin Centers and Marquan Blison to solidify a spot in the secondary.
Sophomore corner Daniel Gray, a transfer from Tennessee, will definitely want to be on the field come Aug. 31, while junior college transfer Marwin Evans should battle for playing time at safety.
Considering Keeton’s situation, it would certainly help Wells sleep a little better this fall if he had an O-line full of proven veterans to protect his star quarterback. But most of the big names among the big boys upfront are gone.
Tyler Larsen, who started a school record 52 consecutive games at center, signed a free-agent contract with the Miami Dolphins, while fellow all-MWC selections Jamie Markosian and Eric Schultz also graduated. That leaves Kevin Whimpey as the O-line anchor in 2014, and the 6-5, 295-pound senior left tackle out of Lone Peak High School should be able to handle the task.
Surrounding Whimpey, who has started 26 straight games, are senior center Joe Summers and senior Bryce Walker, who both saw time in 11 games the past two years. Junior guard Taani Fisilau and sophomore tackle Jake Simonich also have significant experience, but the O-line is cleary one place Wells desperately needs some newcomers to emerge.
Sophomore center Austin Stephens and redshirt freshmen guards Tyshon Mosley and Brandon Taukeiaho are a few of the fresh faces and big bodies to keep an eye on.
“We have a young group, and they are a little inexperienced,” Keeton said of USU’s offensive line. “But with that, they’re going to play a little bit harder than guys who might have already been in that spot. So, I’m looking forward to what they’re going to do. I know there’s some hard-working guys, and they’re athletic. So, I think they’re going to fit well with our offense and ultimately help me out.”
Keeton wasn’t the only Aggie offensive weapon rehabbing a knee following an ACL injury partway through last season. Running back Joe Hill lost the final nine games of his junior year after averaging just under five yards a carry through USU’s first five games.
Fortunately for the Aggies, Joey DeMartino ended up busting out at a critical time, racking up 1,221 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground in 2013. But DeMartino and his backup, Robert Marshall (4.4 ypg) were both seniors, leaving a now healthy Hill another shot at the starting spot during his senior season.
With Hill still sidelined for the annual spring game in April, the bulk of the rushing attempts went to sophomore Kennedy Williams (95 yards and one touchdown on 19 carries) and junior Rashad Hall (124 yards on 15 carries), who redshirted last season.
Most of Hall’s yards came on one impressive, 78-yard burst, while Williams has already endeared himself to USU fans by being the younger brother of former fan favorite Kerwynn Williams. Redshirt freshman Karris Johnson, who broke off a 62-yard run during a spring scrimmage, could also be in the mix heading into camp.
But the general feeling is, during the Gary Andersen-Matt Wells era, Utah State has been very successful running the football no matter who (Robert Turbin, Michael Smith, Kerwynn Williams, DeMartino, etc.) has been in the backfield, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue this season, assuming the offensive line comes together.
While the Aggies are extremely strong at linebacker with the return of Kyler Fackrell and Zach and Nick Vigil, the defensive line will face the challenge of replacing nose guard AJ Pataiali’i and defensive ends Paul Piukala and Connor Williams.
Considering how much of USU’s defensive success the past few years has been due to the play of its line, that’s not great news for Aggie fans. Fortunately, defensive end B.J. Larsen, who started 13 games in 2013, is back, along with junior defensive end Jordan Nielsen, who was a second-team all-WAC selection as a freshman in 2012. Junior college transfers John Taylor and Siua Taufa should battle for playing time at defensive end this fall, while junior nose guard Travis Seefeldt and sophomore defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua both saw extensive action last year.
In 2013, the Utah State defense gave up less than 107 yards rushing per game and less than 2.8 yards per carry. Coming anywhere near those numbers again this season would surely leave Wells thrilled.