Depth and experience to flaunt.

In the past, that was an Aggie dream that would never come true, but as Utah State gears up for spring football practice that starts at 1:30 p.m. today and goes through May 4, it's reality. With 45 lettermen and 16 of 22 starters back from a 5-5-1 club, USU's best-ever in Big West play, plus a hot recruiting class, sixth-year Coach Chuck Shelton is beaming. "It will just absolutely be the most competitve spring that we've ever been involved in," he says.The depth is so good Shelton foresees battles between incoming players and incumbents for some starting jobs.

He even has some proven players in the areas hit by graduation - namely at defensive back, where Atu Fihaki and Scott Munson graduate but Ron Edwards, Toby Tyler and Damon Smith remain, and at linebacker, where Kevin Bouwman, Tom Hansen and Piliki Tauteoli move on but Del Lyles, Stephen Robinson, Matt Martinez and Jermaine Younger still stand.

Stabilizing the secondary, establishing depth at linebacker and "getting the junior college kids into the mix early" are Shelton's spring priorities.

The trouble spot could be at quarterback. Ron Lopez (1,961 yards passing in half a season) is the starter, but former starter/backup Kirk Johnson moves to tight end and current No. 2 Lex Stoehr has back problems that could limit his snaps. Junior-college transfer Greg Angelovic (Orange Coast College) may get thrown into the fray quickly, but he's considered a possible "impact" player. "We might be hard-pressed to feel comfortable," Shelton admits about his spring QB situation.

The tight end will be new (Kevin Rice and Blake Nichols are listed 1-2 to replace Ryan Duve and Monte Ahlemeyer), but the backfield and other receivers all return with depth to burn and several highly touted newcomers challenging.

Running back Roger Grant, No. 2 among the NCAA's top returning rushers at 124.55 yards a game and 1,370 yards total, will miss spring practice because of shoulder surgery but should be ready in the fall. "It's not ideal that Grant will miss spring, but it will give us a chance to give new runners more work," says Shelton, who has stackups at both running back and fullback (returnees Floyd Foreman, Rick Woodford, Sean Hampton, Jim Ray and Paul Trette and recruits Robby Clemons, Kelvin Poindexter, Chad Tigert and Abu Wilson).

At wide receiver, returnees include Rod Moore, Tracey Jenkins and Dexter Pointer, and returning line starters include Ed Silva, Mike Vivoli, Warren Bowere, Charlie Smith and Jaceson Maughan on offense and Rob VanDePol, Mark Johnson and Steve Neeleman on defense. Both kickers are back from first-team all-Big West seasons, punter Rusty Carlsen and placekicker Doug Beach.

"We have four athletes who play the game at another level - Grant, Jenkins, Silva and Carlsen," Shelton says.

He may have some other-level candidates in his recruiting class, which could be his best, and which is mostly already on campus and ready to participate in drills. "We have so much of our team with us now," Shelton notes. "That will really give us a leg up in our preparations for two-a-days in August."