The third year of the Chuck Shelton era begins this week amid much optimism - perhaps even more than is due the Aggie program.

After all, Shelton has yet to produce a winning season, although the Aggies came awfully close last year with a 5-6 record, including five wins in their last six games.It was the Aggies' strong finish, plus the return of the majority of the offensive stars that caused more than one publication to pick the Aggies as the team to beat in the newly-named Big West Conference. On Big West media day, the Ags were picked for second by the slimmest of margins behind Fresno State in both the coaches and media polls.

"We're a better football team both offensively and defensively than last year," said Shelton. "Whether that will translate into victories on the field, I don't know."

The Aggies may not know how good they arefor a little while, since they open the season Saturday against Nebraska, which just happens to be the No. 2 team in the country, and follow with a game against much-improved Missouri.

While the offense, which just two years ago was ranked dead last in the country, should be explosive again this year, there are still some serious question marks on defense.

Shelton's biggest concern is with the defensive backfield which lost seven lettermen from last year. That leaves this year's secondary with mostly freshmen and sophomores (nine of the 11 players).

Sophomore Travis Clark, who started some games last year, is the only player with any experience in the backfield. The two starting cornerbacks are converted offensive players - sophomore Scott Munson was a tailback last year, while redshirt freshman Dexter Pointer used to be a receiver. The other projected starter in the secondary, strong safety Toby Tyler, is another converted runner.

"We have a talented, spirited, hard-working bunch - we just don't have that game experience," said defensive coordinator Fred Bleil of his backfield.

Two starting linebackers from a year ago are back - Kevin Bouwman, a walk-on from Alta, who ended up starting the majority of last year's games and Tom Hansen, who also started much of the season. Hansen twisted an ankle and could miss the opener, but should be back to full strength for the league season. The other linebacker should be Scott Sbranti, who was a projected starter a year ago before getting injured. Steve Davis will also play a lot at linebacker.

The defensive line will be anchored by the hometown Hunsaker brothers, assuming they can stay healthy. Brian, the senior, was hobbled by a knee injury last year and missed all of spring drills after surgery. Aggie coaches feel he could be one of the top defensive linemen ever at USU, if he can avoid injuries. And his brother Jeff is from the same mold.

Joining the Hunsakers on the line will be Robert VanDePol at nose guard and Todd Thornton at end. Drew McCandless, Tim Rath and Aaron Hill should also see a lot of playing time.

"I think by the third or fourth week, our defense will be very good," said Shelton.

The offense should be very good right from the start.

Leading the way is senior quarterback Brent Snyder, who broke Aggie single-season passing marks in his first year and receivers Kendal Smith and Patrick Newman, of whom Shelton says, "There may not be a better pair of receivers in the country."

Snyder will have adequate backup help in Russ Widerburg, redshirt freshman Kirk Johnson and transfer Kevin White, but the receiving corps is thin. The Aggies can count just five total receivers, the other three being freshmen Rod Moore, Tracey Jenkins and Olun Graves. Widerburg has even been working out at receiver just in case.

"When you have only five receivers to run a practice, it makes it difficult," said Shelton. "But I'll tell you, the ones we have are purebreads."

The Ags lost tight end Petey Maiden, but JC transfer Keith Roberson and redshirt Ryan Duve have been impressive.

Running the ball has been a forgotten offensive tool under offensive coordinator Brian Billick. But this year, the Aggies aim to have a more balanced attack with several returning runners.

Heading the list is tailback Brett Payne, the Bear River product who transferred from Air Force. Payne was the top rusher a year ago with over 400 yards and he also caught 26 passes. Demetrious Brown, who started as a freshman two years ago, is pushing Payne at the tailback spot.

Timo Tagaloa, who has started off and on since his freshman season, yet has never lived up to his potential, is the fullback. He didn't go back to his native New Zealand this summer and feels more ready to break out this year.

The offensive line is one of the team's strengths with returning starters Sid Roberts at center and guards Jerry Brown and David Walker. The tackles will be Dan Hill and Shannon White. The experience of the line should help Snyder from running for his life and throwing passes while falling to the ground.

Louis Aguiar is back to handle punting chores, but the Aggies will be without reliable kicker Dene Garner, who has been a field-goal threat from 55 yards and in the last three years. Right now Dixie College transfer (and former Murray product) Russ Moody looks to be the placekicker, but freshman Sean Jones of Taylorsville is pushing him.

With two-a-days out of the way, the Aggies are polishing up this week, preparing for Nebraska.

`I'm satisfied - we've done everything we can accomplish in our two-a-days, said Shelton. "We've come out of them relatively healthy. I feel good about our physical health, but we need to continue to mature."

After getting their annual Big Eight schedule out of the way (last year they played Nebraska, the year before, Missouri and Kansas), the Aggies get their annual bye week to recover before opening at home with New Mexico State Sept. 24. The next week is their annual Friday night game with BYU (well, they did play last year on the Friday night before Conference).

The Ags could very well be 1-3 when September is over, thanks to the three road games against tough competition. But they could also very well win every game on the rest of their schedule with six Big West games and a home game against Utah. That would give the Aggies their first Aggie winning season since 1980 and their first bowl game in more than two decades since the winner of the Big West gets an invite to the California Bowl.