Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
From left, Daryl Fields and defensive coordinator Mark Johnson of Utah State start an impromptu wrestling match during media day Aug. 5.

LOGAN — There's something strange on the wall in the shiny new football meeting rooms on the north end of Romney Stadium.

No, it's not a portrait of Merlin Olsen, MacArthur Lane or even Chris Cooley.

It's a three-deep roster — something current Utah State coach Brent Guy hasn't had the luxury of creating since he arrived in Logan three seasons ago.

"We actually have real competition for positions," Guy said. "We didn't have that a couple of years ago. It took so long for us to add players we sometimes had guys that weren't pushed. They didn't have to work to get playing time."

Now, Guy said, the Aggies are finally to the point here his fourth recruiting class is in place and no one can take playing time for granted.

"It's going to be pretty tough to narrow it down to the 64-man travel team," he said. "That's kind of nice."

The newfound depth came at a cost, though. While Guy and the Aggies were redshirting 28 freshmen last year, they struggled and lost the first 10 games of the season.

And while USU did wrap up the 2007 season with wins over Idaho and New Mexico State, the Aggies are far from a team on the cusp of greatness. In fact, Sports Illustrated gave Utah State the dubious preseason honor of being ranked as the worst football team in the country.

"When we see stuff like that," senior safety Caleb Taylor said, "we want to prove everybody wrong. We know we're a better football team than we were last year. We know we're not the worst team in the country."

And yet, despite beating two WAC schools on the road to end the year and returning 17 starters, the Aggies were also picked by the WAC coaches and media to finish at the bottom of the conference.

To avoid those bottom-feeding predictions, Utah State will have to show improvement on a variety of fronts.

It's a little hard to pinpoint exactly where to start, but the Aggie offense ranked 115th in the NCAA last year with just 277.92 yards per game. With only 153 yards of passing per game, USU ranked 116th. The 124.9 rushing yards per contest was good enough for 94th in the country.

Clearly, Utah State could use a few more yards and a few more points — the 20.6 per game was 101st.

"We're going to be more aggressive on offense," Darrel Dickey, USU's second-year offensive coordinator, said. "We know we're going to have to open things up a little more. This year, I think we have the personnel to do that."

That will likely to music to the ears of many USU fans who saw the Aggies run 471 rushing plays for an average of only 3.2 yards per carry. The Ags, on the other hand, attempted only 272 passes, many of which were short patterns.

On defense, the Aggies often found themselves in a bad position because of the offense's inability to move the ball.

Allowing 450.3 yards per game, USU was ranked 106th. Giving up 33.8 points per game, the Aggies were 101st.

Opponents ran 126 more plays than Utah State and held the ball for almost two and a half minutes more per game.

The depth and experience, though, has USU thinking some improvement is on the horizon.

"Our defensive line is bigger and stronger than we've ever had it here," Guy said. "We're moving people around to different positions because we finally have the numbers to let people play where they are best suited."

Most importantly, Guy said, the Aggies are practicing with more energy and enthusiasm than they have since he arrived prior to the 2005 season.

"I think we have more competitive practice than we've ever had," Guy said. "That's the biggest thing that I see."

With Sean Setzer the starting quarterback and talented redshirt freshmen pushing veteran running backs for carries, Guy said he's hopeful the offense will advance to the point where it can finish drives and games.

The Aggies held fourth-quarter leads in six games last year. The first four of those games, though, ended with blown leads and losses. Holding onto leads at Idaho and then New Mexico State, however, were signs of a maturing group of young football players according to the coaches.

"What we did at the end of the season," Guy said, "shows we've made a lot of progress. Those were team wins. We had players show they wanted to do whatever it took as a team to get a win. We could have just given up. But they didn't. They fought hard in those last two games."

It leaves Guy with a belief that the new depth chart will translate into a deeper win total.


E-mail: jeborn@desnews.com