In cases of significant change, the key to achieving and maintaining success is consistency. When Dave Aranda was hired as Utah State’s defensive coordinator this past January, that was his plan, and three weeks into spring practice that is exactly what he has done.
“We’ve tried to keep it as consistent as we can with as many people coming back as we have,” Aranda said. “I’ve done the majority of the learning, as well as bringing in some of the things I’m used to. I think it’s been a good mix.”
Aranda’s players have noticed the effort he has put into learning their system and style while still teaching the team new things.
“The first week or so he was just learning the defense so he wasn’t as involved in the play-calling. But now he knows more than I do for sure,” said senior safety McKade Brady. “He’s right in there, teaching all of us what to do.”
Aranda has made minimal changes so far this year, with one of the few being the way he runs practice. He has added drills and circuits to the morning routines that have not been there before.
“He’s bringing new techniques that everyone is liking. He’s making us better, deeper as a unit, making us play as one — all 11 of us,” said sophomore linebacker Tavaris McMillian. “There aren’t as many mistakes as last year, and everyone is communicating better.”
Head coach Gary Andersen said he likes the progression he has seen in the defense so far this year.
“Coach Aranda has stepped in and put his own flavor in the defense. It’s important to me to allow coaches to do that,” Andersen said.
Aranda said the main goal of practice right now through preparations for the season-opener against Southern Utah on Aug. 30 is getting the defensive players to come together as one. He is striving to get all 11 men on the same page, working toward the same goals.
"We’ve got playmakers that need to play together as a unit. They need to do the same thing, playing the same way, playing together. That’s the way we’re going to improve the most,” Aranda said. “In the scrimmages so far we’ll have 10 guys playing together and one guy doing something else. Or we’ll have nine guys doing this, and two doing that. If we have 11 guys playing the defense and doing their own job, we’ll come together just fine.”
Andersen said one of the key things Aranda provides as a coach is his ability to connect to student-athletes and get on their level, especially in the way he communicates.
“He is in the 21st century a little bit more than I am, in the ways kids are able to evaluate film and information he gives them,” Andersen said. “Whether it’s on an iPad or laptop or whatever it may be, that’s how they gather information. Coach Aranda is on the cusp of that. I’m an old-school greaseboard kind of guy. They both work, but I think that’s something that has been very positive.”
One of the most noticeable differences in this season’s defensive lineup is the absence of linebackers Bobby Wagner and Kyle Gallagher. The pair dominated the stat sheets in their time at Utah State, totaling 247 tackles between them last year. Now with both players graduated and Wagner expected to be a high pick in this year’s NFL Draft, the remaining defensive players have large shoes to fill.
“The biggest positive I see is the replacement of Bobby and Kyle, two tremendous players. I really think that Tavaris and Jake (Doughty) have done a great job to this point,” Andersen said. “We’re not ready to replace those two, but I am pleased with the progress we’re making.”
For McMillian, the pressure is on. He understands the degree to which he needs to step up and fill the holes that have been made by graduating seniors.
“It’s a big void, those are big shoes to fill,” McMillian said. “Jake and I are working together, we’ll get the job done. We might have a better season. We’re young, we’re faster.”
From now through the start of the season, the team is just working to get better, faster and stronger. Andersen said for the most part, he feels good about each position, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I’m very pleased with the corner play. It’s been very consistent. The outside backer position I feel very good about, and the defensive line scares the hell out of me,” Andersen said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs. We’ll have a reasonably good day, then a day where we take a step back. It’s not a lack of effort, care or ability, just inconsistency.”
Brady said the seniors and other leaders on the team are doing their best to step up and help the younger players. In the meantime, he said he feels good about the direction the team is heading this early in the year.
“There are a lot of young guys who are still learning the defense and getting used to their assignments. People are playing hard, making plays,” Brady said. “The young guys are stepping up, and I think the old guys are trying their best to lead the young guys."
Aranda said he is taking the defense a day at a time.
“We’re getting better every day,” Aranda said. “Every day presents new challenges, so it’s a matter of meeting those challenges and responding to adversity.”
Megan Allen, USU Athletic Media Relations