Utah State's defensive line faces a challenging task in 2014: trying to help the Aggies' defense improve upon last year's performance against the run.
In 2013, Utah State gave up 106.79 yards rushing per game, eighth-best in the country. It's even more impressive when broken down on a per-carry average, as the Aggies allowed opponents to average just 2.79 yards per carry, second nationally.
Now, Utah State must try to duplicate or exceed these numbers with a defensive line that returns just one starter. There will be other key upperclassmen and a trio of junior college transfers joining the mix in 2014.
Senior defensive end B.J. Larsen (6-foot-5, 275 pounds) comes back as the Aggies' lone returning starter on the defensive line. He takes on the leadership role after a solid 2013 season in which Larsen started 13 games, had 31 tackles and was third on the team in sacks with four. Larsen was named to the preseason all-Mountain West first team.
Another experienced veteran is junior defensive end Jordan Nielsen (6-5, 270). He was a second team all-WAC selection as a freshman in 2012 and followed that up by playing in all 14 games last year; Nielsen also is the defensive line’s leading returning tackler, registering 35 last year. Senior nose guard Elvis Kamana-Matagi (6-2, 298) is a top candidate to start in the middle for Utah State; he played all 14 games in 2013 and started in eight the year before.
Other key returnees include junior nose guard Travis Seefeldt (6-2, 302), sophomore defensive end Ricky Ali'ifua (6-3, 275) and redshirt freshman defensive end Clark Jeppesen (6-4, 252). Ali'ifua had 24 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as a freshman last year.
With defensive line depth a concern, the Aggies brought in three junior college transfers in the 2014 recruiting class. All three new defensive ends are listed on the team's preseason two-deep. Two of them — Edmund Faimalo (6-3, 290) and John Taylor (6-2, 270) — will start their Utah State careers as juniors, while Siua Taufa (6-1, 260) will be a sophomore.
Coach Matt Wells compared Faimalo to former Aggie Al Lapuaho, who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, when announcing the Aggies' 2014 recruiting class. Faimalo had 27 tackles for Riverside Community College while earning California Community College Athletic Association first-team all-state honors last season; he played at Sacramento State as a freshman.
Taylor, who also received a scholarship offer from fellow MWC school New Mexico, played with Faimalo at Riverside. He led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks and added two fumble recoveries.
Taufa, who enrolled at Utah State in the spring semester, comes to the Aggies after a strong freshman campaign at Diablo Valley Community College. He proved disruptive with 62 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, one interception and a forced fumble.
Only one of Utah State's three defensive line 2014 high school signees — nose guard Gasetoto Schuster (6-1, 280) — will be on the team this season.
Seefeldt could earn the chance to take over the nose guard starting position. He showed play-making abilities in backup duty last year, with nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Seefeldt also has game experience to build on, even if he hasn't started: Seefeldt's played in 25 games the past two seasons.
While there are unknowns along the defensive line for the Aggies in 2014, there is hope that the returning veterans and newcomers can help fill the gaps around Larsen. Depth will need to be developed during fall camp, and the integration of the three JC transfers will be a main storyline to follow as the Aggies prepare for the season opener against Tennessee.
Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @brandonljudd