LOGAN — Is the Aggie renaissance over?
After winning 10 games in 2014, Utah State has won just nine contests over the last two seasons combined, and a program that had gone to a school record five straight bowl games finished with a 3-9 mark in 2016.
That means that there's no hotter seat among Mountain West coaches heading into 2017 than that of Matt Wells, who still owns a career mark of 28-25 at his alma mater despite Utah State's recent troubles.
Will the former Aggie quarterback be able to get the program, which was resurrected in 2009-12 by Gary Andersen, back on track this season? It won't be easy. Not with a non-conference schedule that includes Wisconsin, BYU and on-the-rise Wake Forest, along with the added challenge of playing in the far superior division of the Mountain West Conference.
What the Aggies do have going for them is a very experienced senior quarterback in Kent Myers, a standout wide receiver in Ron'Quavion Tarver and one of the better secondaries in the conference. But if Utah State is to return to its recent winning ways and get back to a bowl game, Wells will need big seasons from some newcomers and previously unknown Aggies.
Here are five things to look for as Utah State gears up for the start of 2017 fall camp.
1. Will new offensive coordinator David Yost be able to energize the Aggie passing game?
After enduring constant turnover over at OC since he took over as head coach in 2013, Wells elevated assistants Jovon Bouknight and Luke Wells to co-offensive coordinators, while handling play-calling duties himself in 2016. But with the hiring of Yost, the Aggies are returning to a more-traditional coaching setup this season.
A former offensive coordinator at Missouri under Gary Pinkel, Yost has most recently been involved with two high-octane offenses at Washington State (inside wide receivers coach) and Oregon (passing game coordinator/quarterbacks). He'll take over an offense that finished eighth in the MWC in passing yardage and 11th in total offense.
But will Yost have enough weapons to work with? Tarver, last year's leading receiver, is back for his junior season, but Rayshad Lewis transferred to Maryland after spring practices and TE Wyatt Houston and WR Andrew Rodriguez both graduated.
On the bright side, despite the loss of Houston, talented TE Dax Raymond is back after missing all of last season with a back injury, and Damion Hobbs had a good spring at tight end/inside receiver after moving from quarterback. Then there's Lehi High product Carson Terrell, arguably USU's best signing last February, whom Wells is extremely excited to see in action on Merlin Olsen Field.
But the Aggies definitely need to have some wide receivers (Jaren Colston-Green? Zach Van Leeuwen? Alex Byers?) establish themselves as playmakers during fall camp.
2. Is the secondary going to be as good as advertised?
Although the Aggies did lose Devin Centers, Marquan Ellison and Daniel Gray to graduation — and Rayshad Lewis looked tantalizingly good at corner during a brief flirtation with playing defense during spring ball — USU fans have to feel good about the 2017 collection of cornerbacks and safeties.
Now a senior, cornerback Jalen Davis (pictured) has been a starter since he was a freshman, and BYU transfer Dallin Leavitt provided vocal leadership and lots of intensity at boundary safety last year, despite missing four games with a foot injury. Free safety Jontrell Rocquemore also had a strong 2017 going before missing the last four games with a broken leg.
Add Wesley Bailey, Cameron Haney, Gage Ferguson and Aaron Wade, and USU's secondary looks talented and deep, which should be a factor in games against quarterback-blessed Boise State (Brett Rypien), Wyoming (Josh Allen) and BYU (Tanner Mangum).
3. Can USU re-establish a strong running game?
Utah State's season definitely started to go off the rails last year when senior running Devante Mays suffered a knee injury in the second game at USC. Mays was never the same and neither were the Aggies, who had hoped to compete in a conference full of standout running backs.
While USU's run game wasn't exactly awful in 2016, it was 10th in the MWC in yardage and certainly wasn't the kind of rushing attack that Aggie fans have become accustomed to over the past six or seven years. Tonny Lindsey led the way with 763 yards and six TDs on 148 carries, and he is back this season along with two more experienced backs in LaJuan Hunt and Justen Hervey.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Wells stick with those three backs this season, assuming injuries aren't a factor. But USU fans are also kind of anxious to see what the JUCO transfer with the Aggie-perfect name of Eltoro Allen can do on the field.
4. Both lines have a whole lot of holes to fill.
The biggest battles of fall camp are going to be waged in the trenches — on both sides of the ball.
While the offensive line lost standout starters in Austin Stephens, Austin Albrecht, Jude Hockel and Jake Simonich, the defensive line will be without the likes of Ricky Ali'ifua, Travis Seefeldt, Edmund Faimolo and Siua Taufa.
BYU transfer Quin Ficklin seems poised to replace Stephens at center, with Ali’ifua’s younger brother, Demytrik, close behind. Sean Taylor and Preston Brooksby both have experience at tackle, as does transfer Roman Andrus, albeit at Snow College. Texas Tech transfer Rob Castaneda and KJ Uluave, a starter late in 2016, are among the top options at guard.
As for the D-line, starter Ian Togiai returns at end, along with a semi-experienced group that includes DE Adewale Adeoye, DE Jacoby Wildman, NG Christopher ‘Unga and NG Gasetoto Schuster.
5. Where have all the linebackers gone?
For a program that has boasted the likes of future NFLers Bobby Wagner, Kyler Fackrell and Zach and Nick Vigil in recent years, the linebacker corps was relatively quiet in 2016.
Anthony Williams (96 tackles) and Brock Carmen (64) both had strong seasons on their way to leading USU in tackles, but they both graduated last spring, leaving Cache Valley products Alex Huerta (45) and Derek Larsen (43) as the leading returning ‘backers.4 comments on this story
Wells replaced last year’s linebackers coach David Kotulski with co-defensive coordinator Kendrick Shaver (outside) and assistant Stacy Collins (inside), and there is significant depth there. The Aggies played a lot of different LBs last season, including Justus Te’i, Mason Tobeck, Dalton Baker, Patrick Lee Miranda and Chase Christiansen, but not including Chasen Andersen, who missed all of last season due to injury.
But Wells will certainly be looking for some playmakers on defense. A year after Fackrell recovered five fumbles by himself, the USU defense forced just 10 total turnovers in 2016.