Utah State football held its initial spring practice Saturday morning as sixth-year head coach Matt Wells had 99 players suit up for the one hour and 45-minute workout at the Stan Laub Indoor Complex.
“It was good to get going and start playing football,” said Wells, of the morning workout. “We had a really good offseason and we are in a little better shape coming into this spring ball, and I think it showed with the offense as compared to last year. We looked a lot sharper, and it's year two in this offense, so it should look like that.”
Of the 99 players that were donning helmets, practice jerseys and shorts, 24 will be seniors, 23 will be juniors, 30 will sophomores and 22 are freshmen. In all, Utah State returns 18 starters as part of 52 letterwinners from last year’s team that tied for fourth place in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West with a 4-4 record and finished its season at 6-7 after playing the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl. Overall, it was USU’s sixth bowl game in the past seven seasons and the 12th in school history. The 18 returning starters for USU are tied with the 2007 team for the most in school history, while the 52 returning letterwinners are the most ever at USU, bettering the 49 in 2013.
“We have 18 guys that started in last year’s bowl game, and so when you have that many players coming back they should know how to line up and move around the first day. So, it’s good to get back out, but it’s not really football until practice three when we put the pads on," added Wells. "We will get a lot better evaluations and observations toward the end of next week.”
Highlighting Utah State’s returners in 2018 are four players who earned various all-Mountain West honors a season ago as junior PK Dominik Eberle earned first-team honors and was named a third-team All-American by Phil Steele and an honorable mention All-American by SB Nation, along with being a finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Senior OT Roman Andrus, senior OC Quin Ficklin and junior TE Dax Raymond garnered honorable mention honors.
Utah State returns six other starters on offense in senior OG Rob Castaneda, senior OT Sean Taylor, senior WR Ron’quavion Tarver, junior OG Moroni Iniguez, sophomore QB Jordan Love and sophomore WR Jordan Nathan. In all, USU returns all five of its starting offensive linemen from the previous season for the first time since 2013.
“It was a good first practice and I felt like we were starting from right where we left off last season with the bowl game. It also helps that we are starting this spring with the same offense we finished with last season, and we don’t have to learn anything new,” said Love. “Overall, everybody was flying around today and I thought we looked good on both sides of the ball.”
Tarver, who earned third-team all-Mountain West honors from Phil Steele’s Magazine last season, is the most experienced returning player on offense for Utah State as he has played in 25 games and started 19 during his two-year career while catching 94 passes for 1,171 yards (12.5 ypr) and 10 touchdowns. Entering his senior season, Tarver is just 37 receptions and six receiving touchdowns shy of entering the top 10 all-time in school history in both categories.
Utah State also returns nine starters on defense in senior DE Adewale Adeoye, senior LB Chase Christiansen, senior S Gaje Ferguson, senior LB Suli Tamaivena, junior DE Devon Anderson, junior CB Cameron Haney, junior LB Justus Te’i, junior NG Christopher ‘Unga and sophomore CB Ja’Marcus Ingram, to go along with one other specialists returning in senior P Aaron Dalton.
“I thought today was good and I thought our defense was working hard, flying around and trying to get everything down that coach (Keith) Patterson has brought to us. And that will be our challenge and emphasis moving forward,” said Christiansen.
Ferguson is the most experienced defender returning for Utah State as he has started 16 games and played in 21 during his first two years in the program. During his career, Ferguson has a team-best 130 tackles, which includes 4.0 tackles for loss. Two other Aggies have 100-plus tackles in their careers in senior linebackers Suli Tamaivena (111) and Chase Christiansen (110), as Tamaivena started all 13 games a year ago in his first season in the program, while Christiansen has played in 25 games and made 14 starts during his first three years at USU.
In all, Utah State returns 20 players who have played in at least 20 career games, while 37 players have started at least one game in the program.
With all the experience returning for Utah State this season, there have been several players make position changes. On offense, senior DJ Nelson has moved from quarterback to wide receiver, fellow senior Justen Hervey has moved from running back to wide receiver and junior Gerold Bright has moved from wide receiver to running back. Defensively, junior Dalton Baker has moved from linebacker to defensive end, and sophomore Baron Gajkowski will be playing a hybrid linebacker position this season after playing safety last fall.
As for the coaching staff, Utah State has two additions this season as Keith Patterson was hired as the defensive coordinator and safeties coach, replacing Kendrick Shaver, while Uani ‘Unga was hired as the new 10th assistant and will coach outside linebackers after serving as a defensive administrative assistant for USU in 2017. Utah State will also be hiring a new special team’s coordinator in the near future.
Another coaching note is that Utah State will enter the 2018 season with the same offensive coordinator, David Yost, for the first time since the 2014 season when Kevin McGiven served in that role.
Utah State will continue with spring practice on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday next week, before taking the following week off for spring break. Monday’s practice will be held indoors at 6 a.m., while location and times for the other two practices next week will be determined based on weather.
USU will then return to the practice field on Tuesday, March 13, for its first of three practices that week, culminating with its first scrimmage of the spring on Friday, March 16.
During the five-week period, the Aggies will participate in 15 spring practice sessions, including their annual Blue vs. White Spring Game on Saturday, April 7, on Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium at 2 p.m.
Doug Hoffman is the associate athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.