Utah State football held its fifth spring practice Tuesday afternoon on Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium, and the Aggie linebackers are focused on doing a better job of stopping the run, while at the same time continuing to create turnovers.
In all, Utah State’s defense returns nine starters and 29 letterwinnners from last year’s team that ranked 19th in the nation in passing yards allowed (182.5) and 24th in passing efficiency defense (116.6). Furthermore, USU’s defense ranked sixth in the nation last season with its 29 forced turnovers and fourth overall with its five defensive touchdowns.
As for its linebackers, Utah State returns all three of its starters from last season as part of 10 returning letterwinners that have combined to play in 170 games with 54 starts during their USU careers.
“We’ve got to fit the run better and be more consistent in that with our front seven, and our linebackers have to do a better job of being the heart of that,” said third-year assistant and second-year linebackers coach Stacy Collins. “Along with stopping the run, we have to continue to get takeaways. That is something we had a lot of success with as a defense last year.”
Utah State will have plenty of bodies to try and stop the run moving forward as it returns 16 linebackers who were members of the program during the 2017 season, including all three of its starters in seniors Chase Christiansen and Suli Tamaivena and junior Justus Te’i. Other letterwinners returning include seniors Louy Compton, Derek Larsen and Ofa Latu; junior Mason Tobeck; and sophomores Maika Magalei, Kevin Meitzenheimer and David Woodward. Two other returning players saw minimal action in 2017 in juniors Mason Gajkowski and Braden Harris.
Furthermore, Utah State welcomes back four players who redshirted last season in junior Tipa Galeai, sophomore Jordan Hayes and freshmen Jamaal Evans and Daniel Langi.
“We have a lot of guys coming back, and we are looking to get better at the little things. We are working to continue to develop the culture and grow with the group we have coming back. We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football, so there is a lot of competition in that group and it’s going to be a fight all spring. I like the group we have, and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top,” added Collins.
Larsen has the most returning game experience for Utah State at the linebacker position as he has played in 32 contests with 11 starts, while Christiansen has appeared in 25 games with 14 starts and Te’i has played in 24 games with nine starts. Tobeck has played in 21 games and made three starts during his career, while Tamaivena started all 13 games in his first year in the program last season. Magalei played in all 13 games last season with three starts, Compton appeared in 12 games a year ago, Woodward played in 10 games and made one start in his first year of action, and Latu and Meitzenheimer both saw action in 10 games last season. Gajkowski played in four games and Harris played in two games.
Another player who will see time at linebacker this fall is sophomore Baron Gajkowski, who played in all 13 games and made two starts at safety as a redshirt freshman a season ago.
“We still have a lot of work to do this spring, but we love the system that coach (Keith) Patterson has brought in,” said Tamaivena. “Last year, our run defense was not where we wanted it, so this spring our No. 1 goal is to improve our run defense.”
Utah State continues with spring practice on Thursday at 6 a.m., followed by its first scrimmage of the spring on Friday, March 16, at 3:30 p.m.
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.