Utah State head football coach Matt Wells is excited and anxious to see more from his team following the completion of his sixth spring camp, which concluded last weekend with its annual Spring Game.
Utah State returns 18 starters as part of 51 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 in 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 Utah State are tied with the 2007 team for the most in school history, while the 51 returning letterwinners are the most ever at USU.
Highlighting Utah State's returners in 2018 are four players who earned various all-Mountain West honors a season ago. 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, while senior OT Roman Andrus, senior OC Quin Ficklin and junior TE Dax Raymond all 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.
Tarver, who earned third-team all-Mountain West honors from Phil Steele's Magazine last season, is the most experienced returning player on offense as he has played in 25 games and started 19 during his two-year career3wa 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 specialist returning in senior P Aaron Dalton.
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 19 players who have played in at least 20 career games, while 36 players have started at least one game in the program.
Following the completion of spring camp last week, we sat down with Wells for a brief question-and-answer session.
What's your takeaway from spring camp?
"The biggest thing that you take from spring is that we're a lot further ahead than we were last year. A lot of that is based on the experience we've got coming back. So many guys have played our brand of football, and they've had success with it, albeit young guys, first-year starters on the offensive line last year, some new linebackers. But, this is year two. We're a lot further ahead coming out than last year."
Talk about the play of the offense and sophomore QB Jordan Love during the spring.
"Offensively, we're further ahead than we were with the pace and the way we want to do things. Jordan starting the last half of the season, the success he had, has helped him start a little ahead this spring. He's made some strides but has got more to go this summer as he knows. Ron'quavion Tarver had a really good spring. He's practicing harder than he's ever practiced since he's been here. Dax Raymond and Carson Terrell, the two tight ends, have played well. Our slots have good experience there. So, I feel good about the offense. Coming out, we have to solidify the running back depth as we get going through training camp. Then, we're going to have some young and new outside receivers that are going to come in and compliment Ron'quavion and Savon (Scarver) at the outside receiver spot."
What pleased you the most about the defense this spring?
"The first thing we did is we broke it down to the base fundamentals; to learn how to play fundamental defense a lot better. We tackled pretty well and played our base defense a whole lot more, and we're going to pressure at times. We played base, solid, fundamental defense. Some of that was a little bit designed with coach (Keith) Patterson coming in as the new defensive coordinator and working with coach (Frank) Maile. Those guys have done a great job and will continue to do so. But, I like where we're at. We're tackling better. We have a lot more depth than we've had for a long time with the front seven on the D-line and the linebackers. We need to solidify some spots on the backend in training camp, but I was pleased with how we came out of spring on the defensive side."
Who impressed you during camp?
"I would talk just about young players right now. A lot of the veterans, I mentioned Ron'quavion Tarver and Gaje Ferguson, had a really good spring. But, I would just mention some of the younger guys. Alfred Edwards really solidified a role, could be a starting role, at left tackle on the O-line. A young guy, like David Woodward, playing linebacker for the first time in a long time. Tipa Galeai, who's coming off a redshirt year last year when he was sitting out as an illegible transfer, had a really good spring at outside linebacker. Ja'Marcus Ingram can play safety or corner. And then all the young corners. They've all shown that they're good players and need to continue to develop better technique and some experience there. But, I would say mainly the young players."
What are some of the biggest question marks facing the team moving forward?
"Some of the biggest question marks would probably be the ones I just mentioned. Just a few spots in the secondary, exactly who's going to be in that one and a half deep, maybe two deep we would play. Then, the outsider receivers coming in with the running back rotation. I could tell you who is going to play running back, but the rotation, who's going to take the lion’s share of reps at the running back spot? We have two young guys, Morian Walker Jr. and Tre Miller, a brand new junior college transfer in Darwin Thompson and Gerold Bright, who is really a full time running back now. All four of those guys are kind of moving themselves to the top of that. Who's going to come out of that group and rise to the top coming out of training camp?"
How will you define success in 2018?
"Every day we come into this building and work as hard as we can, as smart as we can and as efficient as we can to compete for the Mountain West championship. That will always be the goal here in terms of football. We have two goals. One is to graduate every senior on time, and the other is to compete for the championship in the month of November. That's what we're aiming to do. We've been to bowl games in six of the last seven years. That, obviously, defines a certain amount of success, and I don't discount that one bit because that's where we want to be. But, we want that Mountain West trophy."
What's next for the players between now and fall camp?
"We just finished what we call our second quarter, which is spring ball. The next six weeks during April and May (are) just finishing school on the right note and doing all that from the standpoint of finishing strong academically. Then, lifting and running in the next few weeks. Guys have different Mays. A lot of them are here, some of them are gone. Then, June and July, the third quarter, which is a key part of our success, is how we train in June and July. We're a little different. We do things a little abnormally here, and our guys have really bought into the way we condition and train. Coach (Dave) Scholz and his staff do a great job. That eight-week period of the summer will be really key."
What's next for you and the rest of your staff between now and fall camp?
"That's kind of broken up a little bit in the next five weeks. Starting out this coming Monday, we'll leave and go spring recruiting for the next few weeks and evaluate potentially some guys even late this year, but also for the 2019 class. We have our camps this summer in June, and we're game planning the first three or four games. Then, obviously, looking at our Mountain West opponents before we leave for a little bit of vacation and some time to refresh, reenergize our batteries and then we are back in July getting ready for training camp."
Doug Hoffman is the associate athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.