I’ll begin this preview, oddly, by congratulating Ali Krieger and the rest of the USWNT on winning the World Cup. Secondly, every player on Utah State’s football team needs to watch this video. The Aggies have had injury problems for the last two or three seasons in a row, including two consecutive season-ending knee injuries to star quarterback Chuckie Keeton. He hasn’t been the only one though, but eventually that injury luck has to change right? (Quick: every Utah State fan sprint to the nearest coffee table or desk and knock on it furiously).
At the risk of tempting fate again, everything for this Aggie offense begins and ends with Chuckie Keeton. Keeton is a dynamic playmaker when on the field, and in 2013, prior to his first knee injury, he displayed a propensity for efficiency. Keeton had 17 touchdown passes to one interception through five games in 2013. He wasn’t nearly that good last season before going down again, but it should be noted that the 2013 sample size was larger, so it’s reasonable to assume he could get nearer to the 2013 numbers.
Keeton and company should have solid blockers in front of them, which (knock on wood three more times) might reduce the probability of another injury-riddled season. Granted, this line was good last season so maybe that has nothing to do with it. The only replacement will be at left tackle where first team all-conference Kevin “Not So” Whimpey graduated. His replacement, Austin Albrecht, does have two career starts. The remaining four linemen are all returning starters who range between 11 and 15 career starts.
Hunter Sharp and Jojo Natson also provide Keeton one of the top receiver combos in the conference. Sharp was just shy of 1,000 yards receiving last season. Natson is an all-purpose player and one of the best athletes in the conference. Jojo may have only had just over 500 yards receiving last season, which is still at least respectable, but he was also only two yards shy of 500 yards rushing and returned two punts for touchdowns.
With Natson’s and Keeton’s abilities to contribute to the running game, having a bell cow back is not a necessity for this offense. However, LaJuan Hunt is no slouch and if he can pitch in over 500 yards again on the ground it should give this team a dynamic rushing attack, with three legitimate rushing threats all potentially playing the majority of the team’s offensive snaps at the same time. How many teams can honestly say that? Not that many.
Zach Vigil may be gone from this linebacking corps, but the 2015 unit should still be one of the top units in the conference and they’ll be led by several familiar faces, including Zach’s brother Nick. Nick’s numbers may not have been quite as good as big bro’s but still 92 tackles, 17 for a loss, and 7 sacks is nothing to write off. It also helps that Kyler Fackrell should be ready to go after tearing his ACL in week 1 last year. In 2013, Fackrell had 13 tackles for loss and five sacks.
The defensive line may not have the same playmakers that the linebacking corps has, but they do have experience and are a respectable unit. Three defensive ends and a nose guard return who played in every game last season. Jordan Nielson, one of the three, is also the leading returning tackler from last year’s line. Two more defensive linemen saw action in double-digit games last season.
Secondary may technically be the least experienced unit on this defense, but they also may be deepest. Jalen Davis is the only “returning starter” at cornerback, but six more cornerbacks played in double-digit games, including anticipated starter Deshane Hines. Also, Devin Centers may not have been a “starter” at safety last season, but he saw enough game action to rack up 56 tackles (2nd among DBs), an interception, and 10 pass break-ups (led the team).
Pretty disappointing based on what I wrote in the previous 650 words right? Yeah, probably, but still going 7-5 and reaching a bowl game is never a bad season for a Mountain West team save maybe Boise State, but even then it’s debatably at least decent. A big problem is that the non-conference schedule is rough, aside from the opener against Southern Utah. The following two games hold road trips to Utah and Washington, then the Aggies close the season against BYU. Those could very easily be three losses. Then, between Colorado State, Boise State, Nevada and road trips to San Diego State and Air Force you don’t have to squint to find 6-2 conceivable in the conference. This is a brutal Mountain West schedule, so if there are injuries again or any of the major players coming off of injury struggle to return to pre-injury form then 7-5 seems highly likely, and even cause for celebration.
Credit Cover Photo to Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News