The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 49 Utah State.
Previewing Utah State’s Offense for 2014:
Two of Utah State’s top players on offense happen to play the same position — quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton and Darell Garretson. Keeton, a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate a year ago, went down with a knee injury in the sixth game last fall. Garretson, a true freshman in 2013, went 6–1 as a starter. Those two combined to lead the offense to five single-season school records. Keeton missed spring drills but is on track to return to full speed in time for camp.
Protecting the signal-caller will be the biggest challenge, as five seniors graduated from the offensive line, including four starters. Left tackle Kevin Whimpey has started 26 straight games and will provide leadership. “I’ve been pleasantly pleased with the offensive line,” Utah State coach Matt Wells says. “Our guys are talented. They are just youthful and inexperienced.”
Like the quarterback, the starting running back is coming back from a knee injury. Joe Hill missed the last nine games and spring. He will be pushed by Rashad Hall and Kennedy Williams, the little brother of Kerwynn Williams, a former Aggie who is now with the San Diego Chargers.
Two key receivers return in Bruce “JoJo” Natson and Brandon Swindall. Several new players shined in the spring, and the coach is excited about the guys who will be catching passes.
“Potentially, this could be one of our more talented groups at wideout here in a long time,” Wells says.
Previewing Utah State’s Defense for 2014:
Wells has preached that defense wins championships, and this side of the ball certainly had a big part in the Aggies winning the Mountain Division title in 2013. Utah State’s defense ranked seventh nationally in scoring (17.1 ppg), eighth in rushing (106.7 ypg), 12th in total defense (330.9 ypg) and 15th in passing efficiency defense (113.2).
The linebacker corps will lead the way again as two all-league players return in Kyler Fackrell and Zach Vigil, whose younger brother Nick became a starter toward the end of last year.
“We’ve been really good on defense the last two years, and I don’t see any reason why we won’t be again this year,” Wells says. “I think we have one of the best, if not the best linebacking corps in the Mountain West.”
Up front, only one starter is back in B.J. Larsen, but a number of players saw action. The coach likes the depth and believes the line will be solid. The secondary took a hit from graduation as four key players are gone. Safety Brian Suite will be counted on to provide leadership. Wells says that the key to the defense being an “elite” group will be the progress of the secondary.
Previewing Utah State’s Specialists for 2014:
Nick Diaz, who made 17-of-23 field-goal attempts, returns. Punter Jaron Bentrude is back as well. He averaged 39.8 yards per kick. The Aggies ranked in the top half of the league in both kickoff and punt returns.
Expectations just keep growing for the Aggies. In their first year in the Mountain West, they made it to the inaugural league championship game after capturing the Mountain Division. The largest crowd to attend a spring game turned out in April, and the second-year coach received a contract extension through 2018. USU has been to three straight bowls — something never before accomplished at the school — winning the last two.
Wells lost two assistants on the defensive side, but the transition with the new coaches went smoothly in the spring. There are some challenges with the schedule: The Aggies travel to Tennessee, Arkansas State and BYU in non-conference action and end the season with a trip to Boise State. Another bowl berth and 10 wins are reasonable goals in 2014.