by Rhett Wilkinson
Photo by Katie Seamons
LOGAN—As he begins his fourth season as the head coach of the Utah State football team, Gary Andersen is enforcing a philosophy from previous seasons not just in Logan but stretching back to his own playing days. It includes all of his players, whether it be 2011 stars Robert Turbin and Bobby Wagner, or Jake Simonich, one of this spring’s freshman offensive linemen.
It’s a philosophy that sophomore linebacker Tavaris McMillian says requires players to start “playing football well” in college, rather than allowing players to merely get away with being “athletes,” like a Div. 1 talents of McMillian’s caliber could be in high school. It’s a mindset that all-WAC center Tyler Larsen said he would also use as a coach, even though it makes life more difficult for him at the moment.
The benefit of declaring that all starting positions are open during spring practices—regardless of a player’s previous experience—only motivates the team to realize their abilities more than they would otherwise, Andersen said. “You need to make every snap a competition,” he said. “It keeps the motivation in the off-season. At Div. 1 football, you have to take the fresh start to evaluate.”
That even goes for Larsen, who was an all-conference player after last year’s bowl season—a requirement that he says helps “remind” him of the need to consistently perform to his greatest ability, a level that Andersen said should be among the highest in the nation. While he has been impressed with sophomore center Chris Friesen, Andersen admitted that some position competitions may involve more doubt. “Someone like Tyler Larsen, that (position) may be difficult (to change),” he said. “I tell Tyler I expect him to be one of the best centers in the country. But we play it out. I wouldn’t imagine that it would be best to do it any other way.”
It’s a philosophy that Andersen said comes from his own playing days at Utah in 1985-86, when he noticed the greater awareness he gave towards performing at the top of his game as the Utes’ coach, Jim Fassel, would deploy the same philosophy of making it an open competition come March. That goes the same for all players, regardless of their ability or experience. “You’re only going to get more out of the players as they are conscious of the guys around them,” he said. “I wouldn’t see much benefit to taking a different approach.”
Of course, many eyes are evaluating the position that led an offense to the sixth-best rushing attack in the country last season. Quarterbacks Chuckie Keeton and Adam Kennedy continue to battle for the starting position, with no word yet on who will emerge as the starter. Andersen agreed that Keeton and Kennedy may currently fall into the “1A” and “1B” categories, respectively, if a depth chart must be drawn up, but said the battle continues. In the Aggies’ April 20 scrimmage, Keeton completed 9-of-13 passes for 98 yards with one touchdown, while Kennedy was 7-of-13 for 42 yards with one interception. Each of their performances led Andersen to say that the offensive units are not “throwing and catching the ball consistently enough,” a different analysis than projected running back Kerwynn Williams said after USU’s first scrimmage on April 9. At the time, Williams said he was impressed with all facets of the offense, including Keeton and Kennedy’s ability to make reads. “There’s not a lot of drops, but it’s sometimes protections or the snaps, or just not getting open,” Andersen said, before adding that Kennedy’s second group had better communication in the scrimmage.
Williams, who in 2010 set an NCAA record for kick return yards in a season, figures to be the feature back in the fall after tallying 542 yards on the ground last season. The ground game has been successful for the USU offense in the spring, something Andersen and those on the other side of the ball understand all too well. Limited in his carries in two scrimmages, nine other Aggies carried the ball on April 20. William’s backfield counterpart Joey DeMartino finished with 50 yards on 10 carries, while Joe Hill added 22 yards on seven carries.
Two weeks removed from saying his team would go 0-12 if the defensive line didn’t improve, Andersen said he was pleased to see the defense move forward early in the week before getting exposed in the scrimmage. Noting that the line’s struggles have not existed due to their lack of effort, but rather by virtue of leaning their technique, Andersen said he has only seen the defensive line “take steps forward.” The evolution of a unit that allowed nearly 28 points and 239 passing yards per game last season is something that redshirt freshman Kyler Fackrell agreed was developing.
“We’re coming together as a unit a lot better,” Fackrell said after the scrimmage. “Just in running to the ball and in effort, and in technique and communication—that’s what they’ve been emphasizing a lot—we’ve gotten a lot better. Today I did better. I started off good and tailed off in the middle, but today I did good and plan on doing well in the spring game.”