After relying on the offense to win games for so many years, Utah State will turn to the defense to carry the early load for the Aggies this fall. Six starters return to a unit that allowed 360.1 yards per game -- the lowest total in the past five seasons -- and ranked 45th in the nation in total defense last season.
"We are going to be more inexperienced on offense than we were since our first year here," fifth-year head coach Mick Dennehy said.
The Aggies' inconsistent offense played a large role in the team's struggles last fall. Utah State suffered through three three-game losing streaks and finished in a tie for fourth in the Sun Belt Conference. This fall will mark the Aggies' second and final year in the Sun Belt before moving to the Western Athletic Conference in 2005.
OffenseThe Aggies have plenty of concerns on offense. Quarterback isn't one of them. Utah State is in good hands with senior Travis Cox, who started all 12 games last year and passed for 2,791 yards while completing 56.6 percent of his passes. He threw 18 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while leading the Sun Belt in total offense.
"Last year I was more worried about getting the team behind me," Cox said. "Now I just need to focus on making myself better."
Cox will need protection from a line that lost three starters. Two junior college transfers will be expected to join incumbents Donald Penn and Elliott Tupea in the starting lineup.
The Aggies return just 21.5 percent of their rushing yards and 12.2 percent of their receiving yards. A slew of running backs were signed in February, but they won't report until this fall. Several mid-term junior college signees and Oregon transfer Tarrell Richards will be called upon at the receiver spots. Raymond Hicks, who made five starts and caught 13 balls, is the only receiver with any significant experience.
USU averaged 350.3 yards per game last year, the fewest since 1998.
DefenseSix starters return to a unit that allowed only 360.1 yards per game -- the Aggies' lowest total in the past five seasons -- and ranked 45th in the nation in total defense last season, 25th against the pass.
It all starts up front, where eight experienced players and several new faces will share time at three positions. Tackles Ronald Tupea and Michael Gates have proved themselves in the trenches. Tupea, a three-year starter, led the team in sacks last year with six. Ryan DeQuillettes will start at noseguard.
Linebacker Robert Watts led the team with 118 tackles and is looking to have a great senior campaign.
"We took some good steps last year," Watts said. "We're proud of that, but this year we want to go out and do 10 times better."
Starting tackle John Chick has moved to linebacker and is always a threat to put pressure on the quarterback.
The secondary returns some heavy hitters in safeties Joe Lindsay and Terrance Washington. Both drew praise during the spring. Washington led the team in interceptions last year with five and also recorded 93 tackles.
SpecialistsPunter Ben Chaet averaged a solid 40.3 yards per kick as a sophomore. He also converted 3-of-4 field goal attempts, but the placekicking job might go to sophomore Justin Hamblin. The Aggies still need to find a long snapper, which became a problem last year when the starter was injured.
Jerome Dennis is a dangerous kickoff returner, while Tony Pennyman and Hicks will share punt return duties.
Final AnalysisThe success of USU's final season in the Sun Belt Conference will come down to the offense. The defense is solid and will keep games close, but the offense must establish some consistency and cut down on the penalties. Cox is a proven commodity, but the Aggies need some other playmakers to emerge.
Utah State should be competitive in conference play, but the schedule will be unkind -- the Aggies play seven road games, including non-conference trips to Alabama and Clemson.