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What's next for the Utah State Aggies? – Deseret News

There are few people who have any idea what Utah State football will look like this fall.

For a good reason.

Head football coach Blake Anderson is all but certain to be gone after Utah State – following an outside investigation – alleged that he, assistant athletic director Jerry Bovee and USU football director of player development and community Austin Albrecht committed “violations of university policies related to reporting sexual and domestic violence and breach of professional duties.”

Losing a head coach so close to the start of the season raises serious questions, but the loss of Anderson is especially significant because he served as the Aggies' offensive play caller (co-offensive coordinator) and quarterbacks coach.

Anderson was the architect of USU's productive offense, which finished the 2023 season ranked 26th nationally in scoring.

Defensive coordinator Nate Dreiling, new to Utah State in January, has been named the team's interim coach. He will be the youngest head coach at the FBS level in 2024.

Nate Dreilings Coaching Background

Utah State interim coach Nate Dreiling coaches during spring practice at Maverik Stadium in Logan. | Utah State Athletics

By most accounts, Dreiling, 33, is a rising star in the coaching industry, and much of his praise has come from his work at New Mexico State.

Those other Aggies are traditionally one of the weakest programs in the entire FBS, but over the last two years, New Mexico State has been competitive enough to beat Auburn in Alabama and play for the Conference USA championship. Dreiling's defense played a key role in that success.

Bud Elliott of 247 Sports perhaps said it best: “Nate Dreiling did a great job at New Mexico State (relative to the lack of athletic ability they can sign) and I thought he would get a better job than Utah State DC. Utah State HC is more accurate.”

What kind of head coach Dreiling will be, however, is unclear, simply because he has never done that job before. To date, he has been defensive coordinator (USU, NMSU and Pittsburg State, the latter his alma mater), defensive run game coordinator and inside linebackers coach, safeties coach and defensive analyst.

Squad fluctuation at Utah State

However, the confusion surrounding the Aggies' future is not only due to the uncertainty surrounding Dreiling.

After USU survived the first transfer window of the offseason relatively unscathed – the only player from the Aggies' second roster to leave the team was safety Devin Dye – the team was decimated in the spring by departures from the transfer portal.

Some of the departed players are well-known, such as quarterback McCae Hillstead – who ended up at rival BYU – and running back Davon Booth, while others, like defensive end John Ward and linebacker Gavin Barthiel, were not particularly familiar faces.

However, when you add everything up – transfers, layoffs, resignations and graduations – Utah State has to replace more than 50 players who were on the roster last season.

To put this into perspective, the average FBS team has a roster of about 115-120 players. That means USU had to replace nearly 42% of its team in 2023-2024… a year after it did something pretty eerily similar in terms of roster construction.

The number of players who have been replaced or need to be replaced is also likely to increase, as NCAA rules require players to have 30 days to enter the transfer portal after their head coach is fired.

This means that players like safety Ike Larsen, wide receiver Jalen Royals and running back Rahsul Faison, to name a few, are back in the running for opposing programs to poach.

Many, if not most, Aggie players will likely be out of the game at this point in the year, simply because most teams have largely finalized their rosters. But roster spots will always open up for the right players.

Even if Dreiling and the Aggies somehow manage to keep most of the team, there are still a lot of unknowns.

Anderson has coached the quarterbacks himself, and that spot is made up of transfers (all this offseason): Spencer Petras, Bryson Barnes, Jacob Conover and CJ Tiller. There is no continuity in that room, the most important room in sports.

The defense, on the other hand, was one of the worst in college football last year, ranking 120th in scoring defense, 126th in rushing defense, 61st in pass efficiency defense, 128th in first down defense, and, well, the list goes on forever.

Even if Dreiling is a defensive genius — which is entirely possible — the Aggies still have a lot of catching up to do to become even an average FBS defense, let alone a good one. That task could only be made more difficult by potential transfer portal departures.

Reasons for hope

However, this is not to say that everything in Logan is bleak and hopeless.

At this point, the Aggies appear to be poised for a good to great offense with co-offensive coordinator Kyle Cefalo still on the team.

Most of last year's key offensive players are back, including – for now – Royals' dynamic record-setting receiver.

But besides him, the Aggies have Micah Davis – a veteran pass catcher – an explosive ball carrier in Faison and a rugged one in Robert Briggs III. They also have experienced tight ends in Will Monney and Josh Sterzer and some key reinforcements on the offensive line in transfers George Maile and Trey Andersen, who pair with promising young players like Bo Maile and Teague Andersen.

Other talent was also signed during the offseason, such as junior college All-American wide receiver Robert Freeman IV.

When announcing Utah State Athletics' “Reach and Rise” fundraising campaign in June, Cefalo was brimming with optimism about the Aggies' offense and its potential performance this season.

“I feel great and it starts with the kids who have chosen to stay,” he said. “We have a lot of kids who have chosen to stay here, your Jalen Royals, your Ike Larsens. They had the opportunity to go and they chose to stay here. They stayed and they want to make the most of it.”

“From an offensive standpoint, from a wide receiver standpoint, I walk into my meeting room and I have kind of a new face there,” he continued. “We have a lot of guys that have chosen to be here, that have chosen to stay here. And they're good players, too.”

Cefalo also wasn't worried about the new additions at quarterback, noting that Petras only has one year of eligibility left and wants to make the most of it. He's also not your average transfer quarterback, having coached at Iowa last season while recovering from an injury.

Petras attended the fundraiser and expressed his strong belief in the Aggies' offense and what Utah State can accomplish this season.

“I've adapted quickly (to the offense) and it's a lot of fun,” he said. “Like any tempo or system, if it's executed well, it's a big advantage, so I'm looking forward to it.”

Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras throws a pass during the game against Wisconsin on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Iowa City, Iowa. Petras is part of a group of transfers occupying Utah State's quarterback room. | Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

He then added: “First and foremost, our goal is the Mountain West championship. The way the playoffs are set up now, there are (even) higher goals. I'm not a big fan of talking about that sort of thing. I just know that if you do everything right day in and day out, play well and have a good team, you'll be rewarded.”

However, all the faith and optimism in the world cannot hide the fact that there are countless questions surrounding the Utah State football team and, with fall training approaching, there is little time to find solutions.

There are only 60 days left until the Aggies' season opener against Robert Morris. There are only 74 days left (as of Tuesday evening) until their rival game at home against Utah.

You can be sure that the employees and the team are also aware of this.

“Instead of complaining about the new, we as coaches had to tell ourselves that this is our team and we have to accept it,” said Cefalo, referring to the turnover in the squad over the past two years.

This statement has even more weight today.

“I think we've done a phenomenal job of putting the team together,” Cefalo added, “and now we have a lot of work ahead of us to be successful.”

Now that Anderson is gone, there is more work than ever.

That's the only real certainty at this point about Utah State football. That Anderson is no longer the Aggies' head coach and that the program, now in its three-man era, has a lot of work to do and very little time to do it.