A rethought defense and a rethought attitude
I’ve preached and preached about how the USU must play a much better defense if they are to have any chance of succeeding in the 2021 campaign. The Aggies seemed completely out of sync and utterly helpless at times last season. Most of the teams played were able to run the ball with ease against that front, with the USU surrendering 224.7 yards per game and 35.2 points per game. Overall the unit was a hot mess and there’s apparently nowhere to go except up there.
As 2021 approaches, the USU is reverting to a 4-3 base defense and they’ve recruited heavily in the defensive line position to accommodate that. The hope is that with an improved and heavier front four, the talented linebacker corps can finally play proactively rather than having to react to an opposing rusher who has already burst through the line. The Aggies have given up too many big points before and if they struggle again in this metric they need to at least make some disruptive plays and put pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
The good news for the USU is that the pieces are there to improve significantly from last year’s 1-5 record. It will be about coming together and developing good team chemistry. However, there is no shortage of talent in key positions so that this defense at least gives the offense more chances to score more points. With the addition of a few proven transfer portal playmakers, we should see an immediate impact in the most important places of defense.
It will almost certainly be the strength of the defense this year.
In addition to the returning talent from the USU, Coach Anderson brought in Justin Rice to Arkansas State to lead the weak side. Last season at ASU, Rice easily led the defense with 76 tackles and seven sacks. He has tremendous speed and often makes disruptive plays. The Aggies are going to need him week after week to limit the damage the running backs try to do on the ground. Younger backers like Kaleo Neves and Kina Maile need more time to take on bigger roles, but they will benefit tremendously from learning from Rice in the meantime.
In the middle, Aggies brings back AJ Vongphachanh. One of the few bright spots of 2020, this hard-hitting killer is looking to improve on last season’s solid numbers. Vongphachanh led the team with 50 tackles, including three sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss. He also added a forced fumble, safety, pass break and a rushed quarterback. His role should be even bigger than before and he is probably the undisputed leader of this group.
Saving Vongphachanh won’t be an easy task, but super senior Kevin Meitzenheimer adds some high-quality depth to the spot. Overall, he’s had a great production for USU since the 2018 season. In 2019, he finished third on the team with 89 total tackles. While his numbers haven’t lived up to his usual level in 2020, totaling just 37 tackles and only half a sack, he will manage to bounce back significantly in 2021 now that he’s in better health. . With a stronger line in front of him, he will have many more opportunities to wreak havoc on opposing attacks and help keep Vongphachanh rested. Sione Moa and Jaymason Willingham can also contribute here.
To complete the body, Cash Gilliam is in the attack position. He will be counted on to take cover when needed, but he will also act as a linebacker if called up. The hybrid stance suits its lighter weight and smaller size and will maximize the USU’s talent in the field at all times. Last year he had 20 tackles and a sack, so I expect his production to increase sharply with his added responsibilities in a hybrid role. If he can stay healthy, it will allow younger players like Breaker Mendenhall and Patrick Maddox to continue to mature in the program.
Anderson and company have made this unit arguably their top priority during the 2021 offseason. The Aggies have added several big transfers from the P5 and Juco ranks, which should help the position group make an immediate leap into production and production. disruption against opposing offensive lines and hasty attacks.
At the tackle post, Aggies called for the transfer of Ga Tech Jahaziel Lee. He did not play the 2019 season due to injury. In 2018, he played as an offensive lineman for the Yellow Jackets. He’s an excellent height at 308 lbs and is relied on to eat blocks so the linebacker body can make saves faster. He will be supported by the now very experienced Hale Motu’apuaka. Last season, he played all six games and recorded eight tackles and even one blocked kick. Motu’apuaka has been steadily growing and strengthening since he started playing in 2018 and he provides excellent depth to this strengthened line. Don’t be surprised if Michigan transfer Phillip Paea breaks the rotation and also has a tangible impact.
At the next tackle post, Marcus Moore returns for his last season in Aggie Blue. He was another bright spot in defense last season and his role will be even greater compared to before. Although perhaps a little undersized in this spot, Moore has always played above his weight, registering 20 tackles including two sacks and 2.5 tackles for a loss. Behind him will be the transfer of Juco Aurion Peoples, who will certainly have a heavy role in the rotation along the line. He made 18 tackles, including three for a loss and a sack. Peoples is a size like Lee and should help improve the running defense and make it more disruptive, something that defense is badly needed after being pushed around last season.
In defensive positions, USU is in fairly good shape. Byron Hobbs-Vaughns’ move to Texas is set to begin immediately opposite super senior Nick Heninger. Vaughns didn’t play in 2020, but he made 14 tackles as a linebacker for the Longhorns in 2019. He’s undeniably quick and he’s just big enough to be a viable threat for the Aggies, which they sorely have. missed last year.
Heninger is set to have his most productive year yet for the Aggies and his improvement over last year will likely be a given. Heninger was third on the team with 42 tackles, including three sacks and seven tackles for a loss. With additional help on the line, he will be better able to disrupt opposing rushers.
As replacements, Jaylin Bannerman, Patrick Joyner and newcomer Mata Hola will learn from seasoned leadership. Addison Trupp will also have a great opportunity to get meaningful minutes and help build depth in this position. If they can do that, then that will be a good sign that the defense improves as the season progresses.
While the USU high school has been a disappointment in 2020, the good news is that this unit has more experience in every location for this season. With incoming transfers like Michigan’s Hunter Reynolds and Kansas’ Kyle Mayberry, there’s plenty of reason to believe this part of the defense will improve noticeably.
At the corner, Cam Lampkin returns and he looks to continue to develop well in the position. Lampkin started four games last season and recorded 20 tackles, one sack and a few breakouts. Since his debut in 2019, he has shown great athleticism and great promise to eventually become a locking wedge. Andre Grayson and Xavion Steele are each expected to take a step forward this year and help Lampkin take charge.
At the other corner, Mayberry is set to fight for the starting spot with Zahodri Jackson, who is now a senior. He’s recorded 20 tackles and a pair of break-outs in 2020. While he’s somewhat productive, he doesn’t have a lock on gaze work. Either way, there is more depth here than before. Rounding out the rotation here is Terin Adams, a corner which has been limited for the Aggie since 2019 due to lingering injury issues. He has also withdrawn from the 2020 season due to Covid-19, so it’s a mystery how much he will contribute this season.
Safe, Anderson convinced Shaq Bond to stay for his final season. Bond has been extremely good to USU since 2018 and he has a chance to put an exclamation mark on his career here. Last I heard, he was second on the team with 47 total tackles and first with three breakouts, a record for the team. Bond has a flair for football and simply has a knack for making big plays when the USU needs it. Assuming he can avoid injuries like from 2018, I would expect Bond to make another jump and maybe win Mountain West’s first team honors by the end of the year. .
In free safety, Dominic Tatum also returns. Tatum had 19 tackles last season as well as two breakage passes. He has measurable elements similar to Bond and can practice well, although he hasn’t shown much consistency yet. Ajani Carter and Jarrod Green provide decent depth here and should help limit the damage in the air opponents will try to do against USU, which was a major weakness last year.
There will likely be an adjustment period for this Aggie defense. The talent is there to successfully manage this system, but it takes time to adjust to the major changes of a new coaching team. Just a few years ago, in 2018, the USU went from a very successful 3-4 baseline under DC Keith Patterson to a 4-3 baseline with mixed results under DC Justin Ena.
The Aggies returned to 3-4 base defense in 2020, but the sheer lack of depth and speed in key positions absolutely killed the Aggies last year. Anderson has shown his commitment to making the 4-3 work with major additions to the defensive line and he has also talked about making defense multiple with his formations. These coaching staff seem to want to maximize the best talent they have on the pitch, as evidenced by having a striker and also making key additions to DE.
The USU’s defensive numbers were mediocre before, so they can only rise from here. As long as the defensive line remains healthy, I would expect the other groups of positions to not have to carry too much load and to improve noticeably from before. At the very least, that defense should be more disruptive under Anderson and give the Aggies a chance they just didn’t have in 2020.