LOGAN, Utah – When several offensive starters went down with season-ending injuries last year, Utah State football relied on the strength of its defense. It worked out in the Aggies’ favor as they finished 9-5 with the Mountain West Mountain Division title and a win in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl.
The Aggie defense ended the 2013 season on a high note, ranking among the top 35 teams in the nation in 10 different statistical categories, including ranking seventh in the nation in scoring defense allowing just 17.1 points per game.
Now in his second year with the reins of the defense in his hands, coordinator Todd Orlando is looking to carry on the strength and tradition of the Aggie defense and build-up from the players that were lost to graduation. In the final week of spring practice, we sat down with him to discuss the development of the team on his side of the line of scrimmage.
<strong>Talk about how spring practice has gone for the defense thus far? Have you been pleased with their development?</strong>
“It’s been good. The guys that have done a good job in the past are doing a good job. There are some new guys that are coming along with their progression that we’re really happy. It’s just developing depth right now, that’s the biggest thing. It’s making sure that if these younger guys get into a game or we have injuries, we’re ready to go. That’s what we’re working on more than anything else.”
<strong>Can you talk about the two new additions to the staff and what their strengths are?</strong>
“They’ve been great. Both of them came here for a reason. When we had a chance to interview and meet them, we knew they would fit in terms of the staff. That was the most critical thing. They’re both extremely bright and are really good teachers. We knew what they were from a recruiting standpoint.
“Joe (Lorig) was a little bit different because he had about a month to get underneath everything. With Ikaika (Malloe) it came down to how fast could this guy process everything. It was a day and a half and he was on the field. They’re both really good additions. They’re replacing some guys who had been around the program, so you measure it by how fast they can take the ball and run with it and they’ve done a really nice job.”
<strong>It appears the linebacker group will once again be the strength of your defense. Can you talk about this group and what you expect from them in 2014?</strong>
<strong>“They’ve bee</strong>n doing a really good job. Any decent defense is going to have good players at this position. They’ve gone out of their way to be really good leaders and that’s the most impressive thing. They know there are spots that we are young at and they know there is some inexperience there. They’ve taken those guys under their belt and said, ‘This is the expectation, let’s all be on the same page.’ It’s been great to have three guys who are really proven and see them become really close. Zach (Vigil) is obviously close with his brother Nick (Vigil). They and Kyler Fackrell have really accepted everybody. They’re a band of brothers. You throw Brian Suite and Frankie Sutera in the mix and it’s a really cool group.”
<strong>Despite losing several key players along the defensive line, you return several proven players here. Can you talk about how this group has progressed and played this spring?</strong>
“We’re kind of limiting B.J. (Larsen) right now. We know what he’s about and we expect him to play at a high level. John Taylor is a guy that to me, when he really, really gets it, has a chance to be a really good player. I’m very happy from that standpoint. Jordan (Nielsen) continues to get better daily with it. Then you’ve got Elvis (Kamana-Matagi) and Travis (Seefeldt) up front who have played before. With AJ (Patalali’i) leaving, they’re excited and have been competing like crazy to find out who’s going to be the starter. We’ve got some guys in there that we’ll continue to develop, and we’ll add some guys this summer and keep getting better.”
<strong>The biggest holes to fill defensively are in the backend after graduating four starters there. What are your expectations for this group in 2014?</strong>
“We’re losing three guys who are going to go to NFL camps and one guy is probably going to get drafted. The reality is that we have to fill those spots up. Rashard Stewart is playing the best he’s ever played here, not only from a technical standpoint, but he’s been a great leader. Daniel Gray is ahead of schedule. He’s learning how we do things around here. We know that he’s only played limited football and he’s getting better every day. The guys behind them are scratching and clawing to be a part of that mix. We’ll also have three or four guys coming in at fall camp.
“I think the one thing we did a good job of is recognizing that we were going to have some depth issues there. We lost three safeties and four corners. We knew it was going to happen, so in this year’s recruiting class there were a lot of DBs and a lot of corners. It was recognized many months ago that we needed to replace those guys. We’ll be inexperienced, but I really like the way we’re playing.”
<strong>Are there any players that have jumped out at you this spring with their performance?</strong>
“The guys that started out fast and playing at a high level continue to do that. I brought up Rashard and John. Devin Centers is doing some nice things too. When they get their opportunity, they understand how important it is to perform. Those are the guys that kind of stick out in my head. They’re trying to play at an elite level. There are some younger guys that we see their promise and the upside with them, they’re just not there yet. They need reps.”
<strong>What areas, if any, would you like to see the defense improve on from last year?</strong>
“It’s hard to say ‘improve from last year,’ because we’re not the same team. To me it’s an improvement in every area because this is a completely different ball club. When you lose the people that we lost to graduation, I think the biggest thing is that you can’t compare this year’s defense to last year’s defense. The only thing you can compare is the guys that played last year to get better this year. Since Day 1 of spring ball, we’ve been developing our own identity. We’re doing things that we need to get better at as a unit.
“The expectation is to play at a high level, but at the end of the day, it’s what this group does. It’s not about what we were last year, it’s about this unit and the group that’s here. This group has to continue to develop their identity. This group is very, very close at every position. There are not a lot of big egos and they’re not people who won’t communicate. That’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen this spring. I’m seeing a group that likes to play with each other and really likes to help each other out. In the long run, that’s really going to help.”
<strong>Without getting specific, are there any changes in store for the Aggie defense in 2014?</strong>
“We have a lot of defense. There are some things that are in our playbook that we didn’t run a lot or kept very limited last year. If you’re looking for something out of the norm, it’s in there, it just depends on how much we’re going to show it during the game. Every off-season we look at new ideas. We have a couple new guys that have come in and have things that have worked for them, so we take a look at those. This is the time to do that, here in the last week of spring. We have a pretty good grasp on what we want to do and we just try and get better from there.”
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