2014 Aggie football seniors ending careers as winningest group in school history

LOGAN, Utah – Utah State’s 2014 senior class is the first class in school history to not know what it feels like to be left out of postseason play. For the first time ever at USU, the Aggies will play in their fourth-straight bowl game, and they are looking for a third-straight bowl win.

If there’s one thing that this group of 21 seniors does, it’s win football games. In fact, this class of seniors, including CB La’Ron Bennett, P Jaron Bentrude, WR Ronald Butler, TE Jefferson Court, PK Nick Diaz, QB Craig Harrison, RB Joe Hill, WR Shaan Johnson, NG Elvis Kamana-Matagi, QB Chuckie Keeton, DE B.J. Larsen, LB Tavaris McMillian, RB Ernest Quicocho, CB Rashard Stewart, FS Brian Suite, OC Joe Summers, SS Frankie Sutera, OL Bill Vavau, LB Zach Vigil, OL Bryce Walker and OL Kevin Whimpey, is the winningest class of seniors in Utah State history, and they’ve done it under two head coaches. They were recruited by former head coach Gary Andersen under the idea of turning a program around, and are making that idea a reality by continuing the bowl streak under second-year head coach Matt Wells.

“I think the mere fact that they’re the winningest senior class says two things. Number one, they’ve put themselves in a position to win games. They’ve also learned that we don’t hope or pray to win games, we work for it. That doesn’t guarantee it, but it’s about work ethic and commitment to team,” Wells said. “Their work ethic and their commitment to the culture here is unmatched right now. It’s something that will be greatly missed.”

A few of the seniors red-shirted during the 2010 season, and they will be the last players to remember the way Aggie football had been before the change of culture that is described by so many current and former players. However, for those few seniors, it made all the winning they did much more special.

“It’s nice to be a part of something that turned the program around. We helped start something new,” Bentrude said. “We all know how it had been for the last several years, but we were a part of turning things around in Logan and getting to where we expect to win games.”

After the Aggies started winning more and more games each year, there was a mentality change in the locker room, as well as on the field. The Aggies had confidence, and they were no longer walking into games just hoping to compete. They expected to win.

“I think it just makes everything mean more,” Suite said. “We saw when things weren’t so good and when people didn’t expect to win. The mentality now isn’t that we want to win, but we expect it. We plan to go out there every week to dominate and win. It just makes everything we do that much more important and special to us. We’ve put in the work to make this program what it is, but we don’t want that to stop. We try to teach the young guys and wrap our arms around them. We’ve shown them how we’ve learned to do it through the experiences we’ve had.”

While this senior class knows it is the winningest group in Utah State history, they care more about passing their legacy on to the underclassmen, and hoping their record gets broken.

“Yeah, we’re the winningest senior class there is, but we want other senior classes to break our record. We don’t care about a number of wins, what we want is to win championships,” Whimpey said. “If we win more games than next year’s class, but they win a championship, then give it all to them. We’re trying to win championships, not games.”

It’s Utah State’s championship mentality that has bound the team together these past few seasons. For these seniors, it’s all about winning, as evidenced by their favorite games. Whimpey cites the Hawai’i game three years ago as the most defining game of his career, and many other players agree the program made a large leap forward after that game. Suite names the Poinsettia Bowl as his favorite game, while Bentrude said he will always remember beating Louisiana Tech to claim a share of the Western Athletic Conference Championship.

However, there were times when it looked like championships would elude these seniors. During the 2013 season, the injury bug hit Utah State, and the Aggies lost Keeton and Hill, along with other players.

“Everybody just had to step up a little bit more,” Court said. “We rallied around the people that were healthy.”

Even though the Aggies were down a few starters, the leaders looked to the next man up to make a big impact. With their strong mental focus and leadership skills, the Aggie continued winning, including a bowl victory against No. 24 Northern Illinois.

Coming into this season, Utah State had high expectations. The offense would look to be bolstered by the return of Keeton and Hill, while one of USU’s most experienced defenses was set to take the field. However, injuries piled up again, but the seniors used their experience from last year to lead the team to a fourth-straight year of bowl eligibility.

“Coach Wells has his ‘next man up’ mantra. We just rolled off of that,” Sutera said. “No one misses a step. If someone goes down, the next guy gets up and goes. We all have the trust that they’ll handle it, we never had to worry about it.”

The trust these seniors have in the rest of the team comes from spending so much time together. There’s the hours in practice, the hours in the film room and the time spent on the field together on game days. However, the relationship the players have goes beyond mere teammates.

“If we didn’t have good relationships with the younger guys, it would be tough for them to come in in these situations with injuries and things,” Sutera said. “We’re all really close, so they know we have their back and we can trust each other.”

The trust is evident on the field as more and more underclassmen, such as freshman quarterback Kent Myers and freshman running back LaJuan Hunt, are given more prominent roles on the team.

“Before LaJuan (Hunt) and Kent (Myers) were even playing, we’d hang out with them and work with them. We showed them that we cared about them and wanted them to be successful,” Suite said. “That’s paying dividends for us now, because they’re out there making plays on Saturdays. It helps us, it helps them and it helps the whole program.”

For this group of seniors, though, winning has never been simple. During their four years at Utah State, they have faced plenty of adversity and fought through it all, and are ready to pass their experience and knowledge on to a new generation of Aggies.

“It’s important to remember that wins aren’t easy to come by. They come with hard work; they don’t just happen,” Bentrude said. “It’s important to us to instill in the young guys that we have to keep doing things the right way if we want to continue to be successful.”

While always working hard to preserve the winning attitude and championship mentality, these seniors also understand the importance of staying together as a team no matter what.

“This team doesn’t fight. We don’t take things that happen on the field into the locker room,” Whimpey said. “When games get tough or we face adversity, the team doesn’t fracture. It’s the glue that holds us together. It’s what makes us tough.”

When this senior class looks back on its time at Utah State, it will remember all the adversity. The injuries piled up, there was a coaching change right in the middle of their careers and they jumped conferences from the WAC to the Mountain West. These seniors battled through all the adversity, and then came the incredible feeling of overcoming it and beating everybody’s expectations.

“I think we’ve had a lot of adversity, probably a lot more than other classes have. All of us have been put in leadership roles over the last few years and have had to become the guys that people look to,” Suite said. “It’s something that is unique about us and that will be stamped on us forever. We handled adversity, but still found a way to win games and continue on.”

One way these seniors are able to stay together and push through adversity is because of all the extra work they put in during the summer and behind the scenes.

“Not too many guys go home for the summer, so we worked out together and would do things on our own to keep working. We have our position groups and they want to follow the example we set,” Whimpey said. “They want to work during the summer, get the extra lifts in and watch the extra film, so that when we hit the ground running in fall camp we can be the best team that we can be. I love what we do behind the scenes.”

For this group of Aggies, as long as their teammates are out there working just as hard as they are, nobody sticks out above or below the rest of the team. This idea of nobody being above the team is something the seniors are proud to have helped instill in this program.

“It’s important for us to interact with everyone. You don’t see a divide in the groups that we hang out with,” Whimpey said. “Different classes, whether you play or don’t play, it doesn’t matter. We’re a family. It’s the friendships that we’ve created that really help us pass this tradition along.”

For Court, the reason Utah State is winning and has established a new culture is because of one thing.

“If you work hard, things will come to you,” Court said.

After all the wins, all the adversity, and all the records, it’s almost time for these seniors to hang up their cleats and end their careers as college football players.

“I don’t think it has hit any of us yet, because we take everything one game and one practice at a time,” Whimpey said. ”I don’t think it will be real to us until the bowl game is over and all of a sudden we don’t have practice the next day. Right now we’re thinking about the next game. I feel like I’m in the middle of the season.”

This senior class will hang its hat on all the wins they were able to string together, however their impact will last a long time, as they have taught their teammates the value of hard work, a winning attitude and total team play.

The players have left an impact on Utah State and the city of Logan, and USU and Logan have left a lasting impression on the seniors.

“I learned to love Logan. There’s not a lot to do here, but I love it. I would live here,” Whimpey said. “When I initially got here, that’s not at all what I thought. This is the place. It’s a football town and we just want to be successful.”

When all is said and done, these seniors will know that they played the biggest part in the resurgence of Aggie football.

Fans can follow the Aggie football program at twitter.com/USUFootball or on Facebook at Utah State Football, as well as on Instagram at instagram.com/USUFootball. Aggie fans can also follow the Utah State athletic program at twitter.com/USUAthletics or on Facebook at Utah State University Athletics.

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