Aggies deep in the offensive trenches
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an eight-part series previewing the position units of Utah State’s football team: Next: Defensive Line.
During his program’s annual media day, Utah State head football coach Matt Wells raved about the depth of his offensive line and asserted there were eight players who could legitimately compete for the two undecided starting positions.
With a trio of returning starters — all three of whom earned All-Mountain West honorable mention accolades during the 2015 season and are seniors now — coupled with a nice blend of junior college transfers, freshmen and guys who redshirted a year ago, the Aggies appear to be in good hands in the offensive trenches.
“I mean, the depth is definitely there,” said senior Jake Simonich, who has started 28 games at USU. “It’s really just getting everybody on the same page and we’re getting everybody to understand how we want to work. And I think we are achieving that. We’re about halfway through (fall) camp right now and I’m liking where we’re at.”
Simonich is one of three USU O-linemen who started every game a year ago and will be a three-year starter, along with center Austin Stephens. Stephens and Simonich were both selected to the All-Mountain West Preseason Team. No other school had more than one offensive lineman dubbed to that squad.
“I mean, it’s a great honor to be put in that category, but it’s just a testament to where this team is and where this program has gone,” Stephens said. “A couple of years ago that probably wouldn’t have happened because we were new (in the MW), but now we’re starting to get recognition because of our team, our effort and the results that we’re putting out there.”
Steve Farmer, who is in his first season at USU’s offensive line coach, spoke highly of his soon-to-be three-year starters. Farmer praised Simonich for his hard work “every day,” and singled out Stephens’ leadership, knowledge of the game and “competitive nature.”
Simonich is one of the most versatile O-linemen in the conference and has been moving between right tackle and right guard during fall camp. The 6-foot-5, 305-pounder will likely begin the season at right guard. He was the starting right tackle during the ’15 campaign.
“At the end of the day we want to put our best five (O-linemen) out there,” said Farmer when asked about Simonich’s position change.
USU’s other returning starter is senior left tackle Austin Albrecht, who Farmer proclaimed “is just extremely talented.” Albrecht (6-5, 300) spent most of last season at left tackle, but started the final two games at right guard.
The Aggies’ other two projected starters in the offensive trenches are relatively inexperienced at the Division I level, but both garnered the acclaim of Farmer for there improvement. Preston Brooksby, who redshirted his first season at USU, is the frontrunner for the starting right tackle spot, while fellow junior college transfer Jude Hockel (6-4, 290) should start at left guard.
Hockel, who was singled out for his strong play in spring and fall camp by Simonich, played in five games a year ago, although mostly on special teams. Brooksby (6-5, 295) is a junior and Hockel a senior.
Sophomore guard KJ Uluave (6-4, 300) is another player who could start for the Aggies during the 2016 campaign. Uluave competed in a pair of games a year ago.
Other offensive linemen who should figure into the mix for playing time this season are junior Brandon Taukeiaho (6-2, 305), true freshmen Demytrick Ali’ifua, JUCO transfer Sean Taylor (6-5, 310) and true freshman Villamu McMoore (6-5, 295). Ali’ifua is the younger brother of USU senior defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua, who was named to the preseason all-league team.
Stephens (6-3, 315) is pleased with the progress the offensive line has made so far during fall camp. The goal now is just to keep fine-tuning things, whether it’s blocking technique, foot work and communication.
“That’s the thing with offensive line play is you’re never going to be perfect and so if we can keep correcting things every day and keep fixing those things as we go (we’ll be in good shape),” Stephens said. “But we’ve come a long way in a lot of areas, I think, with communication and technique. Guys are buying into this program, so I think that’s awesome to see.”
Simonich agreed and went on to talk about the importance of having a short memory as an offensive lineman.
“It’s Division I football, Mountain West Conference, so you’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some,” he said. “It’s just the way it is, but it’s really about how you come back after that and how you don’t go in the gutter after you don’t accomplish your goal for that play. It’s really about coming back with a positive attitude and not dwelling on what just happened.”
As far as Farmer is concerned, better communication is going to be the focal point throughout the rest of fall camp.
“The big thing to us right now is we’re trying to make sure we’re communicating better,” Farmer said. ”... We’re up and down right now. We’ve had some moments where we’ve been really, really good, (Wednesday) not so good, but you’re seeing it coming along, you’re seeing us getting better, more consistent day by day right now.”
Making sure the O-linemen are on the same page from snap to snap is one of Stephen’s biggest objectives.
“We want to be great as one (unit) and we want to play as one every week,” he said. “I mean, that’s our goal is to play as five. You can’t have success on the offensive line if one guy messes up.”