Yesterday we glanced at the offense and coaching for the Utah State Aggies, and today the attention turns to the defensive side of the ball as well as special teams. Their defense was exceptional last season, but there are key pieces that need to be replaced.
Last season Utah State's defense only allowed 4.55 yards/play, which was good for fifth nationally. Their rush defense was second nationally - allowing just 2.79 yards/carry. Their pass defense was slightly worse, but was still 24th nationally in yards allowed per pass. Can their defense be that good again in 2014?
Part of the reason their rush defense was so good was that they had an excellent defensive line. They lost Paul Piukala and AJ Pataiali'i, but return B.J. Larsen, Jordan Nielsen and Ricky Ali'ifua. Those three combined for 15.5 tackles for loss last season. Their line should not be an issue, and will be the deepest unit this team has.
Their linebackers were also exceptional last season. They lose leading tackler Jake Doughty, but they return their other three starters who combined for 185.5 total tackles last season. Depth could potentially be an issue here, but their starters are excellent.
The secondary is a big question mark for this team. They return starting safety Brian Suite, but they lost safety Maurice Alexander and their four best cornerbacks. Senior corner Rashard Stewart will be heavily relied upon, because the other players have a significant lack of experience. And by that I mean almost no playing time whatsoever.
Utah State is very good in the kicking game. Punter Jaron Bentrude averages 39.8 yards/punt and nearly half of those forced a fair catch. Kickoff specialist Jake Thompson was 26th nationally in touchback %, and place kicker Nick Diaz was money last season. He made 51 of his 52 PAT's and was 13-17 on field goals of less than 40 yards and 4-6 on field goals of 40 yards or longer. Jo Jo Natson was an excellent punt returner last year and took two to the crib. The Aggies lost their leading kickoff returners, but should probably look to allow Natson to perform double duty.
This team has an excellent quarterback, front seven, and special teams. That said, the question marks at offensive line and in the secondary could derail this team. The headline is the excellent quarterback, but Chuckie Keeton can only perform so many miracles if he has a terrible offensive line. Wake Forest's defense should allow the Deacs to stay in the game, but this front seven will be a very difficult one for Wake's offense to go against. Because of Wake's inexperience at quarterback, they may also not be able to take advantage of Utah State's suspect secondary. I don't think this one ends very well for the Deacs.
My way too early prediction for this one:
Utah State 20
Check back next week for a preview of Army, marking the end of Wake Forest's non-conference schedule.