An Offseason Look: Utah State

The Aggies didn't make much of a splash in the Sun Belt Conference in their inaugural season in the league, but 2004 might be a different story. Coming out of spring practice, Utah State's improved defense from a year ago looked even better as it dominated the entire spring drills.

With seven starters back on that side of the ball, coach Mick Dennehy has to feel good about his team's chances in the fall.

Linebacker Robert Watts and safety Terrance Washington are all-conference candidates who are coming off solid seasons, and defensive lineman Michael Gates had an excellent spring.

Utah State ranked 111th in total defense in 2002 but ranked 45th last season.

"They have made significant strides and they are playing with confidence," said Dennehy. "I think the depth we are trying to develop is coming along, particularly in the secondary."

Offensively, USU returns only four starters, but quarterback Travis Cox returns after throwing for more than 2,700 yards a year ago.

The receiving corps is untested but Raymond Hicks had a great spring and Tarrell Richards, Lawrence Lovelace, Tony Pennyman and Tushambi Evans all made progress.

"Ray Hicks is twice the player today as he was at any point in time last year," Dennehy told the Herald Journal. "Tony Pennyman has improved and had a good spring. Lovelace has made good progress as a new guy."

The running game is a huge question mark, and it wasn't answered in the spring.

Travis Davis was suspended and might not return to the team, leaving walk-on Ryan Kemp and senior Tyrone McKinney as the only two tailbacks.

However, five new backs will arrive in the fall, including junior college star Emmanuel Marc, who rushed for 3,700 yards in two seasons.

"One area that has been unanswered is our ability to run the football," Dennehy told the Herald Journal. "We need to get better at the running game, show improvement. If we can do that, we have a chance to be a good football team."

The offensive line also is young. Donald Penn will likely earn all-league honors but the group must do a better job protecting the quarterback this year.

"We have a little work to do on offensive line," Dennehy said. "It's tough to put three new bodies in and learn all you need to know in 15 practices."

Preseason Predictions: Quarterbacks ranked third in Sun Belt by Athlon.

Key Game: Oct. 2 at Troy State -- The Aggies haven't won a road game in more than two years and this conference game will be critical for their chances of contending in the league. It also will be an opportunity to avenge a home loss to Troy State in 2003.

The Mindset: If the Aggies can get the road monkey off their back, they have to feel as if they will compete for the Sun Belt title in 2004. However, USU hasn't won a road game in two years and needs to win one early to set the tone for what could be a solid season. Like New Mexico State, USU will leave the Sun Belt for the WAC after 2004 and would like nothing more than to win the league championship.

Big Shoes to Fill: TE Chris Cooley -- The third-round NFL draft pick led the Aggies with 62 receptions and six touchdowns in 2003.

Quote to Note: "I feel good about where we are at defensively. I think those guys will stay hungry and not be satisfied. They will take it upon themselves to try and get better. I'm excited about that." -- USU coach Mick Dennehy, in the Herald Journal, referring to his team's defense, which should be the strength of the Aggies in 2004.

Projected Offensive Stars: QB Travis Cox -- In his first real action as a junior in 2003, he threw for more than 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns, with just seven interceptions.

OL Donald Penn -- The 6-5, 302-pounder is the anchor of the offensive line and will be a key to protecting QB Travis Cox.

Projected Defensive Stars: LB Robert Watts -- He led the Aggies with 118 tackles, including six for losses and two forced fumbles as a junior in 2003.

DB Terrance Washington -- He was one of the surprises in the Sun Belt last year as a freshman, registering 93 tackles and leading the Aggies with five interceptions. Top Stories