Amidst changes, Aggie defenders brimming with confidence

LOGAN, Utah – There’s an infectious enthusiasm on the sidelines of Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium this spring, and a growing sense of anticipation for what many hope will be a breakthrough 2011 season. The boisterous choir of pads meeting pads in scrimmage collisions isn’t just an exercise in depth chart sorting, however, and with head coach Gary Andersen implementing a new 3-4 scheme, the annual rite of spring has taken on new meaning for Utah State’s veteran defenders. “It’s really exciting,” defensive end Levi Koskan said of the new 3-4 defense. “It’s a great change. I’m loving it, absolutely loving it.” Koskan has been loving the change so much that he’s become one of the most vocal Aggies through the first two weeks of spring camp, loudly cheering on his fellow defenders despite being held out of drills as he recovers from offseason ACL surgery. As the Aggies’ leader in sacks with 8.5 from a year ago, Koskan has embraced this spring’s defensive changes, saying that the new scheme not only conforms to Andersen’s aggressive, pressure oriented style of defense, but that the 3-4 fits USU’s personnel better than the 4-3 defense the Aggies have previously featured. It’s just one new wrinkle in a spring season that features several new twists on defense, including the ascension of Andersen to defensive coordinator on a full-time basis. Other coaching changes include the hiring of two fulltime defensive assistants in Frank Maile with the defensive line and Kendrick Shaver with the cornerbacks, taking over for Chad Kauha’aha’a and Corey Raymond, respectively. For Andersen, who served as defensive coordinator at the University of Utah before coming to Logan, the chance to be more intimately involved with the defense as it transitions to its new base look has been both enjoyable and rewarding. “It’s fun to be out and be involved with the kids every single day at a very high level,” said Andersen, who has assigned last year’s defensive coordinator, Bill Busch, to special teams and defensive backs. Andersen went on to say that his job this season will be “a little different” but that he’s excited by the challenge. Once more, he’s pleased with his coaching hires, and has been impressed with Shaver’s ability to step right in and buy into the program’s philosophy. “Kendrick is doing a great job,” Andersen said. “Right now he is everything that I thought he would be. He cares about the kids first, which is always number one with me, and he’s a genuine guy.” That his new coaching hires seem to be working out is no surprise, but Andersen knows that when it comes to spring scrutiny, all eyes will be focused on how his players adapt to the new scheme. After a 4-8 overall and 2-6 Western Athletic Conference season that saw the USU defense finish 100th in the country and near the bottom in sacks (109th) and tackles for a loss (117th), Andersen faced a dilemma heading into the offseason. The defense had to get better, yet with four linemen with starting experience graduating, improvement wasn’t going to come solely from experience. Enter the 3-4. Popularized in the National Football League during the 1970s and 1980s, the 3-4 defense takes advantage of four speedy and instinctive linebackers who play with both gap integrity and the ability to drop into coverage. Fortunately for Andersen, USU isn’t short on linebackers, with first-team all-WAC inside linebacker Bobby Wagner returning along with starters Kyle Gallagher and Jake Doughty. Wagner, who led the WAC with 11.8 tackles per game in 2010, has been licking his chops when it comes to his and his fellow linebackers’ jobs in the new scheme. “I think its pretty well ‘backer wise, because it frees a lot of the ‘backers up,” Wagner said of the 3-4. “You can definitely tell that in practice we’re making more plays, just because we haven’t got as many linemen on us.” With three of the linebackers positions set with Wagner, Gallagher and Doughty, the Aggies are now in search of another outside linebacker to complete the foursome. Until junior college All-American Bojay Filimoeatu arrives in camp this summer, competition for the spot is expected to remain heated for the remainder of the spring. However, Andersen and Wagner are excited to see how it turns out, especially with the returning starters taking time out to allow the younger players to gain valuable practice reps. “The young linebacking crew is going to have a lot of opportunities to get themselves on the field,” Andersen said. Wagner has been especially high on two players in particular, including sophomore Zach Vigil and highly touted redshirt-freshman Tavaris McMillian. During a recent scrimmage, both players made several plays, including McMillian, who fought off several blocks to make a tackle for a loss while coming on a blitz from the outside. Andersen said that plays like those are indicative of the progress the defense has made, and the intensity he hopes to see continue through April. “All in all, I feel good about it,” Andersen said of the way the 3-4 is progressing. “I think we’ve settled in a little bit. We’re very, very young, but I think we’re running around and flying to the football. The key is the kids understand what we’re teaching them. Then they can apply it on the field without thinking about it, so they can go out and react and play.” The linebackers aren’t the only ones excited about the switch to the 3-4. While he admits he was skeptical of the switch at first, even Koskan has benefited from the change. Despite having one less player on the line in 2011, Koskan thinks the new 3-4 defense will be beneficial for the unit and help increase its production. “It’s simplified our job responsibilities, and that’s allowed us to play more freely and better,” he said. “Across the board I’ve seen massive improvements among the guys. Even the younger guys who have just come into the program, they’re picking it up faster and we’ve been able to implement them in different ways.” Koskan thinks those improvements are paying dividends for the entire team, and helping to strengthen the competition level with an offense that returns nine starters, including former all-WAC running back Robert Turbin. “The battle right now between the offense and the defense is just fun, it’s great, and it’s making both sides better,” Koskan said. “The defense is wrapping its arm around the scheme. That just carries over to more energy, more intensity, and then more fun.” Koskan said that the new scheme asks USU’s defensive linemen to play “rough and tough” in the trenches, but that it’ll allow the two defensive ends more freedom of movement in how they generate pressure. Because they’ll no longer be asked to drop into coverage, Koskan, along with senior end Quinn Garner, won’t have to worry about thinking as much on the field, and will be able to read and react as the play develops. That sense of freedom has been contagious for the rest of the defense, and already fostered hopes for an exciting turnaround. “The energy, and just the chemistry of the team, has been the highest I’ve been around since I’ve been here,” Koskan said. Andersen continues to stress that the defensive changes won’t turn the team around overnight, but he’s confident that if the players can continue to learn and improve, than the previously maligned Aggie defense will be flying high by September. “The most important things for us right now are running to the football, playing with some emotion, and being a consistent, tough, good-tackling defense everyday.” -USU-

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