<em><em>Editor’s note: This is part two of a nine part series that will highlight each position group of the USU football team leading up to the season opener on Aug. 30 against Southern Utah.</em></em>
<strong>LOGAN—</strong>The USU defensive front has been a concern for Aggie head coach Gary Andersen since he first took the job four years ago. A former offensive lineman, Andersen is notoriously hard on the group he used to compete against and demands a lot.
The schemes the Aggies use on defense with their 3-4 front also puts an emphasis on depth and big physical defensive linemen – neither of which Utah State has been overly blessed with in the past. However, even with the loss of starting defensive ends Quinn Garner and Levi Koskan, the 2012 defensive front may be the best in the Andersen era.
“This is the most depth we’ve had, and this is probably the most talent we’ve had as a group – and size,” USU defensive line coach Frank Maile said. “It’s been a struggle with getting bigger bodies here, and we have them.”
The Aggies certainly seem to have plenty of size this season. Redshirt freshman Travis Seefeldt comes over from the offensive line with his 6 foot 2 inch, 299 pound frame. Both Maile and Andersen spoke highly of Seefeldt’s motor, and said he is a name to watch out for.
USU also brought in some beef from the junior college ranks. Juniors Sini Tauauve’a (6’2”, 339) and AJ Pataiali’i (6’3”, 307) both join the Aggies from Snow College – Pataiali’i just officially joined the team Thursday, after clearing up some academic issues. Paul Piukala (6’5”, 255) is another JC transfer that has performed well in camp and is expected to contribute.
“Sini in the middle, he’s a guy that came in here and has been working his butt off since day one. First he was losing weight, and now he’s getting his technique down and he’s got a motor. That’s a big 340 man that’s running all around the field, so we’re real happy about him,” junior defensive end Connor Williams said.
“We’ve got Paul who came in … he’s been here he’s been working real hard and I’m actually giving him the nickname “Playmaker Paul.” AJ’s another guy who just joined us today, he’s a great athlete and he’s freaky. He’s going to be playing real well for us as well.”
Coming off of a season where he registered 28 tackles (3 for loss) and two sacks in relief of Garner and Koskan, Williams is the unquestioned leader of the defensive line. He will be joined at defensive end by senior Al Lapuaho.
“He kind of runs the show as far as the D-Line. They look to him as the leader of the group and he does a great job with it,” Maile said of Williams. “In my opinion, he’s one of those leaders you always need in a group. You can point him out and use him as an example of what to do and how to do it. I wish he’d be more vocal, but his example speaks louder than most people vocally.”
Along with Williams and Lapuaho, there is also a host of players returning to the defensive line. Senior Havea Lasike returns in the middle of the line, and is the projected starter after recording 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. Sophomore Tevita Vaifo’ou also returns with a year of experience under his belt as he recorded nine tackles and recovered a fumble in 2011.
At the end positions, junior B.J. Larsen is expected to see an increased role after breaking out last year, and redshirt freshman Jordan Nielsen is also expected to have an impact. Sophomore Elvis Kamanga-Matagi may be one of the most versatile defensive linemen, as he will see time at both defensive end and nose guard.
“All of those kids are very capable of taking snaps in a Division I football game. How good they are remains to be seen in the big picture, but I feel better than I have in the past about that crew just from a sheer numbers standpoint,” Andersen said. “Last year, Quinn and Levi had to play every snap or we had a major problem, and that’s not the case this year.”
With the influx of size and talent, Williams is also expecting big things.
“I think this is the most physically gifted the D-Line has ever been – since I’ve been here at least,” Williams said. “These guys are really working hard, and that’s another key thing to. If you have the talent, but you don’t work hard, you can’t put anything together. This D-Line has both of those intangibles, and I’m looking for great things this season to happen.”