‘Joker’ Wagner’s intensity on the field is no laughing matter
Published: Friday, October 22, 2010
Updated: Friday, October 22, 2010 02:10
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who can pull off wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backup, and those who can't.
USU football player Bobby Wagner is one of those who can.
"What can you say? He's into the ninja turtles," said teammate Rajric Coleman, laughing. "That's his thing, so you can't hate. I like the backpack – I like the ninja turtles too."
As the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) leading tackler with 12.2 stops per game, Wagner could probably get away with wearing a Bob the Builder backpack if he wanted to. But for the junior linebacker who teammates describe simply as "a joker," the Aggies' lack of success this year has been nothing to laugh about.
"We have to realize that every Division 1 football game is hard to win," Wagner said after USU's most recent defeat, a 24-6 loss at Louisiana Tech two weeks ago. "Until that happens we're going to have our difficulties."
Count Wagner among the Aggies who have been hard at work in the two weeks since the loss, working tirelessly on the practice field and in the film room to prepare for the Hawaii Warriors (5-2, 3-0 WAC) and their first-ranked passing offense. The Warriors, who stunned then-No. 19 Nevada in a 27-21 upset last week, are among the hottest teams in the entire country, and have been scoring at will against opposing defenses. Not a good sign for an Aggie team which struggled mightily on defense against the Warriors last season, giving up 35 unanswered points to lose 49-36 in Honolulu. According to Wagner, the defense is ready to make up for its mistakes not only last year, but in this year's losses as well.
"When we went out there to play against them we didn't really have a good showing," said Wagner, who also ranks third in the nation in tackles per game. "Now that they're coming into our house, we have to make sure we're prepared. We know that they're one of the top 10 offenses in the nation, so we have to come out ready to play and ready to stop the pass."
Stopping the pass will be easier said than done for Wagner and Utah State (2-4, 0-2 WAC), who'll have to contend with the nation's leader in total offense in Hawaii signal caller Bryant Moniz, as well as one of the country's best receiving duos in Greg Salas and Kealoha Pilares.
Salas and Pilares, who enter the game with 18 touchdown passes between them, are especially dangerous in the underneath zones, using their quickness and open field moves to elude defenders after lining up in the slot before the snap.
"They are very well-rounded receivers," said USU head coach Gary Andersen. "They are physical, very good route runners and they understand exactly where they fit within the offensive scheme."
"You can see where Hawaii is having a lot of success, from 13 to 20 yards in the middle of the field, and that is where Salas and Pilares have been effective making plays," Andersen said.
According to Coleman, what separates Salas and Pilares is their consistency catching the ball and their ability to make plays after the catch.
"I think their best asset is that they don't drop balls," Coleman said. "They have very strong hands and catch everything, so we have to be on them the entire time. They're going to catch the short routes, so the key for us is to make those tackles."
Fortunately for Utah State, having the nation's third leading tackler should help, especially when it comes to Moniz checking down to his favorite targets in the flats. Wagner, whose athleticism is second to none on the Aggie defense, rarely misses a tackle, and said the key to stopping Hawaii's passing attack will be to stay disciplined and focused throughout the entire 60 minutes of play.
"We just try to stay disciplined," Wagner said. "Last year, I think, the reason the game turned out how it did was because we weren't disciplined and didn't come out ready to play."
Wagner, for his part, is reluctant to talk about his own accolades. Saying only that he would "rather have a lot of wins and no accolades than a lot of accolades and no wins," he comes across as soft-spoken and almost timid when not on the field. While he's far from the most vocal of leaders, Coleman said that when the Aggie linebacker speaks, people listen.
"He is (vocal) when he needs to be," Coleman said. "When it's at those critical times he's vocal. We definitely hear him because of that."
What sets Wagner apart, according to Coleman, is the linebackers' wide range of skills. A two-way standout at Colony High School in Ontario, Calif., Wagner also played tight end at the prep level. Once at Utah State he brought an amazing work ethic and unmatched level of resilience to the field. A team captain as only a junior, Wagner has started 26 career games for Utah State, including an amazing 21 straight. The truly amazing thing? Wagner doesn't take plays off – on defense, special teams or the practice field
"He has a very good range of skills," Coleman said. "He's strong and can bang with all the offensive linemen, but at the same time he's an athlete and can go out and cover slots. He's the type of guy who'll do whatever you ask him on the football field. He runs down on punts and all of those ‘effort' things, so it's an asset to have a player like Bobby on the field all the time."
Of course, there is that issue of the backpack, which Wagner routinely carries around campus. It's all part of a persona that makes the linebacker a true "individual," especially when he's rocking it with his straight-rimmed "science geek" glasses.