Spring football underway for Year 3 of Andersen era
Published: Friday, March 25, 2011
Updated: Friday, March 25, 2011 18:03
The third season for USU head football coach Gary Andersen took its first major step forward Wednesday as the football team took to the practice field for the start of spring practices.
"It's great to be out here," Andersen said. "There was a lot of excitement and a lot of energy from the kids for the first day."
Among those players who were excited to return to the field was junior running back Robert Turbin, whose return to football has been long-awaited since he tore his anterior cruciate ligament following a 2009 season in which he earned second team all-Western Athletic Conference honors.
"Obviously it was a great first day for me," Turbin said. "I am happy to be back with the team. I am just having fun with the guys, the camaraderie with the guys and being in the locker room; it is all smiles for me."
While Turbin says his knee is feeling 100 percent after more than a year of recovery time, Andersen isn't ready to turn him completely loose for spring practices despite his excitement at seeing the return of one of his team's superstars.
"It's great to see him out there," Andersen said. "He's been itching to get out and we'll be very, very careful with him. We know what he can do on game day and the goal is to get him confidence and feel great with his knee."
While excitement surrounds Turbin's return, a shred of uncertainty is hanging over Andersen and offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin as they have some big shoes to fill in replacing three-year starting quarterback Diondre Borel. As of right now, that role is a three-way battle between sophomore Jeremy Higgins, redshirt freshman Alex Hart and junior college transfer Adam Kennedy.
Among those three, Higgins is the only player with any Division I experience, completing 4-6 passes for 22 yards in limited back-up duties to Borel last season. Kennedy, who comes to USU from San Joaquin Delta College, completed 64.8 percent of his passes as a sophomore last season, piling up 1,767 yards and 15 touchdowns along the way. Hart has yet to see any action at the college level, but will still be in the thick of the quarterback battle that Andersen says he'd prefer to have settled by the end of the spring.
Regardless of who wins the starting quarterback job, the offense looks to be going through some changes next season, with the biggest change being a more physical approach and running more plays from under-center rather than primarily operation out of shotgun formations.
"Maybe 90 to 95 percent of the time we would be in shotgun and it is probably going to be a little bit of the opposite of that," Turbin said. "I am enjoying that a little better because we can utilize the running backs in the game a little bit more as far as play-actions and in the run game also."
The offense isn't the only unit that has changes on the horizon. This offseason, Andersen made known his intentions to switch the defense from a 4-3 front to a 3-4, with the purpose of utilizing what looks to be a deep linebacker core next season.
"On the first day with no pads, it looked great," Andersen said of the new defensive scheme. "It's definitely going to be a work in progress for a little bit, but I still believe that it fits our personnel the best and we have recruited to that for the junior college kids we have coming in next year."
Anchoring that group of linebackers is two-time all-WAC first-teamer Bobby Wagner, who said he is having fun with the new defense, even if it's coming with a new learning curve for the linebackers.
"It's pretty new, so everybody is going to mess up," Wagner said. "We understand that, so we just have to do what we've got to do in order to perfect that."
Along with the changes to the offensive and defensive schemes, a few players have been shuffled around to new positions this offseason in moves that Andersen believes will be of greater benefit to both the individual players and the team as a whole in the long run.
Among those changes is junior Dontel Watkins, who will be moving to defensive back this season after leading the Aggies in pass receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions last year as a wide receiver. Andersen said he isn't yet sure if Watkins will be cornerback or a safety, but that he wants the former wideout to learn both positions and see where he is able to make the biggest impact.
Another player shifting around will be sophomore Rashard Stewart, who spent last season splitting time between cornerback and wide receiver. Andersen has settled on Stewart as a receiver, and has high hopes that he can be an impact player at that position.
"That's where we believe he can the most effective," Andersen said of Stewart playing wideout. "We need a young man that can make something special happen when he gets the ball in his hands, and I believe that Rashard's going to be able to do that as he progresses."
The team will have 15 total practices throughout the spring to adjust to new schemes and positions in preparation for a season where the team feels they have an opportunity to do something special if they pay their dues during the rest of the offseason.
"We will continue to grow," Turbin said. "Our goal is always to win, we want to win, we want to win the WAC championship and we know that it is wide open this year and that is what we are looking toward."
Practices are scheduled for every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2:45-4:30 p.m. each week leading up to the annual spring football game April 23 at 2 p.m. All practices are tentatively open to the public, but spectators are asked to remain off the field.