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Defense! Defense! Scrimmage shows Aggie football improved on both sides of the line

April 26th, 2010 Posted in Sports

By Dan Fawson

LOGAN—Oh, what a difference a year makes.

The Utah State football team concluded its spring practice season Saturday afternoon with its annual Blue-White Game, a full-contact intra-squad scrimmage meant to give coaches and fans an idea of where the team sits heading into the summer.

Last spring’s scrimmage saw a transitioning Aggie defense lag woefully behind a rapidly progressing offense, a trend that marked most of the regular 2009 season. With the program entering its second year under head coach Gary Anderson, the Aggies now appear to be a much more complete team as the Aggies prepare for the 2010 season.

“I think it’s gone back and forth offense to defense, which is a good thing,” Anderson said in giving his assessment of the entire spring camp. “Last year, it was completely one-sided for almost all of the spring, and the offense dominated. I think throughout (this) spring, all 15 practices, there’s been give and take on both offense and defense, and I think that shows progress.”

That defensive progress hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Aggie offense, either.

“They’re out there flying to the ball,” starting quarterback Diondre Borel said. “I feel like they’re making a lot more plays, now. They’re a lot more aggressive, and that’s what Coach Anderson wanted.”

On a sunny Merlin Olsen Field Saturday, one Aggie in particular appeared to be making a lot of plays for both the first- and second-team defense. Senior Maxim Dinka Mba, a converted linebacker now playing defensive end, was all over the field Saturday, accounting for eight tackles, one sack, and a fumble recovery. Listed at 218 lbs., Dinka Mba is undersized for the end position, but may be able to use his speed to create mismatches against bigger offensive tackles.

“It’s an awesome position,” he said. “I love the position—I feel like it fits me.”

Junior Devin Johnson, a linebacker who has also been seeing time on the defensive line, accounted for five tackles, one for loss, in the scrimmage, and senior cornerback Curtis Marsh had three tackles and a pass break-up.

Anderson, who came to Utah State after serving as defensive coordinator at the University of Utah, was pleased with the improvement his defense made throughout the spring, but also lamented the one major shortcoming he saw in Saturday’s scrimmage: few big defensive plays.

“In 70 snaps, we got one turnover,” he said. “That’s not enough. We need more turnovers.”

That one takeaway came when freshman cornerback Cameron Sanders, a converted wide receiver, leapt to pick off an errant pass thrown by sophomore quarterback Steve Vincent. Junior linebacker Junior Keiaho had a near pick late in the scrimmage when he stepped in front of a pass thrown over the middle by senior quarterback Jeff Fischer, but the ball went in and out of Keiaho’s hands. The Aggies also failed to fall on a fumbled option exchange between Borel and senior running back Derrvin Speight.

While the defense has been receiving a great deal of attention during the spring, the Aggie offense appears poised to build off of a stellar 2009 season. And it all starts with the quarterback.

Coming off a 2009 campaign in which he broke USU’s single-season record for total yards, even bigger things are now expected from Borel. He looked up to the task Saturday, completing 9-14 passes for 161 yards and four touchdowns, and displaying improved poise and decision-making in the pocket.

“I thought he had a tremendous spring,” Anderson said of Borel, noting the coaching staff had been expecting that out of its senior leader.

Borel also received praise from his teammates, who noted how much their quarterback has improved after a full year as the starting signal-caller.

“He’s got more comfortable back there – more trust in everybody,” junior wide receiver Stanley Morrison said of Borel. “Last year, he was just kind of getting used to sitting back there in the pocket and throwing the ball.”

“That’s what I need to do, is to get comfortable with the system,” Borel said, stressing the importance of play-repetition and the need for him to continue to improve in reading coverages. “Same plays over and over again – it gets you relaxed a little bit, so you know what you’re going to look for and who you’re going to throw to at certain points.”

The Aggies have been without second-team all-conference running back Robert Turbin this spring, after the junior tore his ACL during a workout in early February. Turbin’s absence has afforded a number of Aggie players the opportunity to display their playmaking abilities, most notably Morrison.

Returning as Borel’s favorite receiving target from last season, Morrison has been lining up in multiple positions in Aggie offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin’s spread offense this spring. Along with his receiving duties, he has also become the team’s primary wildcat quarterback, and, as evidenced Saturday, a featured weapon in USU’s misdirection rushing attack.

During the third play of the scrimmage’s opening series, which featured USU’s first-team offense competing against the second-team defense, Morrison took a handoff from Borel, sprinted around the right side, made a few Aggie tacklers miss, and quickly made his way up the sideline for a 63-yard touchdown run.

Morrison reached the end zone again during the scrimmage’s situational drills, when he broke open running a corner route to the right side of the end zone and caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Borel. Morrison finished his explosive day with a team-high 88 rushing yards on three carries, and also hauled in three receptions for 35 yards.

“That’s my job,” Morrison said. “I’ve got to make plays. If I don’t make plays, I ain’t doing my job.”

Anderson praised Morrison’s playmaking ability following the scrimmage, but also noted that the star wide receiver has improved in a number of other areas, as well.

“A year ago I thought Stanley Morrison had great speed and could run,” Anderson said, “but what you see now is Stanley is making people miss, you seem him catching the ball over the middle, and you also see him . . . as a tremendous leader.”

A number of other Aggie receivers also got in on the action Saturday, including a pair of junior college transfers hoping to make an immediate impact on this year’s team.

Matt Austin, a junior who ran with the first-team, had two catches for 44 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown on a fade route thrown by Borel.

Xavier Martin, a junior running with the second-team offense, pulled down a 12-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Jeff Fischer, and also saw time as the second-team’s Wildcat quarterback.

After officially concluding the spring season, the Aggies will now have an offseason of downtime and summer conditioning, before beginning fall practice in early August. They open the season Sept. 4, on the road against perennial national power Oklahoma, followed by the home-opener a week later against Idaho State.

While last season was largely positive for the rebuilding Aggie program, much of it was spent trying to help players transition into new offensive and defensive systems. With a full year under their belts, the Aggies feel they are poised to take an even bigger step forward in 2010.

“I think everybody is comfortable, because we know what to expect,” Morrison said. “We know what the coaches want, and we know where we want to get, and we know how to play. We know we’re going to play fast, and we know we’re going to play smart and make plays.”


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