The fellas over at Weber State Weekly for weberstateweekly.com were kind enough to collaborate with me on a set of 10 questions about the Aggies third opponent of the 2022 season. The Weber State Wildcats will come into Logan Saturday afternoon as the #16 FCS team in the nation. Huge shout out to the Weber State Weekly guys for joining me this week!!
Head Coach Jay Hill’s calling card has been defense for quite some time. What is it about his philosophy that makes his teams so successful defensively year in and year out?
Jay’s teams are almost a carbon copy of Kyle Whittingham’s teams at Utah. Same system, the same philosophies. It’s a program that is built on a defense that will win you ball games. Hill has a proven track record of taking under-recruited defensive players and turning them into All-Conference, All-American, or professional players. His defenses typically have disruptive edge rushers and some of the best secondaries in FCS.
The Wildcat roster is loaded with players from the State of Utah, especially the two-deep depth chart. Talk about the success that Coach Hill and his staff have in recruiting and developing in-state kids?
It’s funny to look at the regime prior to Jay Hill and see where the recruiting base was. Weber State had kids from all over the country, with a lot of them coming from Florida and Hawaii. When Jay stepped in, there was an immediate shift in the recruiting philosophy. The roster is now made up of kids from Utah, Idaho, the Pacific Northwest, and the Bay Area with some southern California as well. They have also made recent in-roads to Texas and we’re seeing lots of players coming up from the Lone Star state.
Utah is an underrated state for high school football talent. The Weber State staff knows this and has focused on it. Because of Hill’s winning philosophy with the Wildcats, Weber has seen a lot of success recruiting in Utah and has even won recruiting battles against FBS schools.
Signing players is only half of the battle, though. One of Jay and his staff’s biggest strengths is player development. His ability to pinpoint Utah high school targets and maximize their potential is what has lifted the Wildcats from football irrelevancy to becoming a common feature on ESPN on the FCS stage.
Sophomore quarterback Bronson Barron is basically going into his third season as the starter, having won the starting gig during the covid shortened spring season of 2021. How has he developed since day one and what could he still improve on?
Barron’s career has been funny. He went off in his very first career game against Idaho State at the beginning of the Spring 2021 season, winning Big Sky Conference Player of the Week. But he’s yet to match that kind of success since.
There have been injuries, there has been a COVID year, and there has been a change in offensive coordinators, but his accuracy has to improve in order for Weber State to be the team that it aspires to be.
Senior running back Josh Davis is in his final season at Weber State. He has already amassed 3,218 career rushing yards. Just how big has Josh been for Weber State over the years?
Davis’ production at RB largely came from his Freshman and Sophomore years, logging 2,498 of those 3,218 yards. Each of his first two seasons, he eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and was a big part of the Wildcats’ success in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. But health has been a challenge for him. He had a string of injuries in the 2021 Spring and Fall seasons that largely sidelined him. But, with a normal offseason and camp schedule, we’re told that Josh is back, healthy, and ready to contribute for his senior season.
In a recent interview with new Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach Mickey Mental, we asked which player had him most excited this season. He was emphatic that it was Davis. With that kind of energy and trust, expect to see him step up to play a big role in Mental’s new offensive scheme in Ogden, barring any further injury to the former Jerry Rice Award winner. The running backs room is stacked at Weber State, but Josh Davis will definitely be leading out.
Talk about how big a steadying force senior Ty MacPherson and junior Haze Hadley have been at wide receiver over the years?
T-Mac has been named a captain both last season and now this season. His career has spanned pretty much all of the recent success Weber State has enjoyed under Jay Hill. But, he’s also seen four different Offensive Coordinators in his time as a Wildcat. With that much change comes wisdom and adaptability, which he hopes to share with the new recruits, of which there are a ton at WR this season.
We chatted with him in an interview before the Western Oregon game last week and he noted that some of the key guys that helped Weber State through the FCS playoff bracket over the last five years took him under their wing when he came to Ogden. He said he’s been doing the same, helping guys understand that it’s about the team and not always about you. That should help these young Freshmen get off on the right foot as the offense gets more comfortable with Mental’s new system and the opportunities it brings them.
Haze Hadley, at first glance, doesn’t seem to be a division 1 football player. He always appears to be the smallest guy on the field, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in speed. He recently took over for 4-time All-American Rashid Shaheed (the only Wildcat to ever do it) on punt return duties and, thus far, is making the most of it. Against Western Oregon on Thursday night last week, he logged 131 punt return yards on just 6 attempts, a 21-yard average. Though Western Oregon was a D2 opponent, the results bode well for his future on Special Teams.
As a receiver, Hadley’s impact has been limited in his first two and half seasons with Weber, averaging only 16.3 yards per game in the Fall 2021 campaign on 1.2 targets. But, his fortunes may be changing in the new offense. With Coach Mental’s emphasis on an up-tempo system that relies on quick decisions, his speed could prove key to having a massive impact in the slot.
The offensive line has two returning starters with junior left tackle Noah Atagi, and junior right guard Jordan Lutui coming back. Last week the Wildcats had three new starters, junior left guard George Barrera, junior center Ethan Atagi, and redshirt freshman Jake Eichhorn. How do you feel this group has been able to gel throughout fall camp and through week one?
The offensive line was (and probably still is) one of the biggest question marks going into this season. The Wildcats lost an All-American in Ty Whitworth and Senior Center Ben Bos to graduation. Injuries marred the Fall 2021 season, leading to poor offensive performances and losing close games to ranked opponents like UC Davis and Montana State.
Weber State welcomed Snow College transfer and local Roy High product, Cormac Boyer, to the Center position, but he went down with a season-ending injury during Fall camp. That’s created opportunities for some of the guys you mentioned, like redshirt Freshmen Jake Eichhorn or Braydin Shipp. Having the Atagi brothers and Jordan Lutui to anchor the group is helpful, but in order for the offensive line to be effective this season, the young guys are going to need to get up to speed quickly.
Coach Jay Hill has noted a number of times throughout camp that the OL is thin, but if they can avoid injuries, the group should make it through and execute on what new Offensive Coordinator Mickey Mental hopes to run. Couple that with the regimen of Associate Head Coach and Offensive Line coach Brent Myers and Wildcat fans hope to see signs of success. Myers has coached three All-Americans to date (one of which, Sua Opeta, is playing for the Philadelphia Eagles on Sundays) so the potential to get the most out of the young guys is there.
The defensive line features just one player with significant playing experience: junior defensive tackle Dough Schiess (30 games). Senior defensive end Shad Pulsipher, junior defensive tackle Kali Moli (8 games), and redshirt freshman Jack Kelly are all enjoying starting roles for the first time in their careers. How do you feel the Wildcat front four performed against Western Oregon? And how do you feel they will perform against the Aggies and throughout the season?
The defensive line was another area that had Wildcat fans unsure going into the season, but a number of questions were answered last Thursday night. And those answers appear to be good ones.
Losing Senior DT Jared Schiess (graduated) and Junior DE George Tarlas (transfer to Boise State), along with Junior DE Logan Lutui (transferred to BYU) were big hits. In addition, Junior DE Okiki Olorunfunmi began the season with an injury and will be out for a bit from what we’re hearing. But, the return of Senior DT Sione Lapuaho and Juniors Kalisi Moli and Doug Schiess will help to guide a pretty young group helping to rebuild.
The Wildcats added another Snow College transfer in Shad Pulsipher at Defensive End, along with moving Redshirt Freshman LB Jack Kelly to take some reps on the line. Sophomore DT Zeke Birch had some big moments against Western Oregon, which bodes well for the rest of the season.
But, Weber State failed to sack a sophomore D2 quarterback a single time. That could lead to trouble against a more experienced field general like Aggie Senior QB Logan Bonner, who won MVP in the MWC Championship Game a season ago. Not to mention the increased size that comes with facing an FBS opponent. There will have to be growth if the DL is going to be a factor at all in Logan on Saturday night.
Although they do have previous experience, the Wildcats have three new starters at linebacker this season with senior Raoul Johnson (40 games), junior Winston Reid (23 games), and sophomore Garrett Beck (11 games) all earning their respective starting jobs. How important is it for these three to grow into their starting roles in order to set the tone for the Weber State defense?
The linebacker position is always one that seems to work itself out at Weber State. The Big Sky Conference as a whole is a terrific league for linebackers and teams have to develop that position well to be competitive.
Weber lost two stalwarts to graduation last season in team captain Conner Mortensen and Sherwin Lavaka. Mortensen was an All-American and won the Big Sky’s Defensive MVP in the Spring 2021 season. Lavaka was also a two-time All-Conference performer.
Like so many groups we’ve already talked about, the loss of seniors just means opportunities for young guys to step up and perform. We’ve already talked a bit about Jack Kelly, who showed a ton of promise last season. Both Raoul Johnson and Winston Reid logged huge jumps in their tackle numbers against Western Oregon. We expect those numbers to continue to climb.
Playing the Aggies will be a good learning opportunity that should pay dividends for the 1’s and 2’s. The stats may not be gaudy, but the experience will be worth its weight in gold as the schedule picks up against the top teams in the Big Sky.
The secondary is also breaking two new players into the starting lineup with junior strong safety Naseme Colvin and junior cornerback Kamden Garrett joining returning starter junior cornerback Eddie Heckard and part-time starter senior Desmond Williams. How well do Colvin and Garret fit with the experience of Heckard and Williams? Also, Desmond Williams returned late last season from the second ACL tear of his career. How important is it to the success of the Wildcat defense for Williams to remain healthy in 2022?
Kam and Naseme aren’t new. They’ve both been with the program for a few years and know the system well. Do we need them to step in and play well? Absolutely. Desmond Williams is crucial to the group, but he’s had bad luck on the injury front. If he’s healthy he could lead the D this year.
A name you might hear quite a bit on Saturday night is Junior CB Maxwell Anderson. He hauled in two INT’s on Thursday, doubling his career number, and almost nabbed a third. He seems to be stepping up in a big way, playing opposite Heckard on the outside.
Jay Hill played CB for the Utes and always does a good job coaching the secondary up. Plus, look at the success of guys like Taron Johnson in the NFL. DBs are the position of strength for the Wildcats in any given year.
(Bonus Question) There has been talk of junior tight end Hayden Meacham lining up along the defensive line in order to take some snaps against his brother Wade who is the Aggies starting left guard. Do you actually envision that happening?
Weber State beat writer Brett Hein wrote about this in the Standard-Examiner today, chatting with Hayden and Coach Hill about the possibility of the two lining up against each other for the first time since they both played at Layton High. (Read that article here)
From the sound of it, Coach Hill might entertain the idea, if he feels Hayden can win. He is the younger brother after all and has established himself as a good Tight End for the Wildcats. Meanwhile, Wade has spent his days honing his craft on the offensive line, getting a front-row seat to the best in the country last weekend in Tuscaloosa. We’d give it about a 60/40 chance of the matchup happening, but it will largely depend on the situation.
You opened the 2022 season with a 41-5 win over Western Oregon. Did anything surprise you at all or did it seem like it was business as usual?
In general, many felt it was a bit underwhelming. Fans had waited to get their first glimpse of new Offensive Coordinator Mickey Mental’s system, which we are told emphasizes upbeat tempo, quick decision-making, and creative play calling. Mental had success at D2 Notre Dame College outside of Cleveland first as an OC, then as a head coach. His teams led the MEC in the last two years in nearly every offensive statistical category and made noise in the D2 playoffs.
But, fans were looking for a bit more on opening night. At times the offense looked stagnant, seeming to struggle to execute the plays Mental called. This rang true, especially in the passing game. Many passes were off-target completely or were just out of rhythm with the WR’s and TE’s. All the scoring for the Wildcats came on the ground (aside from a pair of field goals) and the offense logged just 165 yards through the air. The RB’s being as good as they were was no surprise though and help make up the shortfalls.
Nearly everyone we’ve talked to agreed that the play calling is much improved over previous seasons. The Wildcats have not had a truly explosive offense since Fesi Sitake left Ogden to take a job at BYU when his cousin, Kalani, was named head coach, at the end of the 2017 season. As Coach Mental gets more time and in-game reps with the QB’s (he’s also the Weber State Quarterbacks coach and a former D3 quarterback himself), we think the offense will blossom. But, it will likely be a work in progress throughout the entire 2022 campaign.
One thing that did surprise me was how rusty the Special Teams unit came out, giving up a safety in the opening minutes on a blocked punt. Jay Hill emphasizes good Special Teams play and that unit quickly got out of their funk to shut things down and get back to basics.
And, as we mentioned above, the defensive line play was a pleasant surprise. We had no worries about the linebackers or secondary, but the defensive line was a big question mark. Those questions were answered in a satisfactory way on Thursday, giving the Wildcat faithful hope for the future.