2022 Players not returning: Avery Ellis (Retired from Football), Owen Fa’amoe (Transferred to Idaho), Lofa Fonoti-Maikui (Transferred to Gila River Community College), Sione Moa (Transferred to byu), Kaleo Neves (Transferred to Nevada), AJ Vongphachanh (Transferred to byu)
2023 post-spring ball attrition: None
Returning players: Max Alford, Cole Joyce, Bronson Olevao, MJ Tafisi, Josh Williams
New Faces in 2023:
Gavin Barthiel 6’2″ 225 (247 3*) – Washington State University – (3 years to play 3)
2022 (RsFr.) Stats: Did not see any action at Washington State
2021 (Fr.) Stats: Redshirted at Washington State University
Offers from: None
Original offers from: Alcorn St, Appalachian St, Boston College, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Connecticut, East Carolina, Florida International, Florida A&M, Georgia Southern, Georgia St, Georgia Tech, Iowa St, Kansas St, Kent St, Liberty, Louisville, Marshall, Minnesota, Mississippi St, Missouri, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Prairie View A&M, Samford, Temple, Toledo, Troy, Tulane, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Washington St, West Virginia, Western Kentucky
Primary Recruiter: Mike Zuckerman
Bowen Fjord 6’2″ 190 (247 3*) – Boerne-Champion HS, TX – (Preferred Walk-on; Returning Missionary)
2019 (Sr.) Stats: 101 tackles 3 INTs 13 pass breakups 1 forced fumble
2018 (Jr.) Stats: 21 tackles 3 pass breakups
2017 (So.) Stats: 30 tackles 1 fumble recovery 1 TD
Offers from: Angelo St, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton St, West Texas A&M
Burke Mickelsen 6’3″ 195 (NR) – North Sevier HS, UT – (Preferred Walk-on)
2019 (Sr.) Stats: 75 tackles 11.0 tackles-for-loss 0.5 sacks 2 INTs 1 pass breakup 2 forced fumbles
2018 (Jr.) Stats: 63 tackles 9.5 tackles-for-loss 2.0 sacks 1 INT
2017 (So.) Stats: 79 tackles 10.5 tackles-for-loss 1.5 sacks 2 INTs 4 fumble recoveries
Primary Recruiter: DJ Tialavea
Logan Pili 6’1″ 225 (247 3) – byu – (4 years to play 4)
2022 (RsFr.) Stats: 7 tackles
Offers from: UNKNOWN
Original offers from: byu
Primary Recruiter: Mike Zuckerman, DJ Tialavea
Maka Tu’akoi 6’6″ 220 (NR) – Independence CC, KS – (3 years to play 3)
2022 (RsFr.) Stats: 26 tackles 6.0 tackles-for-loss 1 forced fumble 1 fumble recovery 1 QB hurry
2021 (Fr.) Stats: Redshirted at Independence Community College
Offers from: Idaho St, Lincoln University
Original offers from: Butler CC, New Mexico Military Institute
Primary Recruiter: Alex Devine, Ephraim Banda
Jaeden Wright 6’0″ 195 (NR) – Pleasant Grove HS, UT
2022 (Sr.) Stats: 67 tackles 4.0 tackles 2.0 sacks 1 QB hurry 1 INT 1 pass breakup; 67 carries 319 yards 8 TDs; 12 receptions 161 yards 2 TDs
2021 (Jr.) Stats: 42 tackles 2.0 tackles-for-loss 1.0 sacks 1 pass breakup 1 forced fumble; 56 carries 285 yards 5 TDs; 15 receptions 175 yards
Offers from: Black Hills St
Primary Recruiter: DJ Tialavea
Regarding the NCAA-mandated eligibility freeze from the 2020 season, what I’ve learned is the player’s eligibility will continue to accrue. Once the player reaches his 4th or 5th season, depending on if the player uses a redshirt season, the player will have the option to return to school for a 5th or 6th season and continue playing one more season. The player will then move from being listed as a senior (Sr.) to a graduate senior (Gr-Sr.)
I expect sophomore Max Alford to remain in his starting role in 2023. As a true freshman in 2022, Alford played in 13 games with 4 starts and rolled up 40 tackles, and 4.0 tackles-for-loss. Alford graduated high school early in order to enroll at Utah State for the winter semester of 2022. Alford was one of the top high school running back prospects in the State of Utah but he will line up as a linebacker for the Aggies. As a senior at Park City High (UT) in 2021, he recorded 5 carries for 39 yards and 1 reception for 12 yards and a touchdown during the first half of the first game of the season before he was injured and forced to miss the rest of the season. As a junior in 2020, he amassed 98 carries for 1,020 yards and 9 touchdowns, while adding 30 receptions for 448 yards and 4 touchdowns. As a sophomore in 2019, he picked up 9 carries for 41 yards and a touchdown, plus 1 reception for 19 yards. Alford possesses great vision on the field and changes direction smoothly. He is already an ideal size for the position. His speed will be a plus and will enable him to be a sideline-to-sideline type of player. He is strong and not easily pushed around or outright blocked by other players. He goes all-out once he commits to the play. He is not afraid of contact and plays with violence which will translate well as a linebacker. All of these attributes should help him fully transition to the defensive side of the ball.
Looking to make an early impact is redshirt freshman Josh Williams. Williams saw action in 4 games while maintaining his redshirt status but did not record any stats. As a senior at Mesquite HS (TX) in 2021, Williams ended his high school career with a bang racking up 104 tackles, 6.0 tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks, 2 interceptions one of which he returned for a touchdown, 2 pass breakups, 3 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, a punt block that he returned for a touchdown, and an astounding 5 blocked field goals. Although Josh was the starting quarterback his junior season and played varsity football as a sophomore, stats for those two seasons were not available to me at press time. Williams is an extremely athletic player who excels in rushing and getting to the quarterback. Thanks to his time on the offensive side of the ball he recognizes developing plays. He finds the holes in the blocks to make a play. He can use his athleticism to hold his own in coverage, using his length and speed to keep up with tight ends. He plays with an aggression that is rarely seen in a player that spent most of his time as an offensive player. He has next-level speed that is not often seen in a player his size.
Redshirt freshman Bronson Olevao will battle early to get on the field. Olevao spent the 2022 season as a redshirt while participating with the Aggie practice squad. Olevao spent two seasons away from football while serving an LDS Church mission. As a senior at Highland High (UT) in 2018, Olevao was a jack-of-all-trades playing multiple positions on both sides of the ball, as a defensive player he totaled 35 tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss, and 2 interceptions. As a junior in 2017, he rolled up 25 tackles, 2.0 tackles-for-loss, and 2 interceptions. As a sophomore in 2016, he recorded 8 tackles. As a freshman in 2015, he was credited with 2 tackles. I would say the coaching staff could potentially still be deciding to see where Olevao fits schematically into the program. He is clearly a capable athlete as he performed at a high level at several positions in high school. He is confident, reliable, and works hard. He is explosive and very talented as an athlete. He is at his best when he’s responsible for large parts of the field and can run around to make a play. He can close in on a pass to make a deflection or an interception. He can also deliver a tackle while running full speed. He is fast and strong and has a high football IQ. He is like having a coach on the field. He understands both offensive and defensive systems and plays with passion
Battling for playing time will be true freshman preferred walk-on Bowen Fjord. Fjord joined the Aggies in January after serving an LDS Church mission. He chose to become an Aggie over offers from Angelo State, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State, and West Texas A&M. As a senior at Boerne-Champion High (TX) in 2019, he amassed 101 tackles, 3 interceptions, 13 pass breakups, and one forced fumble. As a junior in 2018, he tallied 21 tackles and 3 pass breakups. As a sophomore in 2017, he rolled up 30 tackles and returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown. Fjord is a hard-hitting ex-safety making the transition to linebacker. He steps up in run support and gets low on his tackles. He is great in coverage. He shadows receivers well and that allows him to get inside position on jump balls. Fjord has a solid ability to read the quarterback’s eyes and it allows him to be in a good position on the field at all times.
Graduate senior MJ Tafisi will reprise his role as the starter at this spot in 2023. As a senior in 2023, Tafisi battled a nagging injury that limited him to starting and playing in 8 games and amassing 69 tackles, 9.0 tackles-for-loss, 1.0 sacks, and 1 pass breakup. Tafisi joined the last summer after beginning his collegiate career at the University of Washington. As a junior at Washington in 2021, he played in 8 games and tallied 20 tackles and 1 pass breakup. As a sophomore in 2020, he recorded 4 tackles, 1.0 tackle-for-loss, and 1.0 sacks. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, he made 13 tackles. As a true freshman in 2018, he was credited with 3 tackles while playing in 3 games and maintaining his redshirt status at Washington. Tafisi played his high school ball at East High in Salt Lake City. Tafisi is an aggressive, high-motor player with excellent instincts on the field. He can fly to the football. He hits holes at full speed to meet blocks and ball carriers. He has developed a reputation for being a reliable tackler. He is equally skilled in rushing the passer, stopping the run, or dropping back into coverage thanks to his athleticism. He is a violent tackler who has the potential to make an impact on every single play.
Transfer sophomore Gavin Barthiel joined the Aggies for spring ball and will compete immediately for playing time. Barthiel began his collegiate career at Washington State and will have 3 years of eligibility remaining. As a redshirt freshman at Washington State in 2022, he saw action in 5 games primarily on special teams but did not record any stats. As a true freshman, he spent the 2021 season as a redshirt while participating on the Cougar practice squad. Barthiel reads plays well as they develop and that puts him in an excellent position to make a stop. He wraps up well when he tackles and drives his body through the opposing ball carrier. He is also a capable player in pass coverage. He displays active hands and is fast enough that he can keep up with most wide receivers.
Competing to make a move up the depth chart is sophomore, Cole Joyce. As a redshirt freshman in 2022, Joyce played in 13 games primarily on special teams, and was credited with 1 tackle. Joyce joined the Aggies last summer after beginning his career at the University of Central Florida, where as a true freshman in 2021, he saw action in 1 game and was credited with 1 tackle while maintaining his redshirt status. Joyce brings an impressive overall athletic profile to Utah State. In early March of 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Joyce recorded a personal best of 11.10 seconds in the 100-meter dash. As a sophomore in the spring of 2019, he posted a personal record of 22.66 in the 200 meters, in addition to an 11.11 in the 100. His speed for a player his size is phenomenal. He is a cerebral player who does a good job of reading and diagnosing what is in front of him and then using his rare speed to blow up opposing offensive plays. He is a calming influence on the field thanks to his confidence as an on-field leader. He can get off blocks and hunt down opposing ball carriers. He can use his speed to his advantage as a coverage linebacker as well.
Transfer redshirt freshman Logan Pili will be competing to make a move up the depth chart. Pili joined the Aggies for summer workouts. He began his collegiate career at byu and has 4 years of eligibility remaining. As a true freshman at byu in 2022, Pili saw action in 4 games while maintaining his redshirt status and was credited with 7 tackles. Pili is a dynamic athlete who has serious playmaking ability as a defender. He shows an ability to find the football and make plays against the passing game, but he is really special as a tackler. He has a next-level ability to diagnose a play, shed a block, and find a way to get to a ball carrier. He’s a technically sound tackler who doesn’t miss many people who are trying to run past him. His tackling ability and his frame make him look like he will eventually move up on the defensive depth chart.
Adding depth to the position is true freshman preferred walk-on Burke Mickelsen. Mickelsen joined the Aggies in time for spring ball after serving an LDS Church mission. As a senior at North Sevier High (UT) in 2019, Mickelsen totaled 75 tackles, 11.0 tackles-for-loss, 0.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, one pass breakup, and 2 forced fumbles. As a junior in 2018, he tallied 63 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks, and one interception. As a sophomore in 2017, he rolled up 79 tackles, 10.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 4 fumble recoveries. Thanks to Mickelsen seeing extensive time as a wide receiver offensively, he excels at diagnosing plays early and attacking. He is very patient as the play develops and he sniffs out opposing ball carries. Thanks to his time as a wide receiver is solid in coverage as well. He is a good form tackler, as he gets as low as he can and wraps up on the ball carrier.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (3 Linebacker Sets)
Competing to make a move up the depth chart will be junior college transfer Maka Tua’koi. Tua’koi chose to become an Aggie over offers from Idaho State and Lincoln University. Tua’koi joined the Aggies for spring ball and he has three years of eligibility remaining. As a redshirt freshman at Independence Community College (KS) in 2022, Tua’koi rolled up 26 tackles, 6.0 tackles-for-loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, and 1 QB hurry. As a true freshman in 2021, he spent the season as a redshirt. Tua’koi gives max effort on every play. He is determined to make a play and flies around the field. He is a versatile player, capable of rushing the passer, defending the pass in a short zone, and tracking receivers in coverage. He may see some action as an outside linebacker in 2023. When he lines up as a linebacker, he does a great job disguising his blitzes and changing up the gaps he runs through. He will have to adjust to playing on the defensive line, but he is talented enough to be up to make the move a success.
Adding depth to the position will be preferred walk-on true freshman Jaeden Wright. Wright chose to join the Aggies over an offer from Black Hills State. As a senior at Pleasant Grove High in 2022, Wright rolled up 67 tackles, 4.0 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 1 QB hurry, 1 interception, and 1 pass breakup. As a junior in 2021, he tallied 42 tackles, 2.0 tackles-for-loss, 1.0 sack, 1 pass breakup, and 1 forced fumble. Wright is very comfortable playing out in space. He does a good job of reading the opposing quarterback’s eyes and adjusting his spacing in zone coverage accordingly. He can walk up to the line of scrimmage as an extra EDGE rusher to provide additional run support or rush the passer. He is a good strong former tackler.
PROJECTED 2023 PRESEASON DEPTH CHART
33 Max Alford (6-1, 230, So., 1L, 3*)
30 Josh Williams (6-1, 205, RsFr., RS, 3*)
14 Bronson Olevao (6-1, 215, RsFr., RS, 2*)
28 Bowen Fjord (6-2, 220, Fr., HS, 3*)
2 MJ Tafisi (6-0, 250, Gr-Sr., 1L, 3*)
40 Gavin Barthiel (6-2, 225, So., TR, 3*)
20 Cole Joyce (6-0, 225, So., 1L, 3*)
22 Logan Pili (6-1, 225, RsFr., TR, 3*)
54 Burke Mickelsen (6-3, 195, Fr., HS, NR)
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER (3 Linebacker Sets)
41 Maka Tu’akoi (6-5, 210, So., JC, NR)
37 Jaeden Wright (6-0 195, Fr., HS, NR)
Coming Up On Thursday: Free Safety