The Sports Xchange

NCAAF Team Report - Utah State - INSIDE SLANT

Utah State turned out just fine last season despite losing its star quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, to a knee injury on Oct. 4.

The Aggies actually lost that game, at home to BYU, and the following week as well to Boise State, before reeling off victories in six of their final seven games. They're in no hurry to try and replicate the ability to prove every naysayer wrong, and would just prefer to have Keeton's senior year be everything (and more) than the promise his 2013 possessed before the torn ACL.

"He can handle it," Utah State coach Matt Wells said of all the expectations and scrutiny being placed upon Keeton, who is so popular that his likeness was on the notebooks given out to reporters who attended the Mountain West Conference media day sessions in July. "He is as tough-minded individual as I have known. He wouldn't have been able to go into Auburn, Alabama, as an 18-year-old and handle that situation without being a tough-minded, passionate and self motivated individual."

Ah, Keeton's career sure has gone fast. As a true freshman, starting in his very first game, he nearly led the nobody Aggies into a win against the defending national champion Tigers. A big fourth quarter lead was blown in what was then typical heartbreaking USU style, including botching the recovery of an onside kick.

It was a sign of things to come for Keeton's presence and star power.

However, there's some bitter irony to it all. Keeton has been a big part in helping the Aggies redo their entire reputation, including being the tough-luck kids much of his freshman year. But then he became the tough-luck circumstance last season when he scrambled for an early first down and his left knee buckled without a BYU player touching him.

The crowd and Utah State's sideline looked as if a funeral was taking place right near midfield at Romney Stadium.

But after some soul searching, and re-strategizing, the Aggies found ways to play in honor of Keeton rather than mourn him the rest of the season.

Keeton didn't want to talk much about his knee as he represented the Aggies in Las Vegas in the heat of summer. He'd rather talk about his teammates, what they did, and what they all believe Keeton can do to help going forward.

"Why spoil it with my injury?" he said. "That's how I looked at it. I'm really more proud of what everyone else did. I understand that I was somewhat of a big piece and that it was emotional when I went down, but the guys found a way to bounce back after my injury and the injuries of the other guys and come back and win a bowl game and have a chance at winning a championship, which may not have happened at other schools."

Now, though, Utah State is finding a way to be like other schools: Interest in football is relatively big in the community. About 9,000 fans showed up at Romney Stadium for an Aug. 16 practice. Put that in perspective. There were seasons not so long ago when the Aggies would never draw that big for an actual game.

But Logan's changed, and a guy named Chuckie has helped that. And is in position to help even more.

-----------------------------------------------

NCAAF Team Report - Utah State - NOTES, QUOTES

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The early schedule shapes up to really catapult the Aggies, and its dreamt-for Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Chuckie Keeton, if they can get through an Aug. 31 trip to Tennessee. The Aggies, who were picked to finish second in the Mountain Division (Mountain West Conference) behind Boise State, believe they have the perfect platform to show folks outside Logan, Utah, just how good they can be. "We think we can surprise some people," Keeton said. After that comes very reasonable home games with Idaho State and Wake Forest, then a Sept. 20 trip to Arkansas State. The season's only bye week comes right before a trip to in-state foe BYU.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Utah State continues to actually build expectations, and a decent array of NFL-level talent has graduated each of the past three years. A big key is having a strong fall camp, staying healthy and not buying into all of the hype.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Truth is, there's no fool-proof way to protect a valuable quarterback. Last year Utah State had an experienced offensive line and it's not like Chuckie Keeton was a reckless runner with the ball. But he still went down in a heap while going after an early first down, tearing his ACL in the process. But this year, protection could be a bigger issue. Assistant coach Mark Weber has a tougher task, it would seem, as the offensive line is one of the youngest and most inexperienced positions on Utah State's team this season. Gone are five players who started at least five games in 2013, including all-Mountain West honorees Tyler Larsen, Jamie Markosian and Eric Schultz. Seniors Joe Summers, Bryce Walker and Bill Vavau have combined for playing time in only 28 games in their careers and are among those competing for starting roles. The Aggies also have junior Taani Fisilau and sophomore Jake Simonich returning while sophomores Austin Stephens and Austin Albrecht are others getting some looks. Protecting Keeton, and understanding his ability to extend plays, will be key to survival for all parties.