Was the receiving corps the weakest unit to last year’s Utah State football team?
It’s a tough question when the team clicked on all cylinders most of the time en route to the best season in school history. But one must wonder how much of the Aggies’ single-season school records for total points, total offense, completions and total yards came because of the arm of Chuckie Keeton rather than the hands of a group whose running back (Kerwynn Williams) was the second-leading receiver. Graduated athlete Matt Austin led with just 48 receptions in his sixth season. Chuck Jacobs may crack an NFL roster for Week 1 but averaged just more than three catches per game.
Austin was apparently an emotional leader, but he and Jacobs’ on-field production? Replaceable.
Those with the task is a mish-mash of seniors Travis Reynolds and Travis Van Leeuwen and sophomores Bruce “Jojo” Natson (fans should be excited about him) and Brandon Swindall.
The toughest player to replace may actually be tight end Kellen Bartlett, who earned honorable mention all-WAC honors last season. Senior D.J. Tialavea and junior Keegan Andersen will be responsible.
Receivers coach Javon Bouknight, a former star at the University of Wyoming, returns despite former coach Gary Andersen’s departure to the University of Wisconsin. Bouknight is entering his fourth season at the position.
Read about those seeking to be on the other end of Keeton’s throws this season:
Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. firstname.lastname@example.org | @wilklogan
Media have largely ignored Reynolds, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native who was just USU’s sixth-leading receiver last season but leads returners. He dipped from nine to three receptions from 2010 to 2011 but nabbed 25 last year while Keeton was establishing records.
He certainly arrived in Logan with tremendous credentials. Reynolds (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) earned first-team all-Broward County honors after leading Florida's Class 6A, 5A and 4A in receiving with 48 receptions.
Van Leeuwen’s production actually declined last season, when the Provo native’s reception count declined from 15 in 2011 to 12 in 2012. As a freshman in 2010, he had 16 catches, so Van Leeuwen must change course if the Aggies hope to replicate last year’s campaign.
Van Leeuwen (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) reportedly distinguished himself in the spring, when he had some drops in the camp’s finale but was Keeton’s top option when feeling a pass rush.
On any account, the former Timpview High School star has 36 career USU games under his belt, so he promises veteran leadership. Coaches already say he possesses a “vast knowledge” of the offense, and head coach Matt Wells has noted his leadership alongside Reynolds.
Look for 2013 to be the coming out year for Natson, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native like Reynolds and also a high school teammate. In fact, he may be USU’s best receiver. He’s reportedly ready for much more after catching 17 passes in 12 games last fall. Now he’s added 15 pounds since the spring, bringing his 5-foot-7 frame to 151 pounds — still 30 short of kicker Nick Diaz.
“Still the smallest guy on the team, but with a big heart,” he told the Deseret News’ Kraig Williams.
Natson has made clear to Keeton that he wants to be a go-to guy in Austin and Jacobs’ absence.
“They all know that I can play, that I have heart,” Natson said of his teammates. “They can trust me to make plays. They know that I can be that guy.”
And don’t call him Bruce. He has told the Deseret News that he only goes by his nickname.
Swindall (6-foot-4, 198) played just a minor role last season, with three receptions for 19 yards. That may not change much with the apparent emergence of Natson and the two “Travises,” as Bouknight likes to say.
Before redshirting in 2011, the Oklahoma City native was named a Parade All-America after leading the Sooner State with 17 interceptions and playing both ways at Millwood High School.
Tialavea (6-foot-4, 260) may not have yet proven to be a tremendous offensive threat (13 receptions in 26 games), but the senior was arguably a better blocker than Bartlett last season and may rank among the best in the nation this season.
The West Jordan native actually started seven games last season.
The son of the former coach caught three passes in his first 21 games at USU. The long-haired Andersen (6-foot-2, 231), a Juan High School graduate, has acknowledged it was different not to hear his father shouting orders during spring ball but still calls him daily to update him about his play and that of his teammates in practices.
Pushing Andersen is converted linebacker Jefferson Court and sophomore Derek Keller, who saw time on special teams last year.