Matt Wells’ first signing class as the head football coach at Utah State is in the books.
The Aggies announced their 24-player recruiting class on Wednesday as part of National Signing Day.
“The first thing I want to say about this class is they remained very, very loyal; they were a dedicated class,” Wells said. “With the transition that happened right after the bowl game, we had quite a few of these kids already committed and we had identified a lot of them early on.
“They stuck with us and that was neat to see their loyalty not just to a certain coach — to me or to Gary (Andersen) — but to the university, to our football program and the direction we’re going. That’s the biggest thing that stuck out to me, was their dedication and their loyalty with the transition.”
USU is coming off its most successful season in school history as the Aggies captured their first outright conference title since 1936 and beat Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Shortly after that, Andersen announced he was leaving the Aggies to take the head coaching vacancy at Wisconsin. USU promoted Wells from offensive coordinator to head coach.
Of the 24 total players, 16 are high school student-athletes and six are junior college transfers. The other two have returned from their respective LDS Church missions.
“We addressed a lot of our needs,” Wells said. “We signed two junior college wide receivers and two junior college defensive backs that will come in and compete for playing time right out of the game.”
The biggest emphasis the Aggies addressed was at offensive line, where they signed five players — all of them will be incoming freshmen.
“That’s good, it’s encouraging to beef that area up and we needed that,” Wells said. “A lot of those guys are young kids that we’re going to be able to get into the program and develop as these years go on because we’re really top-heavy in senior and junior offensive linemen with our roster right now.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy offensive lineman signee is Joe Malanga, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound freshman from Bingham High — he’s one of three Miners to ink with the Aggies.
“Joe is long-levered, athletic and pound-for-pound may be one of the best athletes in this class,” Wells said. “I know that’s going to be music to coach (Mark) Weber’s ears for the O-line. You don’t usually say that about an offensive lineman, but the kid is really, really athletic.
“He’s long, he plays bigger than his size and turned some good people down to come here.”
Malanga was also recruited by BYU and Oregon State.
The Beehive State produced the most signees with a dozen, including three from Cache Valley who all hail from Logan High — defensive linemen Caden Andersen and Jacoby Wildman, as well as kicker Jake Thompson.
“Three Cache Valley kids is huge,” Wells said. “We actually just lost a few to graduation, so our numbers are down just a little bit. The valley kids will always be high priority to us, from Sky View, to Logan and all the way down to Mountain Crest.
“They’re important to us, they’re all coached by three very good high school football coaches here in the state that are around our program. They come and visit us quite a bit and our doors are always open to them, and they know it. But to have three more Grizzlies in the program is fantastic.”
Besides the five offensive linemen, Wells’ first recruiting class also includes four wide receivers, three defensive linemen and two players each at cornerback, linebacker, safety, running back and tight end. One kicker (Thompson) and one quarterback (Darrell Garretson) rounded out the class.
“This class was really geared toward bringing in young, talented players on the offensive line and then junior college players at the skilled positions,” Wells said. “We added talent in the back end of our defense in the secondary, along with at running back and wide receiver on offense.”
In all, 14 of the recruits play on the offensive side of the ball and nine are defensive players. Thompson, the younger brother of current USU kicker Josh Thompson, is the lone special teams representative.
“The staff has worked extremely hard,” Wells said. “We retained four coaches and hired three others, and we hired a strength coach. We just kind of put our blinders on and kept our noses down and just grinded for about four weeks — really hadn’t come up for much air.
“We have had four straight recruiting weekends and that has been good. I think the first class will always be special.”
Three of the new players are already attending classes in freshmen offensive lineman Andrew Chen (originally signed in 2012) and Brandon Taukeiaho (originally signed in 2010), as well as freshman defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua (originally signed in 2009).
Ali’ifua and Taukeiaho have both returned from LDS Church missions.
Spring practice begins March 19.