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Logan • Bobby Wagner won't run away from the expectations. He'd rather meet them like he meets every opposing running back: head on.
The Utah State linebackers, as a group, are back and intact for the 2011 season. The group has Wagner, one of the best overall defenders in the Western Athletic Conference. It has Kyle Gallagher, who isn't far behind Wagner in talent or production.
Those two, as good as they have been, aren't the reason that everyone's excited about them. More depth and athleticism is the reason.
"I think we have the best group of linebackers in the conference," Wagner said. "We've really gotten better over the past year, we've played well this spring and it's all coming together for us."
Besides Wagner and Gallagher, Tavaris McMillian, a redshirt freshman out of Miami, has the look of a star and has been perhaps USU's best defender this spring, with Wagner and Gallagher getting limited reps out of caution.
Players like Zach Vigil, Gavin Jones, Chris Fox and former Alta star Parker Hausknecht have improved and have provided coach Gary Andersen's defense with viable options. We haven't even mentioned Bojay Filimoeatu, a first-team junior college All-American who will be in Logan in time for fall camp.
McMillian looks to be Andersen's first recruit to rise from the scout team during his true freshman season to a starting role. He's been almost unblockable coming off the edges, has gained 25 pounds of muscle and hasn't surrendered his 4.5 speed when rushing the passer.
"I think the key for me has been getting used to Division I football," McMillian said. "I didn't know what it took to be good last season, but I've … gotten used to the system. That's helped me a lot."
With so many players vying for playing time, Andersen has said Wagner will occasionally line up as a hybrid defensive end in pass rushing situations. And with Wagner leading the WAC in tackles the past two seasons, he'll be moved around more freely now that there are different players who can play his position well.
So how good can this group be? A lot depends on the defensive line and its ability to keep opposing blockers clear of getting to the linebackers. If that happens and Wagner and company can roam free and make plays, look out.
"That's going to be the key to our success," Wagner said. "If they can plug the gaps and keep people off us, we're going to be difficult to deal with."
Aggies are deep at linebacker spot
Bobby Wagner • Two-time All-WAC pick has been one of the leading tacklers in the nation the past two seasons.
Kyle Gallagher • One of USU's leading tacklers and a two-year starter.
Gavin Jones • The former star at Snow College was moved to linebacker from safety.
Tavaris McMillian • The redshirt freshman turned down an offer to Virginia to come to Utah State.