Utah State football: Kicking game under pressure in camp
Utah State football notes • Aggies trying to get kickers mentally prepared to handle games.
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Logan • When kicker Nick Diaz runs on the field, the other sideline starts hooting and hollering at him.

He hears the defensive coordinator yell "Block party!" He has to shut it out of his mind while preparing himself for his play, just a few split seconds that could make or break the game.

And that's just in practice.

"[Coach Matt Wells] really emphasizes getting a mental edge, so it doesn't matter if it's a practice or a game," Diaz said. "Try to create the same scenario every single time in your mind. So when you do go out there, there's no surprises. It doesn't matter if it's raining or windy or whatever, it's the same scenario every time."

The junior kicker offered consistency last season when the Aggies struggled to find it on special teams. The unassuming 5-foot-8 Diaz was the third kicker to take the job, but he held onto it with solid late-season performances against Louisiana Tech and Toledo.

For Diaz, it's as much about attitude as how good his leg feels.

"Every game, you practice all week, and you get those two seconds to go in and make a difference," he said. "I personally look forward to that situation to help my team win those games."

He's taken the majority of the first-team reps this fall, but he's still being pushed by brothers Jake and Josh Thompson. Utah State has been getting all three looks at different distances, trying to identify the best way of using their trio.

Diaz said he benefited from having some other candidates vying for his job in camp, and he sees it as a way to shore up special teams this year.

"Coach Andersen started it, and Coach Wells is continuing it: Competition brings out the best in everybody," he said. "Doesn't matter if you're a D-lineman, doesn't matter if you're a running back, quarterback or a specialist."

Prepping for challenge in trenches

The Utes have said the team wants to have a run-first mentality, and they have the personnel to do it this year with a big line to go with a big running back.

The Aggies have paid attention to those areas closely as they prepare for their Thursday opener at Utah. Defensive tackle A.J. Pataiali'i knows he'll have a huge task in trying to contain the holes up the middle for the Utes' rushing attack.

"The D-line has to have a great game for us to win," he said. "That's the No. 1 priority we talk about on defense is to stop the run. If we stop the run, we can have some fun."

Pataiali'i, a senior who joined the program from Snow College, is filling the considerable shoes of Al Lapuaho, who signed a free agent contract in the NFL this year. As Utah State's starting nose guard, he'll have to have a handle on Utah's offensive line inside, and allow the Aggies' linebackers to clog the rushing lanes.

Utah coaches have said that a number of running backs will get looks, but Kelvin York is getting special attention in the film room.

"From our scouting report, York's the guy," Pataiali'i said. "He's a big back, so we're going to have to play with good pad level and stay low. If we don't stay low, we can get taken down."

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon