LOGAN — On a sunny afternoon in San Jose, Calif., Kyler Fackrell was making 15,168 fans in Spartan Stadium groan.
Over and over again.
First, it was the Utah State freshman’s three-yard sack of San Jose State quarterback David Fales that crippled the Spartans’ second drive. Then it was an eight-yard sack on the Spartans’ first play on what turned out to be their last legitimate chance to change the outcome, down two possessions with 3:39 remaining.
In fact, any future shots were nullified because of Fackrell’s sack. It caused a fumble — he recovered that, too — and set up a Kerwynn Williams touchdown run that erased all doubt moments later.
Never mind the other nine tackles — five solo — that the linebacker racked up in the Aggies’ victory. The 13-sack rumble, a school record, propelled the defense to the third-highest sacks tally in the nation — a mark to add to their 13th-ranked scoring defense. That certainly caused some grumblings among the blue and yellow-clad SJSU enthusiasts, too.
The WAC has sure taken notice. The fourth-leading USU tackler, Fackrell was named the conference’s player of the week for the second consecutive time, joining only Demario Brown in 1996. Only two other freshmen in Logan — including current quarterback Chuckie Keeton — have received the distinction at all.
Not bad notoriety to carry Saturday into Romney Stadium where USU (5-2, 1-0 WAC) hosts New Mexico State (1-5, 0-2) in its attempt to continue their best start in 30 years.
Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
Fackrell has made steps typically required to make this level of impact on the field after redshirting in 2011. He has gained about three dozen pounds of muscle since graduating from Mesa (Ariz.) High School last year.
The 20-year old, however, also wanted to direct his attention elsewhere.
“A lot if it is the scheme and a lot of players around me,” Fackrell said, specifically mentioning senior defenders Bojay Filimoeatu and McKade Brady for their in-practice instruction. “And with coach (Spencer) Toone, I’ve definitely improved and had things pounded in my head.”
Toone, an all-conference linebacker at Utah, agrees that Fackrell has controlled his body more effectively, centering his 6-foot-5 frame more balanced to the ground in order to play at the same level as often-shorter opposing offensive weapons. That happened only after Toone called him out on it every day in practice last season and during spring ball.
That didn’t keep Fackrell from being discussed positively in team circles.
“When I came here in January, I just kept hearing ‘Kyler Fackrell this, Kyler Fackrell that,’” said Dave Aranda, USU defensive coordinator. “The majority of spring camp, Kyler was our most productive (defensive) player, no question. On Saturdays, we’ve seen how sound he’s been with assignments and techniques.”
Fackrell has indeed benefitted from Aranda’s self-described “gap-controlled defense” that emphasizes attack and takeaways. During the 2011 season, Aranda’s defense on the islands led the WAC and was tied for 15th in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in sacks. The previous season, Aranda’s Warrior group led the nation in turnovers caused and tied the school record for most defensive touchdowns.
“I can see where Kyler would have been overshadowed because he’s a freshman. But inside these walls, we’ve known what he can do,” Aranda said. “I hear and see how often Kyler is in Coach Toone’s office. He’s been the guy leading in the two-minute drill situations.”
Veterans like Filimoeatu — Fackrell’s greatest example in Logan — and sixth-year senior Matt Austin are certainly among those who have endured losing seasons at USU, part of a 14-season stretch. Consequently, each is thrilled to see the team show its best record (10-3) through 13 games since 1972-73. If the Aggies beat NMSU, their seven straight conference wins and six consecutive home victories will be their longest in 32 and 34 years, respectively. Acknowledgement, however, is made that fresher faces like Fackrell’s have played a key role in the difference.
Fackrell even directly filled the role of NFL pick Bobby Wagner on the outside of USU’s 3-4 scheme. But like Aranda, Filimoeatu said it has taken a group effort to fill shoes left empty by Seattle’s second-round selection in April.
Just don’t make a mistake how much of that effort comes from the freshman.
“He’s learned things as fast — or faster — than anyone I’ve seen here on defense,” Filimoeatu said.
“I didn’t know what to think when he was so quiet on the sidelines, but then he’s a beast on the field,” Austin said.
Fackrell acknowledges his reserved personality, but insists that he doesn’t want a misconception to develop among fans that he cannot be approached.
“I definitely appreciate it when people say ‘hi.’ I’m really a nice guy—maybe a little anti-social — but I do appreciate the support,” he said.
He’s usually just focused on the motivation that has made him so successful, one that Wagner can appreciate — a spot in the NFL. Fackrell admits that may have driven him to enroll at USU for personal recognition. Perhaps it’s difficult to blame him: after all, he’s seen a family representative at every game so far. An uncle lives in Draper and multiple siblings live in Provo, where several relatives saw him nab an interception Oct. 5 at BYU that helped provide his team an opportunity to knot the game late in the fourth quarter.
Nonetheless, the objective has since evolved.
“I have the confidence in doing anything in my ability to win,” he said. “Utah State is back. Going to the Mountain West (next season) is a good challenge. We are here to stay.”