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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 44: San Diego State

Year one: lay the groundwork, increase depth, show progression on both sides of the ball. Year two: make a substantial improvement in the win column, leading your team into bowl play and, for a time, right on the verge of a national ranking. Year three: cash in. This was Brady Hoke’s blueprint, one he ran to the letter over his short stint with San Diego State, which ended in January when he assumed the mantle at his dream stop, Michigan. How in the world will poor, little, overlooked San Diego State ever survive without the architect of last year’s nine-win finish? It’s all over, right? Let’s just write off the Aztecs, return them to the bottom of the Mountain West and move on… right? Nope, not exactly. While the program lost its face, the Aztecs aren’t going anywhere in 2011. What about 2012? I have faith, but ask again in 12 months, just to be safe.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
San Diego

Nickname
Aztecs

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 87

2010 record
(9-4, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 28

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Cal Poly
  • Sept. 10
    at Army
  • Sept. 17
    Washington St.
  • Sept. 24
    at Michigan
  • Oct. 8
    T.C.U.
  • Oct. 13
    at Air Force
  • Oct. 29
    Wyoming
  • Nov. 5
    New Mexico
  • Nov. 12
    at Colorado St.
  • Nov. 19
    Boise St.
  • Nov. 26
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Dec. 3
    Fresno St.

Last year’s prediction

Everything is on schedule. As I wrote in last year’s preview, this coming season will represent another step forward for a program eying a bowl berth in 2011. It doesn’t look like San Diego State will leapfrog step two and land a bowl berth in 2010, for a handful of reasons. On offense, the running game must improve; on defense, the Aztecs must get more from their pass rush. Yes, this team will progress in both facets in 2010, as one would expect in the second year in the same system. Yet I expect continued growing pains. There are things to like from the Aztecs — beginning with the potential of the passing game — and I do expect at least a one-win improvement. These Aztecs are beginning to understand what it takes to be a solid bowl team. They’re just a year away.

2010 recap

In a nutshell A year to remember for San Diego State. Nine wins, a program-high since 1977. An offense that scored 455 points, third-most in school history. A defense that came together in short order, allowing 22.1 points per game only two years after bottoming out, giving up 37.2 points per game, in Chuck Long’s final season. It was a year to remember and relish, though some of the goodwill did dissipate once Hoke left the program in early January. What he leaves in place, however, will last long after his departure: the roster seems rebuilt, full of young talent, and S.D.S.U. does have a very nice replacement in Rocky Long. His job heading into 2011 is not just to maintain last year’s success for one season but to keep things going, keeping the Aztecs in the Mountain West hunt for the foreseeable future. The pieces are place for continued success in 2011, at least.

High point A 27-25 win over then-No. 23 Air Force on Oct. 16. While the Aztecs had lost by only a combined total of eight points to Missouri — on the road — and B.Y.U. at that point, the win validated S.D.S.U.’s growth in Hoke’s season season.

Low point Back-to-back narrow losses to T.C.U. and Utah. On the bright side, however, that S.D.S.U. hung with two such talented teams made the rest of the M.W.C., if not the nation, stand up and take notice.

Tidbit I think it’s safe to say that Rocky Long wasn’t beloved in San Diego prior to his arrival as Hoke’s defensive coordinator in 2009. His New Mexico teams went 9-2 against the Aztecs over his 11 years in charge, losing two of three from 1998-2000 but taking eight straight from 2001-8. It got uglier and uglier as the years went on: U.N.M. won by a touchdown or less in 2001-2 but averaged 46 points in Long’s last four wins over San Diego State. It came to a head in 2008, when the Lobos took care of business — and then some — in a 70-7 win. After that loss, it was pretty much guaranteed that Chuck Long was not going to come back in 2009.

Tidbit (geography edition) I don’t think it’s surprising to see that San Diego State doesn’t need to stray far from its own backyard to land the wide majority of its roster. The San Diego area — Southern California in general — ranks among the most fertile recruiting ground in the country, after all. The Aztecs have never taken full advantage of this location; most of the top talent in the region goes elsewhere, to U.S.C., U.C.L.A. and elsewhere. But in all, 91 players on San Diego State’s roster comes from California, with the remaining 14 players coming from Hawaii, Nevada, California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and… Mexico. Yes, Mexico: that’s where the Aztecs went and got kicker Abel Perez, who hit on 17 of his 20 field goal attempts in 2010.

Former players in the N.F.L.

17 LB Russell Allen (Jacksonville), LB Antwan Applewhite (San Diego), WR Vincent Brown (San Diego), OT Brandyn Dombrowski (San Diego), LB Heath Farwell (Minnesota), RB Lynell Hamilton (New Orleans), OG Lance Louis (Chicago), LB Matt McCoy (Seattle), LB Kirk Morrison (Jacksonville), QB Kevin O’Connell (New York Jets), WR Kassim Osgood (Jacksonville), OT Chester Pitts (Seattle), OT Will Robinson (Seattle), WR DeMarco Sampson (Arizona), WR Chaz Schilens (Oakland), WR Brett Swain (Green Bay), WR Roberto Wallace (Miami).

Arbitrary top five list

Strangest tumbles in 2011 N.B.A. Draft
1. SF Kahwi Leonard (Indiana, 15th overall).
2. SF Jordan Hamilton (Dallas, 26th).
3. PG Darius Morris (Los Angeles, 41st).
4. SG Marshon Brooks (Boston, 25th).
5. PG Josh Selby (Memphis, 49th).

Coaching

Rocky Long (New Mexico ’74), entering his first season in charge. Long spent the last two years as Hoke’s defensive coordinator with the Aztecs, leading the defense to a huge improvement between 2009 and 2010. His experience with the Aztecs was enough to make him the clear pick to replace Hoke; his experience as a head coach made his selection extremely easy. Long is the finest coach in New Mexico history: he went 65-69 from 1999-2008, leading the Lobos to five bowl berths and setting a program record for wins. The first former player to lead the Lobos, Long took New Mexico to unparalleled heights after taking over for Dennis Franchione in 1998. He led the Lobos to five bowl games over a span of six years from 2002-7; the program made six bowl appearances from 1938-1997. His 49 wins from 2001-7 – an average of seven a season – marked the best stretch of play in program history. New Mexico was the only team in the country to increase its win total every season from 1998-2003, starting with a 3-8 mark in Long’s first season and culminating in an 8-5 2003 season, complete with a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl. New Mexico’s nine victories in 2007 were the most since Franchione won nine in 1997 and the second-most in program history, behind a 10-win 1982 season under Joe Morrison. Long has coached at two other Mountain West schools, Wyoming from 1981-85 and T.C.U. from 1988-90, and two Pac-12 stops, Oregon State from 1991-95 and U.C.L.A. from 1996-97. After the work he did as a San Diego State assistant and his work at New Mexico, Long was more than deserving of another opportunity. Here’s guessing he makes it count.

Tidbit (coaching edition) There are a few new faces on the coaching staff, as there was a bit of shakeup following Hoke’s move to Michigan. One addition is offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, a former Broyles Award finalist with a very impressive resume: since 1998, Ludwig has been the coordinator at Fresno State, Oregon, Utah and California, spending several years alongside Jeff Tedford. Then there’s running backs coach Jeff Horton, who did a fine job last fall as Minnesota’s interim coach following Tim Brewster’s dismissal, and Dan Finn, formerly of Idaho, who will be the offensive line coach. Not surprisingly, Long also hired a few of his former New Mexico assistants to round out the defensive staff: Osia Lewis will coach the line and Daniel Gonzalez the safeties. Brian Sipe, the quarterbacks coach, is one holdover from Hoke’s offensive staff.

Players to watch

If there was one issue facing this team heading into 2010 it was a paltry ground game, one that ranked near the bottom of the F.B.S. in most major categories in 2009. There was this name, however, that I kept hearing in regards to the running game: I heard about this freshman, Ronnie Hillman, a major piece of Hoke’s first recruiting class who moved to the top of the depth chart with a terrific spring. You know all that hype? Well, Hillman lived up to every expectation placed upon him, rushing for 1,532 yards and 17 scores en route to first-team all-Mountain West honors.

Talk about a program-changing performer: a player like Hillman had been missing in the S.D.S.U. backfield for a generation, and his speedy development into the Mountain West’s most productive back — by leaps and bounds — was the most integral factor behind this offense’s development in 2010. Now a sophomore, Hillman is a borderline all-American candidate and the face of this offense. Junior Walter Kazee (324 yards) is again the top reserve.

Hillman was so good last fall that it took the spotlight away from quarterback Ryan Lindley: and all Lindley did was continue to rank among the most overlooked quarterbacks in the nation, throwing for 3,830 yards and 28 scores and fulfilling the promise he flashed as a freshman and sophomore. It’s not a stretch to say that Lindley can carry this offense by himself; he did so in 2008 and 2009, though the unbalanced offense needed a healthy running game to reach its full potential. Hillman’s ascension took pressure off of Lindley, both in terms of the incoming pass rush and all the heavy lifting he had to do with this offense.

It’s amazing to think that Lindley’s now a senior — he’s grown before our very eyes — but now, entering his final season, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. And, somehow, he remains one of the most overlooked skill players in the country. With Hillman and this running game in place, look for S.D.S.U. to again go with the pass and run in equal measure: last fall, the Aztecs ran the ball 439 times, passed 426 times, scoring 29 touchdowns on the ground and 28 through the air.

The offensive line always gets lost in the shuffle, doesn’t it? Hillman was the big story, followed closely by Lindley’s continued growth, but the line’s improvement was, behind the scenes, one of the most surprising non-B.C.S. conference stories of the season. We know about how this line led the way on the ground, but the offensive front also allowed only nine sacks on the year, the fifth-lowest total in the country. Four of last season’s starters are back, though the Aztecs must replace four-year starting center Trask Iosefa. The team will do that by transitioning junior Alex Johnson over from left guard to center, with senior Emilio Rivera, a past starter, shifting into the lineup at Johnson’s old spot. It’s the same old story elsewhere: senior Tommie Draheim at left tackle, junior Nik Embernate at right guard and senior Kurtis Gunther at right tackle. The line should continue to be a strength if Johnson can fare well in Iosefa’s shoes.

If San Diego State makes a similar improvement from 2010 to 2011 as it made from 2009 to last fall, this defense might be the Mountain West’s best. Look for Long to continue playing a role in the game-planning and play-calling, which is good news for the Aztecs. There are some holes to fill, however, especially along the defensive line: only one starter is back, and only two linemen with solid playing experience are available as we head into September.

The returning starter is senior Jerome Long (30 tackles, 6 for loss), the anchor of the line — and the defense as a whole, perhaps — at tackle in this 3-3-5 look. Long is one of three seniors in the starting lineup, joining ends J.J. Autele and Larry Gibbs: this is a pretty good, experienced starting trio. If the Aztecs hope to continue rotating bodies up front, S.D.S.U. will need help from a group of freshmen and sophomores. One is tackle Kenny Galea’i, who rides right behind Long on the depth chart. Sophomore Jordan Thomas and redshirt freshmen Dontrell Onuoha and Everett Beed are in the mix at end, as is junior Frederick Trujillo.

You have to like what S.D.S.U. has at linebacker. This would be a strength merely based on senior Miles Burris (90 tackles, 2o for loss, 9.5 sacks), the all-American and national award candidate on the strong side. The Aztecs have had a number of very, very good linebackers come through town over the last decade; add Burris to that list, if you please. He’s joined at outside linebacker by senior Logan Ketchum (52 tackles), who was able to stay healthy a year ago. You’ll also see plenty of sophomore Nick Tenhaeff (30 tackles, 2 sacks). The Aztecs could call on experienced junior Rob Andrews in the middle, but redshirt freshman Jake Fely, who has lived up his billing as a top recruit, took home the starting role during the spring.

The secondary faces a bit of a rebuilding job without three of last season’s starters. Most of the experienced depth comes at cornerback, where the Aztecs bring back starter Leon McFadden (55 tackles) and key reserve Josh Wade, both juniors. McFadden doesn’t have overwhelming size, but he’s one of the most physical cornerbacks in the Mountain West. Seniors Larry Parker and Romeo Horn will also play, especially if Horn can stay healthy, and the Aztecs like a pair of redshirt freshmen, Mahbu Keels and King Holder.

S.D.S.U. returns one starting safety in senior Brandon Davis, but he’s not assured of retaining his role in a secondary that features a pair of more tradtional safety-like defenders and one hybrid safety-linebacker. It seems as if Davis will cede his spot to sophomore Marcus Andrews (33 tackles), with another sophomore, Nate Berhe, joining Andrews in the starting lineup. Senior Dey Juan Hemmings is right alongside Berhe on the depth chart, but he must show he’s healthy after being stymied last fall by an ankle injury. Hemmings started in 2009. Junior Khalid Stevens (37 tackles, 3.5 for loss) will assume the hybrid safety role.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receivers No position was dinged more by graduation than wide receiver, where the Aztecs must replace a pair of all-conference picks — and next-level talents — in Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. Each were Countdown regulars: big-time contributors for each of their final three seasons, among the Mountain West’s most productive targets throughout Hoke’s short stay. How will S.D.S.U. replace this pair? It won’t be easy, but step one is finding a new lead target for Lindley to work with. That will likely be junior Dominique Sandifer (23 receptions for 263 yards), last year’s fifth-leading receiver. The Aztecs are also high on sophomore Dylan Denso, who played in spurts as a rookie but moved to the top of the depth chart with a strong series of spring practices. Even if we say Denso is ready to step into a major role, there’s really very little proven depth. But don’t question the talent brewing in a batch of redshirt freshmen, such as Ezell Ruffin, a very strong recruit for this program, or Jay Waddell and David Lamar. The Aztecs could also call on sophomore Osmond Nicholas and junior Robert Gregorio. At least one will make an impact as this team’s second and third receiver, and several new faces will play when S.D.S.U. goes four-wide. One position with tremendous depth is tight end: sophomore Gavin Escobar (29 for 323, 4 scores) will be a fixture on the all-Mountain West team, and targets like Bryce Quigley and Aston Umuolo — while technically receivers, not tight ends — can also be used as intermediate options over the middle of the field. The losses are daunting, but San Diego State needs to move ahead with Lindley under center and several young, talented — but unproven — targets coming up the pipeline. Unfortunately, if the offense does struggle, it will because of this receiver corps.

Game(s) to watch

I see two games with some intriguing back stories. One is Michigan… you know, Hoke and all. Another is New Mexico, as I do imagine Long is looking forward to facing the Lobos. How successful this year ends up being depends on how the Aztecs fare against the meat of this schedule: Michigan, T.C.U., Air Force and Boise State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Those expecting — or hoping for — San Diego State to take a slide in year one post-Hoke are going to be very, very disappointed. I could have maybe seen this point of view had the program gone outside the program for his replacement instead of promoting Long. That S.D.S.U. named Long, an experienced head coach who knows the university, this team’s system and the roster, only leads me to believe that the Aztecs will continue to be an eight-win squad in 2011. Can they be better than that — nine, 10 wins, perhaps? I really don’t think so, for a few reasons. One is the question marks at receiver. After being so balanced offensively last fall, can S.D.S.U. continue to excel through the air without any experienced options at the position? We know the Aztecs can run the ball, and we know Lindley is one of the better quarterbacks in the country; still, Lindley needs some help, and he’ll miss having Brown and Sampson to work with. Defensively, you wonder a bit about depth along each level, especially up front. For this defense to continue making strides forward, the Aztecs will need a bunch of redshirt freshmen and sophomores to occupy meaningful roles. But the defense as a whole looks good, and the team as a whole looks very good, to be honest. As stated above, whether this season is a success hinges on games against the meat of the schedule. San Diego State could roll out a 6-6 or 7-5 season by feasting on the weaklings on the schedule: New Mexico, U.N.L.V., Wyoming and the like. But this team should aim for more, and doing more would entail taking a least two from games against Michigan, T.C.U., Air Force, Boise State and Fresno State. Not easy, but doable. What about in 2012 and beyond? Can Long keep this train rolling along? I believe he can. In the here and now, everything is just fine and dandy.

Dream season The Aztecs take three of five from Air Force, T.C.U., Michigan, Boise State and Fresno State, pushing the program to 10 wins for the first time in more than 30 years.

Nightmare season I guess Hoke did mean that much for San Diego State: 4-8, 3-5 in the Mountain West. There’s a very slim chance that this happens, which is why it would be a nightmare.

In case you were wondering

Where do San Diego State fans congregate? Start with the independent site, Aztec Mesa, before moving on to San Diego State’s top recruiting site, Aztec Sports Report. Further coverage can be found at the Web site of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Word Count

Through 77 teams 229,410.

Up Next

Who is No. 43? The current coach at tomorrow’s university has the second-highest winning percentage in this program’s modern history, trailing only a legendary coach whose lasting impact is felt more prominently in the tireless work he did advocating for people with disabilities.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Matt says:

    Looks like 43 will be my alma mater, Georgia Tech.

  2. Bo from Hell says:

    lol. You are probably going to over rank the weasels again. SDSU beats scum (state school university michigan, as stated in their charter papers) and sets the tone for both teams seasons.

  3. Bo from Hell says:

    erm, that is “state college university michigan” but, whatever.

  4. Ezra says:

    a really big component of SDSU’s success on the ground last season was use of a fullback. SDSU hadn’t done that before (at least not in many years) and Brandon Sullivan played the role to perfection.

    If Ludwig doesn’t continue to use the fullback in ’11, we’ll see how much of the improvement in the running game is due to the experienced o-line.

  5. Ezra says:

    news yesterday– Dominique Sandifer out for the year, as is Jay Waddell. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2011/jul/20/sdsu-receiving-corps-loses-two-more/

    SDSU has the greenest WR corps in the conference– if not the country.

    Paul:Saw that. Hurts. Losing Sandifer is tough, but the S.D.S.U. receiver corps is going to live or die with the redshirt freshmen and sophomores either way.

  6. monty says:

    Ezra – By the final two games, and notably the bowl game, Young (a big old school 240lb’er) took over fb from sullivan; so FB will likely be a very prominent part of the offense.

    The WRs are going to have step up in a big way, including the true frosh that seems promising.

  7. Bubba says:

    Note to Ezra:
    As inexperienced as the Aztecs are at WR, they are more than experienced and talented and dangerous throwing the ball to TEs Alston Umuolo and Gavin Escobar. Not a problem. And, young WRs like Ezell Ruffin will develop.

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