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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. 74: San Diego State

Rocky Long knew what he was doing when he traded in one head coaching job, at New Mexico, for an assistant job in the same league. In Long’s estimation, he’d topped out with the Lobos; if he wasn’t getting out when the getting was good, he was getting out when the getting wasn’t as bad as it would become – and it would get bad awfully quick in Albuquerque. When he left U.N.M. late in 2008, Long was gambling that someday, this one step backward would result in two steps forward. He picked the right stop: Long hitched his wagon to a fast-riser in Brady Hoke, knowing that his new connection would either result in a coordinator title and coordinator payday at a major B.C.S. conference stop or, perhaps, a second shot at running his own show on the non-B.C.S. conference level. Better yet – and this is how it played out – Long could reap the benefits of Hoke’s steady work, taking over a program in San Diego State that could have coached itself into bowl play a season ago.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
San Diego

Nickname
Aztecs

Returning starters
10 (5 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 44

2011 record
(8-5, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 57

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Washington
  • Sept. 8
    Army
  • Sept. 15
    North Dakota
  • Sept. 22
    San Jose St.
  • Sept. 29
    at Fresno St.
  • Oct. 6
    Hawaii
  • Oct. 13
    Colorado St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Nevada
  • Oct. 27
    U.N.L.V.
  • Nov. 3
    at Boise St.
  • Nov. 10
    Air Force
  • Nov. 24
    at Wyoming

Last year’s prediction

Can they be better than that — nine, 10 wins, perhaps? I really don’t think so, for a few reasons. 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.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Only one win over a bowl team all season, Air Force, and single-digit wins over Army, Colorado State and Fresno State. The Aztecs weren’t exactly behemoths. But S.D.S.U. did hang tough with Michigan for a time, lost to Wyoming by a field goal and shot itself in the foot with a late penalty against Louisiana-Lafayette, blowing a chance at netting back-to-back bowl wins for the first time in program history. So it could have been nine wins, if not 10. That’s one way to look at things. The Aztecs were propelled forward by one of the nation’s most balanced offensive attacks, even if the offense was a little too reliant on one player. What was troubling to see was the declining production from this defense, which after a one-year revival was up to some of its old tricks.

High point A 4-1 stretch to end the regular season. Yeah, there isn’t a star-studded roster of victories to chose from. The best was the 41-27 win over the Falcons, but the 4-1 finish did allow S.D.S.U. to post at least eight wins in back-t0-back years for the first time in more than 30 years.

Low point The New Orleans Bowl loss hurts: the loss itself hurts in the big picture, but the manner in which it came about makes the setback sting on a whole other level. Boise State did its thing against the Aztecs, taking a 42-14 lead into the half and cruising to a 52-35 victory.

Tidbit The Aztecs went 4-1 in road games last fall, giving the program its first winning season on the road since 1995 (3-2). When counting a 3-3 mark in such games in 2010, S.D.S.U. has experienced back-to-back non-losing seasons during road games for the first time since 1990-91. And in all, the 17 wins since 2010 marks the program’s best two-year stretch since winning 20 games from 1976-77.

Tidbit (second half edition) The Aztecs were not a good first half team. They were outscored by 110-83 in the first quarter; the bottom dropped out in the second quarter, when the Aztecs were outscored by 124-70. It was a different story in the second half: S.D.S.U. topped the competition over the final 30 minutes by a score of 234-91. Only Colorado State, by a margin of 8-3, outscored S.D.S.U. in the second half.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 LB Russell Allen (Jacksonville), DE Antwan Applewhite (Carolina), C Aaron Brewer (Denver), WR Vincent Brown (San Diego), LB Miles Burris (Oakland), OT Brandyn Dombrowski (San Diego), C Tommie Draheim (Green Bay), LB Heath Farwell (Seattle), RB Ronnie Hillman (Denver), QB Ryan Lindley (Arizona), DT Jerome Long (Kansas City), OG Lance Louis (Chicago), LB Matt McCoy (Seattle), CB Larry Parker (Arizona), OT Will Robinson (Jacksonville), WR DeMarco Sampson (Arizona), WR Chaz Schilens (New York Jets), P Brian Stahovich (Indianapolis), WR Brett Swain (San Francisco), WR Roberto Wallace (Miami).

Arbitrary top five list

Places to eat in Coronado, Calif.
1. Clayton’s Coffee Shop.
2. Clayton’s Mexican Take Out.
3. Brigantine Seafood Restaurant.
4. Crown City Bistro.
5. Island Pasta.

Coaching

Rocky Long (New Mexico ’74), 8-5 after his first season in charge. Long spent the previous 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 career 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.

Tidbit (coaching edition) One area where S.D.S.U. was particularly abysmal last fall was on special teams. Kicking woes cost the Aztecs one game, against Wyoming, and overall breakdowns allowed Louisiana-Lafayette to first hang around and then defeat S.D.S.U. in the New Orleans Bowl. This led Long to name a full-time special teams coordinator, former linebacker coach Kevin McGarry, with Long and a graduate assistant picking up McGarry’s former duties. The one staffing change – not counting McGarry’s change in title – is at offensive line coach, where Long replaced Dan Finn, who left for the same job at Utah, with former graduate assistant and volunteer coach Mike Schmidt. This is the first full-time job for the former S.D.S.U. lineman, and he’ll get paid like it: Schmidt will make about $50,000 less than his fellow assistant coaches.

Players to watch

From five came two and from two came one, even if S.D.S.U. hasn’t made that latter conclusion official. Long and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig went into spring ball with five quarterbacks jostling for the right to replace Ryan Lindley, a four-year starter who left as the most prolific passer in school history. From that five, the staff trimmed the competition to two: Adam Dingwell, a sophomore, and former Oregon State transfer Ryan Katz. All signs point to Katz getting the starting nod come September.

Katz is a nice fit for this offense – even though Dingwell might be a bit more familiar with the system’s nuts and bolts. It was Dingwell who served as Lindley’s backup last fall, even if he barely saw the field: Lindley was under center for nearly every play, leaving Dingwell with only one pass attempt on the year. One factor is Katz’s favor is simple: he wouldn’t have joined the program if he hadn’t been given some indication – subtle or otherwise – that he’d be the starter after Lindley left. That he had his moments during the spring only furthers his cause.

So why is Katz a nice fit? Because this offense isn’t so much predicated on precision as it is on explosiveness, and Katz has the sort of arm to stretch the field. He flashed this arm at Oregon State, where he had a nice debut season in the starting lineup as a sophomore before losing his grip on the job one game into last season. Demoted, Katz saw in S.D.S.U. the chance to serve in a quarterback-friendly system that plays to his strengths. He’s not going to be Lindley, and he may hit an early learning curve, but Katz’s physical gifts should help him stay the course and put together a nice season. Think 3,000-plus yards with 18-20 touchdowns. Whether he can make better decisions with the football will decide how successful Katz’s one-year turn will be.

S.D.S.U. has given him weapons to work with. One is junior tight end Gavin Escobar (51 receptions for 780 yards and 7 scores), a terrifically athletic option with the ability to bully cornerbacks and outrun safeties – quite a fearsome combination. Escobar joins another recent profile, San Jose State’s Ryan Otten, as a non-B.C.S. conference tight end with all-American potential. While the receiver corps was a major question mark heading into the year, S.D.S.U. landed big years out of converted defensive back Colin Lockett (58 for 970, 8 touchdowns) and Dylan Denso (49 for 634), turning a liability into a strength.

That pair, both juniors, are joined at receiver by sophomore Ezell Ruffin, junior Osmond Nicholas and, if healthy, senior Dominique Sandifer. Prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury over the summer, Sandifer was looked to as a key target for a reworked receiver corps; if he’s healthy, he and Denso will form a nice pair. S.D.S.U. also welcomes in former U.S.C. receiver Brice Butler, a major talent who never quite put his entire game together with the Trojans. Don’t look for a 1,000-yard season from Butler – he’s battling a pretty major shoulder injury, for one  – but he can be a valuable weapon in the passing game.

It’s safe to be somewhat concerned about the Aztecs’ ability to replace Lindley at quarterback. On the other hand, you can be sure with 100 percent certainty that S.D.S.U. is not going to come close to topping last year’s totals on the ground without Ronnie Hillman, the early draft entrant who changed the entire tenor of this offense over his two seasons as its starting running back. The good news? I love senior Walter Kazee (339 yards, 4 touchdowns), whose toughness gives this team a jolt, and sophomore Adam Muema (253 yards) did a nice job in limited duty as a freshman.

Muema didn’t see the field until October, and didn’t take on a major role until Hillman suffered a lower-body injury midway through that month. He responded with 45 tough yards against Colorado State, helping S.D.S.U. hang on for a narrow win, and rushed for 119 yards and 2 scores as Hillman’s replacement against Boise State. Now, it’s one thing to excel in a pint-sized role and quite another to do so on a weekly basis. Muema will start, potentially surprising some teams with a nice season, but S.D.S.U. is going to take a substantial step back in the running game. The question marks up front only provide more reason for pessimism.

Keep your program handy. S.D.S.U. won’t change its defense; the 3-3-5 remains in place, of course, and won’t change as Long is running the show – and the defense works, with many years of excellence as evidence. What will change are the names on the field, especially along the front six, where the Aztecs return only one player who ended last season in the starting lineup. There’s some promising youth on this defense, but the entire crop of newcomers will take some time to develop as new starters.

The Aztecs did get some good news later in the spring, in a roundabout way, when sophomore end Dontrell Onuoha pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in his assault case, which should get him back on the field for fall camp – though he be suspended for a game or two, I’d imagine. When he does get out of the doghouse, Onuoha will push fellow sophomore Cody Galea into a reserve role. The starting end pairing should be Onuoha and junior Jordan Thomas (20 tackles, 3.0 for loss), who has past starting experience. Senior Frederick Trujillo is in the mix at end, but due to a lack of size, he seems better used in certain packages, not as the full-time starter.

The Aztecs could land equal production at end, especially once Onuoha sees the field. The hole at tackle looms large, however: Jerome Long was terrific as a senior, especially as a disruptor, and S.D.S.U. will be hard-pressed to duplicate his presence in the middle. The staff is high on sophomore Sam Meredith, Long’s backup last fall, but is he big enough to occupy blockers inside? A better option might be a second sophomore, Kenny Galea’i, who has about 25 pounds on Meredith. It’s important to note that the 3-3-5 doesn’t necessarily demand size at tackle; it’s just an added bonus. Nevertheless, Meredith’s angle and feet would have be outstanding to offset his 255-pound frame.

On paper, the losses at linebacker are daunting. Looks can be slightly deceiving. Yes, S.D.S.U. lost a trio of contributors at outside linebacker in Miles Burris, Demetrius Barksdale and Logan Ketchum – and yes, Burris was particularly outstanding. But S.D.S.U. has enough rising talent coming up through the ranks to potentially be even stronger at linebacker, if much less experienced and less explosive, especially without Burris causing havoc off the edge.

The linebacker corps will be rebuilt from the inside out. The Aztecs return sophomore Jake Fely (58 tackles, 5.5 for loss) in the middle, and Fely should make a challenge for all-conference honors during his second year in the starting lineup. Two players who made a move during the spring were junior Jacob Driver and sophomore Josh Gavert; Driver will take snaps in the middle, behind Fely, while Gavert looks like the Aztecs’ replacement for Burris at one outside spot. Junior Nick Tenhaeff (47 tackles), a valuable reserve last fall, would be a nice addition to the starting lineup. Further depth comes from junior Vaness Harris (24 tackles, 4.5 for loss), who started one game in 2011, and a large group of redshirt freshmen and sophomores.

One thing we learned last fall: If you’re capable of taking advantage of the opportunity, it pays to line up at cornerback opposite of Leon McFadden. Last fall, Larry Parker intercepted seven passes, earning first-team all-M.W.C. honors, because teams were too scared to throw towards McFadden’s side. If Parker had such a strong season – if slightly overrated due to his interceptions – what kind of year could S.D.S.U. get out of senior Josh Wade, last year’s projected starter before tearing his Achilles in August?

If he’s back on point, Wade could team with McFadden, one of the premier non-B.C.S. conference cornerbacks in the country, to give the Aztecs a sterling starting combination at the position. Like Parker, Wade does need to take advantage of the attention paid to his side by opposing quarterbacks. S.D.S.U. is banking on him being 100 percent, but it Wade’s recovery slows, the defense will turn to sophomore Mahbu Keels, who had a nice spring.

Junior Nat Berhe (67 tackles, 3.5 for loss) will remain at the Aztec position – a hybrid safety-linebacker – after moving from safety midway through last season. The Aztecs return three players who made multiple starts at safety last fall, not counting Berhe; the key will be picking a starting pair. One will be junior Eric Pinkins (22 tackles), but the staff listed Rene Siluano, who played the Aztec spot last fall, as the second starter coming out of the spring – ahead of Marcus Andrews and Gabe Lemon.

So what is to be done about these special teams? Appointing a full-time coordinator is a start. But we’re looking at a perfect storm of potential concerns: S.D.S.U. is inconsistent on kickoff returns, gets nothing on punt returns, will have a true freshman snapping and a true freshman kicking and punting. The same true freshman kicking and punting, mind you. The Aztecs are putting a lot on Seamus McMorrow’s plate.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line The offensive front was a major weakness during the spring. At the very worst, the line will be improved by two-fifths come the first day of fall camp. In March, S.D.S.U. went through drills with five new starters; three of the new faces were filling in for seniors lost to graduation, but the offensive line was also working without two returning starters who missed time due to injury. The line will welcome the pair back with open arms in August.

Center Alec Johnson and right guard Nik Embernate are experienced, which is one positive. They’re both seniors, which is another. Johnson was a second-team all-M.W.C. pick last fall – a third major positive. Make no mistake: S.D.S.U.’s line is in flux right now, and the offense needs all it can get from a pair of experienced, senior, all-conference linemen. As the team left the spring, it was working with a converted tight end at left tackle, a little-used reserve at left guard and a wholly untested sophomore at right tackle. It’s not a good situation. Making matters worse, in my mind, is the fact that the line will be led by a position coach just as inexperienced as they are; this group could have used a veteran, steady hand.

Let’s focus on a few positives. Johnson and Embernate are more than strong enough to help the Aztecs break in a new starter at left guard, whether that be junior Japeth Gordon – the lineman mentioned above – or senior Riley Gauld, who made one start at right guard in Embernate’s stead last fall. Quigley, the converted tight end, has the athleticism to do a nice job in the passing game; the bigger question is whether he can get an adequate push on the ground. The biggest question mark lies at right tackle. Is sophomore Zack Dilley ready? If not, will JUCO transfer Justin Aysse or incoming freshman Kwayde Miller – who is built to play tackle – claim the starting job in August?

Game(s) to watch

S.D.S.U. gets the Mountain West’s two best teams, Boise State and Nevada, on the road, which puts this team in a bit of a hole before the season even begins. If you rule out the Aztecs as a realistic contender for the M.W.C. crown, swing games against San Jose State, Army, Fresno State, Hawaii and Air Force should mean the difference between a losing season and the program’s third straight bowl bid. One team I know S.D.S.U. wants a shot at is Wyoming, which shouldn’t have won the pair’s last meeting. The game might have postseason implications for both teams.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell This team is not as strong as last year’s version. How could it be? S.D.S.U. is breaking in new starters at quarterback, replacing the most productive passer in program history, and at running back, where Hillman’s shoes will be impossible to replace. The offensive line is a mammoth issue. The defensive line will have three new starters; the hole at tackle concerns me most of all, though the Aztecs are also banking on big seasons at end out of a handful of still-untested sophomore and juniors. The linebacker corps lost a weapon in Burris, and there’s no way to know if one of the younger options can have the same impact on passing downs. These are serious issues, and by and large, they’re big enough to stop the program’s bowl run at two years. So why does S.D.S.U. have the potential to make another run towards the postseason? Because the Aztecs are very strong at some key spots: at wide receiver and cornerback. Returning players like Escobar and Lockett will help Katz weather the storm in the early going. Most of all, the pairing of Wade and McFadden will help S.D.S.U. in a number of ways – allowing the defense to send another rusher on passing downs, for example. And there’s a very nice amount of young talent breaking into the mix both as starters and key reserves, which underlines the idea that S.D.S.U. will be a far better team in November than it is in September. Six wins should be very doable for this team. Seven is a real possibility. But I do think that this team is taking a step back in the win column.

Dream season The Aztecs get off on the right foot with an upset win over Washington in the season opener, the first of seven straight wins to open the year. While S.D.S.U. loses to Nevada and Boise State, finishing third in the Mountain West, the program notches its first nine-win regular season since 1977.

Nightmare season Losses to San Jose State and Army define a foul stretch in non-conference play, and it doesn’t get any better in M.W.C. action. S.D.S.U. loses eight games overall, six by 14 or more points.

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. Brent Schrotenboer does outstanding work for the publication formerly known as The San Diego Union-Tribune, which I continue to refer to with its old name because I have no idea what it should now be called.

San Diego State’s all-name nominee CB Mahbu Keels.

Word Count

Through 51 teams 183,559.

Up Next

Who is No. 73? On the list of American institutions with the largest number of international students during the 2010-11 academic year, tomorrow’s university is sandwiched by two schools that are separated by roughly 120 city blocks.

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Comments

  1. Vic says:

    Going with Purdue…

    3 New York University 7,988
    4 Purdue University, main campus 7,562
    5 Columbia University 7,297

  2. Greg says:

    Why is a picture of Chichen Itza posted for SDSU? That’s like putting up a pic of the Coliseum for Michigan State.

    Paul: An oversight due to my lack of familiarity with Pre-Columbian civilizations. Will need to find a piece of Aztec architecture to replace it. Let’s see what I can find.

  3. James says:

    “High point A 4-1 stretch to end the regular season. Yeah, there isn’t a star-studded roster of victories to chose from. The best was the 41-27 win over the Falcons, but the 4-1 finish did allow S.D.S.U. to post at least eight wins in back-t0-back years for the first time in more than 30 years.”

    SDSU had back to back 8 win seasons in ’95-’96.

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