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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. 87: San Diego State

Montezuma's defensive playbook. The Aztecs could never stop the Spanish offensive.

Year one: lay the groundwork. Year two: increase depth, show sizable progression on each side of the ball; no bowl trip, no problem. Year three: go bowling. Brady Hoke, the second-year coach at San Diego State, has the blueprint at hand to build a winning program with the Aztecs. In the way? More than a decade of ineptitude. As any coach can tell you, perhaps the most difficult part of any rebuilding job is reversing a losing culture; in San Diego State’s case, add the difficult task of drawing in a fan base that barely supports its N.F.L. team, let alone its local college.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
San Diego

Nickname
Aztecs

Returning starters
17 (9 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 104

2009 record
(4-8, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 103

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Nicholls St.
  • Sept. 11
    at New Mexico St.
  • Sept. 18
    at Missouri
  • Sept. 25
    Utah St.
  • Oct. 9
    at B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 16
    Air Force
  • Oct. 23
    at New Mexico
  • Oct. 30
    at Wyoming
  • Nov. 6
    Colorado St.
  • Nov. 13
    at T.C.U.
  • Nov. 20
    Utah
  • Nov. 27
    U.N.L.V.

Last year’s prediction

After years of sub par play – the last three in particular – San Diego State fans should be overjoyed with the promise this program now holds. As for this season, the Aztecs will again struggle. They are still young, so you will likely see some improvement over last season’s 2-10 finish (I’m thinking three or four wins), but this team is still one of the bottom three teams in a very good M.W.C. The future looks much brighter today than it did one year ago, but this rebuilding process will take years. Next year will be better, and if all goes as planned S.D.S.U. will be on the verge of a bowl bid in 2011.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Few expected much from the Aztecs in 2009 — I didn’t, for one. Destined to be a rebuilding season, San Diego State suffered the type of growing pains typical to a team undergoing a coaching change accompanied by scheme changes on both sides of the ball. The Aztecs did add a pair of wins to their 2008 total, tying a program-high since 2005, even if those four wins were nothing to write home about: Southern Utah, New Mexico State, Colorado State and New Mexico. Still, obvious strides were made on each side of the ball. The offense scored 49 more points than in 2008, even if the Aztecs were unable to run the ball with any authority. The defense had its missteps when transition to the 3-3-5, but still allowed 80 fewer points than in the season prior. All that was asked of Hoke in his debut campaign was to show some improvement: progress was certainly made. A fine start.

High point Three wins over a four-week span pushed the Aztecs to 4-4 on Oct. 31, the latest the program had been at or above .500 since 1998. As noted, the Aztecs simply dominated the Land of Enchantment.

Low point Four straight defeats to end the season. Two were close (by four at U.N.L.V., by three to Wyoming). Two were not (by 35 to T.C.U., by 31 at Utah). Losses to T.C.U. and Utah may were assumed, meaning the Aztecs needed to sweep U.N.L.V. and Wyoming to reach bowl eligibility.

Tidbit The Aztecs unveiled a new mascot in 2004, the Aztec Warrior, to replace the politically incorrect — I guess — Monty Montezuma. San Diego State is 20-49 since making the change. Is this a case of Montezuma’s revenge?

Tidbit (bad news edition) After ranking third on the magazine’s list in 2009, San Diego State completely fell off of Playboy’s — you’ve heard of Playboy, right? — most recent ranking of the top 10 party schools in the country. S.D.S.U. didn’t even earn an honorable mention in one of Playboy’s many auxiliary categories. Might have something to do with the massive drug raid of a handful of the university’s fraternities, I’d imagine. Most fantastic secondary category? Best honors course, awarded to Oregon State’s “Far Side Entomology.” My favorite Far Side cartoon: the portly gentleman — all characters in the strip were portly — eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lifts his foot to squash a spider, who cries, “Don’t kill me! I have a wife, as well as a thousand babies buried in the jelly!”

Tidbit (offensive line edtion) A fascinating stat from The San Diego Union-Tribune: San Diego State signed 22 offensive linemen from 2005-9; only five started at least five games. Seven players either never signed with S.D.S.U., lost their eligibility due to academics or transferred out of the program. While some of the recent additions still have time to prove themselves, only two of the 22 recruits started more than 10 games: Ikaika Aken-Moleta (20 career starts) and Trask Iosefa (36 starts). 

Former players in the N.F.L.

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

Arbitrary top five list

Best players in San Diego Padres history
1. OF Tony Gwynn.
2. P Trevor Hoffman.
3. OF Dave Winfield.
4. 1B Steve Garvey.
5. P Randy Jones.

Coaching

Brady Hoke (Ball State ’82), 4-8 after one season at San Diego State. Yes, four wins. The total still represented a 100 percent increase over S.D.S.U.’s win total in 2008, the program’s final season under Chuck Long. It’s no secret that Hoke is viewing his rebuilding job with the Aztecs as a three-year process; in that case, 2009 must be viewed as a solid first step towards bringing this program back to bowl play. Hoke arrived in San Diego after a six-year stint at his alma mater (2003-8), where he increased his win total each of the last five seasons. This rebuilding job culminated in Ball State’s tremendous 12-win regular season in 2008 – they had won 12 in the previous two seasons combined – one soured only by a loss to Buffalo in the MAC title game. Prior to that defeat, Ball State joined Utah and Boise State as the only undefeated non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country. It is therefore surprising that Hoke, coming off the best season in Ball State history, decided to leave a rebuilding job already completed for a program starting from scratch. Perhaps that is the reason he left: Ball State could never get any better than last fall, giving S.D.S.U. by far the higher ceiling of the two programs. The Aztecs should feel blessed to have him. In addition to his head coaching stint at Ball State, Hoke spent eight years as the defensive line coach under Lloyd Carr at Michigan (1995-2002). Hoke added the title of associate head coach for his final season in Ann Arbor. Hoke was mentioned in connection with the open Michigan job after the end of 2007 season, but the job eventually went to West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez. If for no other reason than his impressive assistant experience, Hoke is a solid hire. Add in his highly successful rebuilding job at Ball State, and he becomes a great one. Get ready for year two.

Players to watch

The story on offense begins with junior quarterback Ryan Lindley, who enters his third season as the San Diego State starter ready to be listed among the top signal callers in the Mountain West. He threw for 3,054 yards and 23 touchdowns last fall, averaging 254.5 yards passing per game, helping the Aztecs offset a woeful ground game. The lack of a running game did force Lindley into, at times, to try to do too much: he threw 16 picks as a sophomore, up from nine as a freshman, and his completion percentage declined from his solid rookie total. He was only a sophomore last fall, however, and with another year in this pro-style offense should continue to progress as a passer and game-manager. He’s the leader of the team; the offense will take its cue from the junior.

Lindley has two of Mountain West’s top receivers to work with. The first is senior Vincent Brown, who, when healthy, might be the best pass-catcher in the conference. He wasn’t healthy last fall, however, missing all of parts of six games, yet Brown was able to make 45 receptions for 778 yards — a team-best 17.3 yards per grab — and six scores. If Brown remains on the field for all 12 games of the regular season, he’s a lock for 1,000 yards. Fellow senior DeMarco Sampson did a nice job stepping into the void left by Brown’s departure, earning second-team all-M.W.C. honors after leading the Aztecs in receptions (62), yards (851) and touchdowns (8). This pair, which accounted for more than 1,600 yards receiving last fall, will be joined by sophomore Dominique Sandifer (25 grabs for 298 yards) and senior tight end Alston Umuolo (22 for 243). A very good group to accompany Lindley.

The offensive line is not good. As the above tidbit mentioned, finding long-term starters — not just short-term fixes — has been a major issue for the program for years. The good news is that the Aztecs return four starters from a year ago: junior left tackle Tommie Draheim, junior left guard Matt Matamula, senior center Trask Iosefa and sophomore right guard Nik Embernate. Iosefa, as noted, is the leader of the bunch; he brings 36 career starts into his final season. The key will be getting an improved effort from the returning quartet. Embernate will be pushed on the strong side by fellow sophomore Erik Quinones and junior Emilio Rivera; junior Kurtis Gunther has the leg up in the competition to replace Peter Nelson at right tackle, though JUCO transfer Juan Bolanos will also factor into the mix.

The Aztecs did not take immediately to defensive coordinator Rocky Long’s 3-3-5 defense, an often flexible scheme that asks much of its starters. When the scheme works — as it often did at New Mexico — the 3-3-5 will put pressure on the quarterback and force turnovers; on paper, at least. S.D.S.U. did neither last fall: only 19 sacks and 11 interceptions. It will all start up front, as it often does.

The Aztecs return all three starting defensive linemen, as well as add talented JUCO end Perry Jackson. There has been some movement up front, as senior Ernie Lawson will move from tackle to end; he’ll be a big, run-stuffing end, a good fit for the three-linemen set. Lawson made 22 stops last fall (6.5 for loss) and a pair of sacks a year ago. His move, along with Jackson’s arrival, creates solid competition at end: last year’s starters, seniors B.J. Williams (32 tackles, a team-best 2.5 sacks) and Jacob Tauanuu (23, 2 sacks) will battle to start opposite Lawson at end. Where does that leave Jackson? He was hampered by a knee injury last fall, so his health is somewhat in question in 2010. If healthy, he’ll certainly push both starting ends; even if he doesn’t start, expect Jackson to contribute as a pure pass rusher off the edge. That’s a good thing: S.D.S.U. certainly needs a boost.

Keep an eye on senior Andrew Preston, a former linebacker who will man Long’s Aztec position in the 3-3-5. The position — formerly known as the Lobo when Long was at New Mexico — will play to Preston’s strengths: quick enough to play with the tight end in pass coverage, Preston has a linebacker’s mentality against the run. He’ll be just one piece in what will a good secondary, a unit that will be the strength of this defense. Leon McFadden and Jose Perez return at cornerback. Dey Juan Hemmings and Vincent Camarda will again man the safety spots, though both were held out of spring ball due to injury. The biggest key to this year’s secondary will be the development of a handful of redshirt freshmen: Hoke had good things to say about Nat Berhe, Gabe Lemon, Marcus Andrews and Colin Lockett, all of whom are ready to make their initial contributions, but the quartet will need to grow up fast to help offset a poor defensive front.

Position battles to watch

The Aztecs could use a running back with a fraction the big-play ability of Marshall Faulk.

Running back The numbers on the ground were ugly last fall: 78.3 yards per game, 116th nationally; 2.9 yards per carry, 115th; and only eight touchdowns, tied for 118th. And this is a trend: San Diego State finished 105th nationally in rushing in 2007 and 117th in 2008. Not good. Perhaps Lindley, along with a talented receiver corps, will be good enough to do most of the work for this offense. He did so last year, of course. Yet the Aztecs cannot be viewed as a serious bowl contender if they cannot put forth at least a serviceable second option, something the top teams in the Mountain West — minus Air Force — do in spades. In order to rebuild this anemic ground game, Hoke has stockpiled nine running backs — yes, nine — from which to choose from; quantity, though perhaps not quality. That last statement might not be fair, however, especially given the fact that highly-touted recruit Ronnie Hillman has finally gained eligibility after not being allowed to enroll at S.D.S.U. in time to participate last fall. He might be just what this offense needs: a true big-play threat, with the ability to overcome an average offensive line and earn meaningful yardage. Hillman rose to the top of the depth chart at the end of spring practice, though there are other options: senior Brandon Sullivan (a team-best 558 yards last fall) and sophomore Walter Kazee (371 yards) both return, and the Aztecs will welcome another solid prospect, incoming freshman Adam Muema, in the fall. Due to the logjam at the position, Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges are contemplating moving Sullivan to fullback for his final season.

Game(s) to watch

The potential is there for a solid start, with San Diego State facing Nicholls State, New Mexico State and Utah State before the start of October. The schedule gets tougher from there, though the Aztecs land a winnable stretch from Oct. 23 through Nov. 6: New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado State.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. Let’s begin with this roster. While depth has been improved, I don’t think the Aztecs have the horses to compete with the top half of the Mountain West. You know the usual cast of characters: T.C.U., B.Y.U., Utah and Air Force. Things may turn in 2011; for now, S.D.S.U. is not ready to break into the top half of the conference. I also think San Diego State will continue to have occasional episodes of ineffectiveness of both sides of the ball as it continues to grasp the schemes implemented by Hoke and his staff. 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.

Dream season The Aztecs go bowling, one year ahead of schedule: 8-4, 6-2 in the Mountain West.

Nightmare season No one is expecting any miracles, but a step back — think two wins — would be a disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do San Diego State fans congregate? Start with the independent site, Aztec Talk, 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.

Up Next

Who is No. 86? After winning eight straight games to open the 2007 season, our next program has lost 18 of its last 29.

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Comments

  1. Drew says:

    Is Louisville up next?

  2. Drew says:

    Whoops, I was thinking 2006.

  3. Ian says:

    Arizona St.

  4. Colin says:

    “Prior to that defeat, Ball State joined Utah as the only undefeated non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country.”

    And Boise State. Boise State’s only loss that year (to TCU in a bowl game) happened after the MAC championship game, so Boise State was still undefeated.

  5. Jamel Donnovan says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAlBsbkis64 someone please tell me what the heckk San Diego State was thinking not offering this kid? Yet they offer a 5 foot 9 inch linebacker from Oceanside. This is why our program is not what we could be. We didn’t even offer him yet we let him go to NMSU.

  6. They will have depth has been improved,think the Aztecs have the horses to compete with the top half of the Mountain West.

  7. Last year’s prediction Way too uncharacteristic for such a talented squad have a heads into the spring with an overall record of 16-29.

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