Blue Ribbon Preview San Diego State

COACH AND PROGRAM

At his introductory press conference in December of 2005, San Diego State coach Chuck Long declared his goal was to “win now.” The 1985 Heisman Trophy runner-up and former Iowa star brought great expectations to a program that hadn’t had a winning season since 1998.What Long didn’t envision when he talked of a quick return to prominence for the Aztecs was the rash of injuries that derailed the 2006 season. San Diego State had 18 players undergo surgery during Long’s first year and lost seven offensive players that were listed as starters when they suffered a significant injury, including its top two quarterbacks.

The result was a 3-9 season, the MWC’s most impotent offense (14.2 ppg) and a defense that ranked next to last in points allowed (27.1 ppg).

“I knew we had a challenge going into last year, and the injuries compounded that,” Long said. “When you build a strong foundation you can overcome injuries. We just didn’t have that foundation in place. Eventually we are going to get stronger.”

Long hopes that strengthening process has started. In a concession to last year’s injuries, he bolstered the team’s strength and nutrition programs. Whether it’s coincidence or not, San Diego State escaped the spring of 2007 with no major injuries.

With last season’s wounds healed, Long is focusing anew on mending the Aztec program. The team’s primary hope for improvement rests with an offense that returns 10 starters and has been simplified.

“As a coaching staff, we felt like we tried to do to much last year,” Long said. “We cut back on some of the schemes to allow them to play faster.”

Noting that how many plays are in the book aren’t as important as how many a team executes well, Long hopes the reduced mental load will make things easier on his team. San Diego State will need to eliminate any unnecessary difficulties to show significant improvement this season.

Even with 10 offensive starters back, the big question is whether the talent is good enough to compete. The Aztecs were last in the league in total offense, pass efficiency and first downs, and tied for next to last in turnover margin (-.58) in 2006.

Questions about the returning talent are why the Aztecs’ young players, even true freshmen, will have every opportunity to earn playing time. Several redshirt freshmen excelled during the spring, and despite a difficult first season, Long headed into his second summer buoyed by his team’s work.

“I feel better exiting the spring game,” he said. “It’s the best scrimmage we’ve had since we’ve been here. We took a confidence out of it that we didn’t have all last year.”

Even as he continues to raise the talent level at Montezuma Mesa, Long wants to invigorate his team with an expectation of success, something the program has lacked for much of the last decade. Long has been part of programs that have experienced quick turnarounds (Oklahoma) and those that take time (Iowa), so he knows what needs to be done.

With the Aztecs returning just four defensive starters, and questions galore on offense, Long is trying to find the middle ground when setting expectations for his 2007 team.

“I’m optimistic because that’s the way I want to be and our team deserves that,” he said. “We are going to have to show patience. I feel good about this season. I believe we will be a good team at the end of the season.”

Long, a former No. 1 NFL draft pick, is accustomed to winning, so patience may not always be easy to come by, but there remains every reason to believe he will eventually make the Aztecs a winner.

QUARTERBACKS

Any San Diego State improvement will be directly tied to its quarterbacks. Injuries played a significant role in last year’s struggles, but the Aztec signal callers were miserable.

Inside the Mountain West

Three players started games, including the two battling for this year’s job — senior Kevin O’Connell (6-6, 225) and sophomore Kevin Craft (6-5, 200) — and they combined to throw 17 interceptions, five of which were returned for touchdowns. “Our No. 1 priority is establishing the quarterback position,” Long said. Heading into fall practice, O’Connell sits uneasily atop the depth chart. Long anointed him the starter after a strong spring but said he must outperform Craft in August to maintain the job.O’Connell, who is 10th in career passing yards (4,626), eighth in attempts (712) and seventh in completions (407) at San Diego State, was the opening-game starter last season. He made his 18th consecutive start in the opener against UTEP, but tore a ligament in his right (throwing) thumb in the third quarter. O’Connell missed five games and didn’t return to the starting lineup until week 10.

Even after his return, O’Connell didn’t recapture his junior year form, finishing the season with 635 yards passing, three touchdowns and five interceptions. O’Connell’s performance in 2005 provides reason for optimism. He threw for 2,663 yards, 19 touchdowns and completed 61 percent of his passes, though he did throw 12 interceptions.

O’Connell’s thumb is healed. He has a strong arm and good mobility for his size, but he must reduce his mistakes. Given his experience, O’Connell, a three-year team captain, is probably the team’s best bet for a quick turnaround.

Craft took over the starting job in game five after senior Darren Mougey (6-6, 230) suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Craft, who played in nine games, threw for 737 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions.

Putting the experience he gained in the fall to good use, Craft showed enough in the spring to keep the quarterback competition open, despite O’Connell being chosen the starter.

“His biggest improvement is in pocket awareness,” Long said. “Last year he scrambled away a lot because he didn’t know the system. He settled in this spring.”

Mougey, who moved to wide receiver in the spring, threw for 432 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions in three games.

RUNNING BACKS

In a season with few offensive bright spots, the emergence of sophomore tailback Atiyyah Henderson (5-9, 185) was the exception. Henderson, who became the No. 1 tailback in game four, was the team’s offensive player of the year after rushing for 764 yards and averaging 4.4 yards per carry.While his size suggests taking on a heavy workload might be difficult, Henderson carried the ball at least 20 times in five different games, including 25 times for a career-best 142 yards against Air Force. Henderson rushed for at least 90 yards in five consecutive games at one point, though his carries curtailed at the end of the season. Henderson scored only once as a freshman, but he has breakaway speed.

Pushing for time behind Henderson will be red-shirt freshmen Davon Brown (5-9, 175) and Brandon Sullivan (5-11, 210), two of the young players that have Long excited about his team’s future. The lightning quick Brown is dangerous in the open field, while Sullivan has the frame to handle the punishment between the tackles.

Senior Brandon Bornes (6-1, 225) is listed as the starter at fullback on the two-deep, but he will see time at tailback as well. He has rushed for 1,199 career yards and 10 touchdowns. Bornes is the team’s most punishing runner. Junior Tyler Campbell (6-0, 215), who gained seven yards on 10 carries but scored twice, is Bornes’ backup.

Perhaps no player embodies San Diego State’s misfortune in recent years more than senior Lynell Hamilton (6-0, 225). He arrived on campus in 2003 as one of the school’s most hyped recruits in decades and delivered 1,087 yards rushing before suffering a broken ankle in the season’s 10th game.

Hamilton redshirted in 2004 but rebounded with a strong 2005, gaining more than 100 yards in each of the final three games to finish with 819 yards and nine touchdowns. Alas, a knee injury limited him to 54 carries in 2006 and if he is able to return in 2007, it will be as a fullback.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

San Diego State returns its leading receiver but must work to develop depth. Senior Brett Swain (6-1, 200) led the Aztecs with 47 catches for 528 yards, and he will be counted on to lead the unit. Swain, who had five catches for more than 20 yards each last season, doesn’t have blazing speed, but he did get loose for a 66-yard touchdown against Wyoming. He had his only career 100-yard game last season against New Mexico, gaining 108 yards.Senior Chaz Schilens (6-4, 220) returns as the second leading receiver, and he produced almost identical numbers as a sophomore and junior, catching 34 passes and scoring two touchdowns each season. He gained 483 yards in 2006, a 42-yard improvement on his sophomore effort.

Long was pleased with the spring play of a pair of sophomores, Roberto Wallace (6-4, 210) and Mekell Wesley (5-10, 180). Wallace didn’t play last year as a redshirt freshman, but he is one of the unit’s most physically gifted players. He has excellent size and speed. Wallace was one of the nation’s top 50 wide receivers coming out of high school in 2005 and the Aztecs would like to see him begin realizing that potential this season. The speedy Wesley actually started two games last year and finished with four catches for 18 yards.

San Diego State is hopeful that sophomore DeMarco Sampson (6-2, 205) will make an effective return to the field. Sampson showed promise in 2005, playing in all 12 games and catching six passes for 60 yards and a touchdown as a freshman. Sampson originally signed with the Aztecs in February of 2004 but he gray-shirted, meaning he didn’t start classes until January of 2005 and it preserved his redshirt season.

The decision proved to be a fortuitous one. Sampson didn’t play in 2006 after injuring his left foot, but he was able to take his red-shirt. Sampson, a distant relative of former NFL running back Icky Woods, was unable to practice in the spring. If Sampson regains his health, he could be factor on the outside. Darren Mougey is making the move from quarterback to receiver and junior Marcus Montgomery (6-2, 215) will also provide depth.

If Wallace and Wesley can provide big-play spark to complement the steady Swain and Schilens, the Aztecs will have a productive receiving corps.

Senior Matthew Kawulok (6-2, 220) returns as the starting tight end. Kawulok caught four passes for 62 yards a season ago. If junior Lance Louis (6-3, 265), who missed 2006 with a torn left ACL, is healthy, he will challenge for the starting job. Louis is a tremendous athlete with 15 career catches to his credit, including nine for 131 yards as a sophomore in 2005. He is the team’s most gifted tight end, if he is healthy.

Sophomore Steve Schmidt (6-5, 250), who played in nine games but didn’t catch a pass last season, will provide depth.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Long wants the Aztecs to be a tough, physical football team and that starts along the line of scrimmage. San Diego State has three returnees with at least 22 career starts, so a solid foundation is in place.Leading the returning starters is right guard Brandyn Dombrowski (6-6, 335), the team’s biggest player. Dombrowski has started the last 28 games and will anchor a line that will clear the way for a running game that needs to average considerably more than the 3.4 yards per carry it produced last season.

A pair of veteran seniors will bookend the line. Will Robinson (6-6, 280) will play left tackle and Mike Kravetz (6-5, 290) will play right tackle. Robinson has started 26 career games and Kravetz 22.

The questions are at center and left guard. Redshirt freshman Trask Iosefa (6-0, 295) was atop the spring depth chart, but he is as green as the others are grizzled. Senior Peter Manuma (6-4, 280) will also compete for the job, but considering he has played one game in three years, Iosefa has a better skill set and a higher ceiling.

Sophomore Whitley Fehoko (6-0, 320) was one of the crown jewels of Long’s first recruiting class and expected to be the starting left guard. A less than stellar spring left Fehoko as Dombrowski’s backup at right guard and talking about transferring. Fehoko was the only freshman to play last season, starting six games. Long said he understood Fehoko’s unhappiness coming out of spring, but he wasn’t expecting him to transfer.

Junior Mike Schmidt (6-2, 315) is a walk-on who made an impressive switch from defensive line to offensive line in 2006. Schmidt started two games last year and could emerge as the starting left guard. Juniors Dan Hathaway (6-7, 305) and Jason Alexander (6-7, 290) will provide depth at the tackle positions. Redshirt freshman Jimmie Carmack (6-4, 275) will be a backup guard.

KICKERS

Senior Garrett Palmer (6-3, 185) is coming off the least productive year of his career, but on Long’s list of concerns, place-kicker ranks pretty low. After enjoying an outstanding sophomore campaign, going 15-of-17, including 4-of-5 from beyond 40 yards, Palmer’s numbers regressed as junior.He made only 8-of-14 kicks in 2006, though in fairness, four of his six misses were from 46 yards or more. Over the last two seasons, Palmer is 17- of-19 inside of 40 yards and he has made 54 consecutive PATs. He has 11 career field goals of more than 40 yards and has made one attempt from at least 48 yards his first three seasons.

If the Aztec offense provides more reasonable opportunities, expect Palmer to have a good season.

DEFENSIVE LINE

San Diego State returns two starters along a defensive line that must improve considerably. Opposing ball carriers averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2006, and the Aztecs had only 15 sacks.Unfortunately, the one player the team could’ve really used, defensive end Antwan Applewhite, declared for the NFL draft, unwisely, as it turned out. Applewhite had 53 tackles, including nine for loss, and seven sacks en route to earning first team All-MWC honors but went undrafted, leaving him and San Diego State in a bad spot. Apple-white, who signed a free agent contract with the Chargers, accounted for nearly half of the team’s meager sack production.

The returning starters are seniors Nick Osborn (6-5, 260) and Ornan Nwansi (6-2, 310). A defensive end, Osborn was the line’s most active player, finishing with 58 tackles, including five for loss, one sack and two fumble recoveries. Osborn sat out the spring after shoulder surgery but will be ready to go in August. Nwansi, a defensive tackle, had 19 tackles and a fumble recovery.

In Osborn’s absence in the spring, redshirt freshman B.J. Williams (6-3, 225) excelled and will likely be part of the line’s rotation. Tony DeMartinis (6-5, 255) will enter the fall as the likely starter at the opposing defensive end spot. DeMartinis saw limited duty in nine games last season and had six tackles.

Junior Siaosi Fifita (6-4, 260) will compete for a spot in the defensive end rotation, as will sophomore Jonathan Soto (6-3, 270).

Sophomore Peter Nelson (6-5, 270), senior Frederick Amano (6-1, 260) and junior Brian Stanbra (6-4, 220) will compete for the vacant spot at defensive tackle. If Amano, who was limited to seven games because of injury last season, is healthy, he could emerge as the favorite to claim the job.

LINEBACKERS

On a defense full of questions, the linebacking corps should provide stability. Senior Brett Martin (6-0, 235) and junior Russell Allen (6-3, 230) will attempt to provide cover for the inexperience in front of and behind them.Allen, the team’s leading returning tackler with 88, has been a force since the day he set foot on campus. The incumbent starter at strongside linebacker, Allen is a physical player with excellent speed. He was ninth in the MWC in tackles (7.3 per game) and has three career double-digit tackle performances.

Senior Freddy Dunkle (6-1, 225) and Zach Clarke (6-2, 230) will back Allen up.

Martin, the weak-side linebacker, started the final eight games last year and had 28 tackles. Sophomore Jerry Milling (5-10, 235), who played in nine games and has three tackles to his credit, enjoyed a strong spring and will push for time behind Martin.

Sophomore Luke Laolagi (6-1, 230) is another of the young players Long is high on. The hard-hitting Laolagi was stuck behind Joe Martin, who led San Diego State with 109 tackles and was a second team All-MWC player, last season. Laolagi distinguished himself in the spring and will enter the fall as the starting middle linebacker.

Marcus Yarbrough (6-2, 260), a redshirt freshman, is listed as second on the depth chart at middle linebacker.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Questions abound in a secondary that was torched for 22 touchdown passes a season ago. By Long’s own admission, the biggest area of concern are the team’s two cornerback positions. Senior Scotty James (5-10, 175) and sophomore Aaron Moore (6-0, 190) are atop the spring depth chart, though neither is a lock to start.The athletic Moore returns as the most experienced cornerback and the best bet to win a starting spot. He finished with 20 tackles and broke up a pass. James played in only five games and had three tackles. Redshirt freshmen Victor Andujo (5-9, 170) and Ray Patterson (5-11, 190) will try to play their way onto the field.

Mid-year transfer Travis Crawford (6-0, 185), a junior from Southwestern (Calif.) Junior College, arrives as a safety but he could get a look at cornerback. He had 10 interceptions as a sophomore at Southwestern, one more than the Aztecs team had, so he has a nose for the ball.

San Diego State signed seven defensive backs, including Crawford, and Long said none of the freshman will walk into an automatic redshirt. If there is a defensive back on cam-pus that can play, Long will give him a look.

The Aztecs are more comfortable at the safety positions. Senior Ray Bass (6-0, 195) was the breakout performer of the spring. A transfer from Hawaii, Bass started 6-of-12 games last season and finished with 39 tackles, including four for loss, two interceptions and five passes broken up. Bass will be the strongest player in the secondary.

At the other safety spot, sophomores Nick Sandford (6-2, 205), who played in all 12 games last year and finished with 12 tackles, and T.J. McKay (6-1, 195) could battle for the starting spot. McKay, who played free safety his first two years, had 12 tackles and an interception last season. Crawford could challenge for a starting spot at safety as well.

PUNTERS

Senior Michael Hughes (6-1, 190) could be one of the league’s best. He averaged 41.1 yards per punt as a junior, three yards less than his sophomore effort (44.8), despite missing two games with a shoulder injury. He battled a foot injury early in fall camp that may have slowed him.Expect Hughes, who pinned the opposition inside the 20 eight times, to return to his sophomore level performance when he was a second team All-MWC player.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Aztecs were one of the league’s worst return teams, both punts and kickoffs. San Diego averaged a paltry 5.4 yards per punt return and just 17.5 on kick returns. Both totals were last in the Mountain West.Conversely, the Aztecs allowed opponents to return punts an average of 10.6 yards and they were next-to-last in the league in kickoff coverage. Long can only hope the young players that shined in the spring will breath life into the special teams units as well.

Bass is the team’s most dangerous return man, averaging 20.5 yards per return last season, including one he hauled back 74 yards.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

San Diego State will be improved, but that can be said about much of the league. Keep an eye on the Aztecs’ turnover margin and how the special teams units are faring. Those will likely be good indicators as to their chances of showing a significant improvement in the won-loss column. They just don’t have the talent to overcome a spate of turnovers or poor special teams play, things that haunted them last season.

Grading the Aztecs

O’Connell is a better quarterback than his numbers last year suggest. With a healthy thumb and a second season in Long’s offense, he should be able to hold the starting job once practice starts in August. If he is capable of producing a magical senior season, San Diego State has an outside shot at bowl eligibility.Defense was the team’s strength last season, but with just four returning starters and a host of unproven players stepping into the void, it’s impossible to know what to expect.

The Aztecs open with games at Washington State and Arizona State, both likely losses, and it will be important that they not lose confidence, because winnable home games with Portland State and Cincinnati follow. If San Diego State can get through September with a .500 record, it will have a shot at its first non-losing season since 2003.

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