2008 Blue Ribbon Preview: San Diego State

The 2008 San Diego State Blue Ribbon Preview

COACH AND PROGRAM

Chuck Long has been a winner. He won a national championship and went 67-11 as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He enjoyed fantastic success as a quarterback at Iowa, winning a Big Ten title and beating everyone not named Bo Jackson in the 1985 Heisman Trophy voting. He also won a state championship in high school.

Long has also been a loser. The Detroit Lions went 20-43 over four seasons after drafting him in the first round (12th overall) in 1986. As a senior, his Hawkeyes soared to No. 1 before a crushing loss at Ohio State spoiled a perfect regular season. A Rose Bowl loss to UCLA closed the book on his collegiate career.

It’s too soon to judge where his San Diego State coaching performance will end up on the winner-loser spectrum, but right now the needle is clearly nudging toward “L.”

Long’s Aztecs were 4-8 in 2007 after going 3-9 in his debut season, but it’s tough to call it an improvement. The wins were against Football Championship Subdivision school Portland State (3-8), Colorado State (3-9), Wyoming (5-7) and UNLV (2-10) and the final record could have been much worse; their three Mountain West victories were by a combined margin of just 15 points. SDSU was last in the league in scoring defense (34.4 points per game), passing defense (256.7 yards per game), rushing defense (241.5) and total defense (498.2). It allowed 45 or more points five times and surrendered 148 points in the final three games against BYU, TCU and Air Force. Only one team in the nation gave up more rushing yards and just 10 averaged fewer sacks per game.

The offensive numbers were less offensive, but it’s hard to mount a successful comeback when you can’t get on the grass. The Aztecs were second in the league in passing (272.7), fifth in total offense (376.6), sixth in scoring (25.1) and ninth in rushing (103.9).

Despite losing his four-year starter at quarterback, his top two rushers, top two receivers and three offensive linemen, Long wants to open up the offense.

“We worked a lot out of the spread,” he said. “We’ve always had the spread, but we are working less and less in terms of tightening our formations up. So we worked hard this spring at spreading things out a little bit more, and I thought our offense really came on.”

The offense may be coming on, but it’s going to need time. The Aztecs are counting on a defense with eight returning starters to show a level of improvement equivalent to Keanu Reeves winning an Oscar or Jessica Simpson joining Mensa. “We have a big summer ahead,” Long said. “It will be our most challenging training camp. It’s going to be hard, and they will have to be mentally tough to get through. We are going to test them.”

QUARTERBACKS

Kevin O’Connell has been the face — and the arm, legs and brains — of the San Diego State offense the last four seasons, but the tall (6-6) and mobile captain is now Tom Brady’s understudy with the New England Patriots after being picked in the third round of the NFL draft. His 3,471 yards of total offense accounted for 77 percent of the team total last sea-son, and his 1,312 career rushing yards and 19 rushing scores are school records.

Inside the Mountain

Redshirt freshman Ryan Lindley (6-3, 205) is the starter entering fall two-a-days. He was rated the 34th-best quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com after his senior season at El Capitan High in Alpine, Calif., where he completed 61 percent of his passes for 3,521 yards and 35 touchdowns.

Lindley has a strong arm and plenty of confidence. The reason he signed with SDSU was for the opportunity to be a four-year starter.

“That’s how I am really looking at it,” he said. “I am going out there and putting my best effort, putting my best foot forward. I plan on taking care of this team for a while.”

Junior transfer Drew Westling (6-2, 220) and sophomore Kelsey Sokoloski (6-2, 195) have more experience, but Lindley graded out as the best after 15 spring practices. They all struggled in the Red-Black spring game, completing a combined 9-of-24 passes for 79 yards, one interception and one touchdown — both by Lindley.

Westling transferred from Southwestern (Calif.) College, where he passed for 2,087 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. He originally signed with Tulsa, redshirting in 2005 and appearing in three games in 2006 as backup to the prolific Paul Smith.

Sokoloski, who is the holder on special teams, played in four games under center last season and completed 10-of-15 passes for 119 yards, one interception and one touchdown, a 43-yarder against Cincinnati.

RUNNING BACKS

The top rusher among the running backs last season was Brandon Bornes with 354 yards. San Diego State finished last in the conference and 105th in the nation at 103.9 yards per game. It won’t be easy with an inexperienced offensive line and a green quarterback, but Long is hoping for more production. Sophomore Brandon Sullivan (5-11, 220) is atop the depth chart, ahead of junior Atiyyah Henderson (5-9, 175) and sophomore Davon Brown (5-9, 175).

Sullivan had three starts in 2007 and was third on the team with 220 yards on 58 carries, plus 18 receptions for 119 yards. His 6-yard, second-half touchdown run helped SDSU overcome a 14-point deficit to beat Wyoming 27-24. He had 10 carries for 70 yards and six catches for 68 yards in the victory against UNLV.

Henderson is a speedster with some slippery misdirection moves, but his career has also been moving in the wrong direction. In 2006, he ran for at least 90 yards in five straight games en route to an honorable-mention all-conference selection. He has rushed for only 376 yards in 15 games since that streak, which ended with a 16-14 loss to FCS school Cal Poly in which his late fumble set up the decisive field goal. Henderson made just one start last season, but he did set career highs with 27 catches for 202 yards.

Brown had only a dozen carries last season, but SDSU coaches liked what they saw this spring. He was the leading rusher in the Red-Black game.

“One guy who jumped out with some toughness after being hurt off and on was Davon Brown,” Long said. “That’s the one guy we wanted to see in the spring game, and he came through with some big runs. You saw his speed — he’s one of the fastest guys on the team.”

The top fullbacks are seniors Tyler Campbell (6-0, 220) and Josh Ulibarri (6-1, 255). Campbell was the “Iron Man” Special Teams Player of the Year last season.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

You don’t lose two receivers to the NFL draft without losing some ground. Brett Swain (Packers) and Chaz Schilens (Raiders) were both selected in the seventh round. Swain led the Aztecs with 58 grabs for 973 yards and Schilens averaged 19.4 yards per catch. Both recorded 200-yard games last year and both will be missed, although the talent pool still has a few drops left.

Vincent Brown (6-0, 175) started eight of the last nine games as a freshman. His 31 receptions were the third most and his 349 receiving yards fourth most by a freshman in school history. Senior Darren Mougey (6-6, 225) was third on the team with 32 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns, even though the converted quarterback hadn’t caught a pass since his junior year of high school. Junior Mekell Wesley (5-10, 175) made only one catch, but showcased his breakaway speed on special teams. His 89-yard kick return for a touchdown at UNLV was the Aztecs’ first since 1997 and earned him Mountain West co-Player-of-the-Week honors. Others expected to see a lot of action include seniors Justin Shaw (6-2, 210) and Marcus Montgomery (6-2, 225) and juniors Jon Toledo (6-3, 225), Roberto Wallace (6-4, 215) and DeMarco Sampson (6-2, 210), who appears ready for a breakout after missing two years with torn ligaments in his left foot.

“He is a tough player that aggressively attacks the ball,” offensive coordinator Del Miller said of Sampson. “There is a trust factor that weighs in there with the quarterbacks. They know that if there is a ball in his area, that he is either going to make the catch, or nobody is going to make the catch.”

Tight ends include juniors Matthew Kawulok (6-2, 235), Waika Spencer (6-4, 235) and Tony DeMartinis (6-5, 255), who switched from defensive end this spring. Sophomore Alston Umuolo (6-3, 220) scored two touchdowns last year, a 43-yard reception against Cincinnati and a 10-yard fumble return against Portland State.

The Aztecs also have their fingers crossed for the potential return of senior Eric Miclot (6-5, 235) after a two-year absence, four surgeries and extensive rehab to repair a torn ACL and patellar tendon in his left knee. His efforts to get back on the field have been an inspiration to teammates and coaches.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Long has been building depth here since inheriting a depleted unit from his predecessor. Of 12 linemen listed on the post-spring depth chart, six are redshirt freshmen (including the center and both tackles) and two are sophomores.

“They’re on a good track,” Long said. “They’re going to be a good offensive line as they grow together. We recruited the right way and like the track that they’re on. Of course, you always like to have that track be a little faster, but we have to allow them to grow.”

As the most experienced veteran, senior left guard Mike Schmidt (6-2, 310) organized voluntary summer practices to build cohesion. The only other senior is Lance Louis (6-3, 285), a former tight end entering fall camp at No. 2 on the depth chart at right guard.

The only other player with experience in the trenches is sophomore Trask Iosefa (6-0, 300), who started 12 games at center in 2007 but has lost the job to redshirt freshman Tommie Draheim (6-4, 275). Long said Draheim graded out the best of the group this spring.

The other projected starters are redshirt freshmen Mike Matamua (6-4, 280) or Kurtis Gunther (6-8, 270) at left tackle; Gunther or redshirt freshman Kellen Farr (6-7, 320) at right tackle; and junior Ikaika Aken-Moleta (6-2, 325) at right guard.

Also competing are redshirt freshman guard Emilio Rivera (6-4, 305), junior center Damian Shankle (6-2, 300) and junior transfer Taylor Wallace (6-5, 290) of El Camino (Calif.) College, who joins the program in August.

KICKERS

Sophomore Bryan Shields (6-1, 180), a transfer from Utah State, takes over the kicking duties from Garrett Palmer. Palmer was nearly perfect last season, nailing 13-of-15 field-goal attempts (6-of-7 from 40-plus yards). In a spring scrimmage, Shields showed solid form with three-pointers from 44, 49 and 52 yards out.

“He’s got a tremendous leg,” Long said. “Now it’s just a matter of coaching and having him work at it, but he’s got a better leg than Garrett. He’s got a live leg. Many of his footballs go over the net instead of into the net at practice, so that’s always a good sign.”

Also on the roster are redshirt freshman Zack Scott (6-0, 195) and junior transfer Lane Yoshida (5-10, 190) of Reedley (Calif.) College.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Despite losing defensive end Nick Osborn and his team-high 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, this unit almost can’t help performing better this season. After last year’s disastrous results against the run, new position coach Mike Nelson started spring with a blank slate and quickly made some changes.

Nelson, who spent last season in the CFL after a 10-year stint coaching linemen at Iowa State, moved senior Siaosi Fifita (6-4, 250) inside and moved junior Jonathan Soto (6-3, 265) to the edge. The changes were designed to increase penetration and establish a more effective pass rush. Sophomore Ernie Lawson (6-3, 300) is the other starting tackle, and sophomore B.J. Williams (6-3, 230) is a returning starter on the outside.

Fifita made eight starts in 2007 and notched a career-high 29 tackles, including a monster game against Wyoming with 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Lawson had 17 tackles and two pass breakups. Soto is a third-year starter who tied for second on the team with three sacks, while Williams had eight starts and registered 45 tackles and four tackles for loss.

Williams had five tackles (two for loss) and a fumble recovery in the spring game.

He had a “really, really good” spring, Elliott said. “One of the best we’ve had,” added Long. Williams credits his offseason work with Osborn and Aztec alumnus Akbar Gbaja-Biamila for accelerating his progress.

“I feel like I still have a lot to learn,” he said. “I’ve been like a sponge just trying to soak everything up.”

Reserves at tackle are sophomore Neil Spencer (6-2, 260) and juniors Peter Nelson (6-5, 285) and Avery Williams (6-3, 280). Spencer missed spring practice with a back injury. The second-team ends are sophomore Eric Ikonne (6-0, 230) and junior Ryan Williams (6-5, 250), an Ohio State transfer. The top prep recruit’s career with the Buckeyes stalled when he injured his right knee in bowl practice during his redshirt year. He appeared in two games in 2006 as a backup to All-American Vernon Gholston, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft.

LINEBACKERS

Fueled by a steady senior and a spring standout, this unit will be one of the strengths of the defense.

Senior Russell Allen (6-3, 235) has made 31 career starts and was honorable mention all-conference last season after leading the league with 10.6 tackles per game. He paced the Aztecs with 119 stops (71 solos), while adding 5.5 tackles for loss and six pass breakups. He smashed a 36-year-old school record with 22 tackles against Utah.

“We are a lot more dependent on each other than we were a year ago,” Allen said. “We have more experience than we did, and I can count on guys being where they need to be. We’re working and hopefully we’re going to continue to grow.”

Junior middle linebacker Luke Laolagi (6-1, 230) was the team’s No. 3 tackler in 2007 with 94. He had four games with 10 or more stops and shared MWC Defensive Player-of-the-Week honors after posting 10 solo tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack in the win against Wyoming.

The other outside starter is either sophomore Andrew Preston (6-1, 220) or junior Jerry Milling (5-10, 230). Preston started nine games and was fifth on the team with 72 tackles and second with seven tackles for loss. Milling was the projected starter last season, but he broke a bone in his left foot and missed seven games.

Also in the rotation are senior Zach Clarke (6-2, 225), sophomore Marcus Yarbrough (6-2, 245) and redshirt freshman Logan Ketchum (6-3, 195), but the player making the most noise this spring was redshirt freshman Miles Burris (6-2, 245). He followed an impressive offseason in the weight room with six tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack in the Red-Black scrimmage. “We really like him,” Elliott said. “He has a good attitude and I like his spirit. He has a great future ahead of him.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The secondary loses safety Ray Bass, who was second on the team with 103 tackles, but retains the services of senior free safety Corey Boudreaux (6-1, 220). He was granted a sixth year of eligibility, having missed the 2004 and 2005 seasons to care for his younger siblings after their father’s death.

Boudreaux started all 12 games in 2007 and posted 84 tackles, three tackles for loss, three interceptions and a team-high eight breakups.

SDSU has returning starters at both corners in junior Aaron Moore (6-0, 190) and senior Vonnie Holmes (6-0, 170), with sophomore Martrell Fantroy (6-1, 215) and senior T.J. McKay (6-1, 205) vying for the No. 1 spot at strong safety.

Moore and Holmes tied for the team lead with four interceptions. Moore started 11 games and tallied 59 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and seven pass breakups. Holmes started seven games and became the first Aztec with interceptions in four consecutive games since Eric Lewis in 1995, including a 35-yard return for a touchdown against Cincinnati. Fantroy returned three picks for a total of 100 yards, with a 55-yard touchdown against UNLV. He has a higher ceiling, but McKay has the edge in experience with 30 games behind him.

Three sophomores supply depth at cornerback: Romeo Horn (6-0, 180), Jose Perez (6-1, 180) and Dey Juan Hemmings (5-11, 180).

The top reserves at safety are junior Nick Sandford (6-2, 205), senior Travis Crawford (6-0, 200) and redshirt freshman Aubrey Smith (6-2, 190).

PUNTERS

The Aztecs have to replace four-year starter Michael Hughes. He averaged 43.9 yards last season and a career-best 44.8 yards per punt in 2005, which tied for eighth nationally and earned him second-team all-conference honors.

Sophomore Brooks Beckman (5-11, 205) was the only punter on the spring roster, but the job is expected to go to incoming recruit Brian Stahovich (6-0, 170) from Cathedral Catholic High in San Diego. He has impressive hang time and was rated No. 5 nationally by Scout.com. In one game last fall, he boomed three punts of 50-plus yards (long of 61), converted five extra points and had three touchbacks on kickoffs.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Deep snapper Tyler Schmitt, a sixth-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks, has been replaced by incoming recruit Aaron Brewer (6-5, 210) of Troy High in Fullerton, Calif. Brewer also drew interest from Stanford, Cal and Washington, but he’ll have a chance to play immediately with the Aztecs.

“He is the best long snapper in the country,” Long said. “I have learned as a head coach not to take that position for granted. It’s a position that is a big weapon, and it’s why our special teams have improved. Aaron is a huge get for us, and we are very excited to have him join our program.”

Kelsey Sokoloski resumes his duties as the holder, but special teams coordinator Toby Neinas will wait until August to choose his return men. The only players on the depth chart after spring practice were Mekell Wesley and Davon Brown. Last season, Wesley averaged 21.8 yards on 26 kickoff returns and Vincent Brown averaged 21.9 yards on 25 kick returns. Swain was the primary punt returner, although Wesley did average a healthy 21.5 yards on two attempts.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

A bowl invitation is probably not forthcoming, but a .500 record would make Long the mayor of Montezuma Mesa. The Aztecs are more likely headed for a 4-8 or 5-7 finish. There are too many unknowns and too few playmakers on a young, untested offense that mustered 110 yards on 45 plays in the spring game. The defense is more experienced, but it’s basically the same personnel that let teams run roughshod last fall.

Grading the Aztecs
Unit Grade
Offense C-
Special teams C
Defense C
Intangibles C

Road games at Notre Dame, TCU and BYU are daunting, and playing at San Jose State is no easy chore; the Spartans are 13-4 at home under Dick Tomey. San Diego State has to hold serve at home against Idaho, Air Force, Colorado State and UNLV and steal road victories against evenly matched conference foes New Mexico and Wyoming to have any shot at a winning season.

To be fair to Long, three years isn’t much time to resurrect a program that hasn’t posted a winning season since 1998 or won a bowl game since 1969. Of course, the team’s poor classroom performance isn’t helping. The Aztecs are down to 79 scholarships, six below the maximum, and their most recent Academic Progress Rate ranked fifth worst among 119 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

Making the grade on the gridiron is a more immediate concern. One factor that does point to a possible turnaround is everyone being on the same page after a third spring together.

“There’s a comfort level now,” said Allen, the senior linebacker. “The guys know what to expect. We’re ready now to take it to the next level. You can feel that in the locker room, in the weight room and when we are out on the field.”

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