The San Diego State Aztec defense uses a 3-3-5 scheme which is gaining popularity around the country and is similar to the 4-2-5 defense that schools like TCU and others use across the country. The idea of this defense is to be as fast as possible and to put as many athletes as possible.
The Aztecs return five starters from an underrated defense that was 36th in scoring defense and 43rd in total defense in the nation. Everyone pays attention to their offense but the defense was above average. For the Aztecs to compete for the Mountain West title their defense needs to be at least in the top half, because if the defense is good enough and can create turnovers the offense can do the rest by outscoring other teams.
The best player on the Aztec defense is linebacker Miles Burris who had 7.5 sacks last year, 18 tackles for loss and forced four fumbles. Burris is up there for defensive player of the year alongside TCU's Tank Carder and Boise State's Billy Wynn. Burris is just a playmaker and is the leader of this defense. Look for him to get near the 100-tackle mark in 2011.
Logan Ketchum is the other linebacker that goes somewhat unnoticed because of how well Burris performs. Last year Ketchum had 52 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss which was good for third on the team. Ketchum plays more like a defensive back then a linebacker due to his speed, so he can cover a slot receiver or take on a running back who gets past the defensive line.
The third linebacker spot is somewhat of a question mark. The starter at the middle linebacker is Jake Fely who is undersized at 5-feet-10-inches and 205 pounds. His strength is his speed, but in 2010 he was injured for most of the year. Rob Andrews is going to be the top reserve at the middle linebacker spot and will be used more in running situations due to his larger frame at being 6-feet-2-inches and 220 pounds.
Andrews did start three games last year and look for him and Fely to rotate at the middle linebacker spot, but outside of Andrews and Fely the middle linebacker position is quite thin. The entire defense is actually quite thin and they are an injury or two away from key players to having a bad defense.
The defensive line only returns one starter in Jerome Long who had been a key backup in 2009, but came on strong in taking over a starting spot on the line in 2010. Being at 280 pounds is not ideal for an inside down lineman, but Long does make up for the lack in size with speed. The other key down lineman is J.J. Autele who is finally 100 percent healthy from a blown out knee injury he suffered in 2008. In a reserve role last year Autele had 15 tackles with 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. While Autele is build to play a linebacker, he fits in nicely to play the defensive end position. His main objective for this defense is to get to the backfield to disrupt the play.
The defensive backfield is being anchored by returning starter Leon McFadden and with only two returning starters McFadden will be looked upon to make plays. Last year he had 12 pass breaks and if McFadden can turn a few of those into interceptions he could become the best defensive back in the Mountain West.
The 3-3-5 defense requires the two-non cornerbacks to help in the running game as well needing to cover wide receivers or tight ends on occasion. The secondary is inexperienced and that is where the Aztecs will have issues when they face Boise State and possibly even Colorado State when they start throwing the ball.
Overall, the defense did lose a lot of players and they probably will be in the same range as last year being on the fringe of a top-40 defense nationally. New head coach Rocky Long is a defensive guy, so he may get a little bit more out of this Aztec defense. Basically the Aztec defense needs to stop teams when they count and limit teams to field goals while being opportunistic in the turnover department. The offense allows this defense a margin of error since they can score quickly and keep the Aztecs in every game they play this year.