The San Diego St. Aztecs football team began spring practice last Wednesday--right as the Southern California drought ended. Rain or no rain, Head Coach Rocky Long is excited to return to the field. Long told the media he has a clear goal to reach by the end of spring.
"Finding two deep (of players at positions) on both sides of the ball that we're very comfortable with," he said.
Here are some questions that need answering and position battles that warrant attention during SDSU spring practice.
Will the Aztecs become a pass-first team? San Diego State loses two offensive lineman and Adam Muema next season. But its biggest loss for the run attack is fullback Chad Young. A walk-on in 2010, Young started from 2011-2013. In his first year as starter he plowed open holes for Ronnie Hillman to the tune of 1,711 yards. In 2012 he blocked for the Walter Kazee-Adam Muema running tandem that netted almost 2,500 yards. Last year he helped an injured Adam Muema and young Donnel Pumphrey run over 2,100 yards. San Diego State has built a reputation as a powerful run-first offense, especially in these last few years. The one offensive constant in those years? Chad Young.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, SDSU's passing game will improve next season. Quinn Kaehler's skills and confidence grew exponentially last year, and by the end of he year he flashed his surprising arm strength on a regular basis. Kaehler's favorite target, Ezell Ruffin, also returns.
Four years in a row SDSU has run the ball more than it's passed it (and it's made a bowl game all four years). So here's the question: without the pieces for a top-notch running attack, will SDSU be a pass-first offense next year?
How good can this run defense be? When asked what the strength of his team will be next year, Long didn't hesitate: "Defensive line and linebackers," he said.
He's right. The Aztecs return all but one starter on the defensive line, and 2014 recruit Christian Heyward could very well fill that roll. But the biggest reason why this run defense could improve so much is that Jake Fely, Josh Gavert and Derek Largent return as seniors to man the linebacker position. With Fely injured for most of last year, Gavert and Largent stepped up in a big way and combined for 100 tackles, 10 of which were tackles for loss. Fely, Gavert and Largent all specialize in run defense, and Long loves to send them on linebacker blitzes throughout the game. More often than not, Long lets his defensive backs take care of wideouts, so this veteran linebacker core will be able to focus a lot of its attention on the running back.
The run defense showed some great flashes last year. In fact it allowed the 21st fewest running yards per game in the country (131.4). But with Fely, SDSU's defensive leader, injured, consistency became an issue. Barring injury, the defensive lineman and linebackers should be much more consistent next year and make the run defense a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, Long said that the three most likely defensive line starters on the roster won't be at spring practices, so Aztec fans will have to focus on the linebackers for now. But these spring practices should still give those interested an idea as to how SDSU's run defense will be come fall.
Who will step up at safety? Last year's top two tacklers (Nat Berhe and Eric Pinkins) leave the team and will also leave the safety position noticeably empty. SDSU returns a lot of defensive backs from the 2012-13 campaign, so who will play safety? Most of SDSU's defensive backs that started last year are slightly undersized to be a safety, but then again, that wasn't an issue with Berhe. It'll also be interesting to see if somebody can play the "Aztec" safety position, or as Berhe called it, a "jack of all trades."
David Lamar and Stan Sedberry seem like good fits: they have playing time and a good height for a safety (6'2"), but it's way too early to know for sure. Keep an eye on them, though. Sedberry was actually listed as Berhe's backup at the "Aztec" position this year.
Second running back: Long believes SDSU's second, between-the-tackles running back to complement Pumphrey's big-play style is already on the roster (meaning it's most likely Dwayne Garrett or Chase Price--both currently sophomores). In fact, against the word of his offensive coaches, he already thinks that one of the two will step up and grab the second spot this spring.
"I have a special one, but I'm not going to tell you because I have a bet with the offensive coaches on who it is, and they don't agree with me, but they'll be wrong," he said at a recent press conference.
Both Price and Garrett have little playing time: Garrett (6'0", 205 pounds) has 20 carries for 85 yards and Price (5'8", 200 pounds) has 46 carries for 192 yards and a touchdown.
Long did tell the press one thing: his running back in mind runs a lot like former New Mexico running back Rodney Ferguson. Who does he remind you more of, Price or Garrett?
Second, third and fourth wideouts: Ruffin will be number one, and Eric Judge emerged as a redshirt freshman last year with 13 catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns. But Larry Clark (6'4", 210 pounds) is a physical specimen, and is right there with Eric Judge. Clark caught three passes for 51 yards last year. Watch out for those two to duke it out for the second receiver slot. As for number three and number four? Well, SDSU has some good young talent coming in 2014, but also has a lot of receivers waiting in the wings for their chance. I think a slot receiver would fit the number three role very well, and Jemond Hazely, a current sophomore letterwinner, is solid in the slot.
Once again, this is all speculation. This will be a fun position battle to watch.
Fullback: Alright, who wants to follow in Chad Young's footsteps? Long said it's down to Parker Wells, Dakota Gordon and Adam Roberts. Wells and Gordon are walk-ons, and Roberts was listed as a tight end this year. Keep an eye on those three.
Kicker: This position battle won't play out yet because SDSU's two new kicker recruits won't be with the team this spring, but it just didn't make sense writing an SDSU football preview without mentioning kickers...
Return man: Colin Lockett and Tim Vizzi took care of the return game last year. Lockett averaged 24.5 yards per kick-off return and Vizzo returned two punts for touchdowns. Look for Long and company to choose from the huge crop of wide receivers to fill the role. This could also be a position that isn't filled until the 2014 recruits start practicing. Young talent like Dionte Sykes and Mikah Holder seem like potential fits.
SDSU now begins the long process of competing for the MWC crown and making another bowl game next year. Spring practice is step one.