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San Diego State Football: One year removed from disastrous season, the special teams unit is leading the Aztecs

One of the weakest facets of the team last season, the SDSU special teams have been a lone bright spot in what has been a tough year for the Aztecs.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

In a tumultuous season for San Diego State football that has consisted of underachieving, second half collapses and an injury to the starting quarterback, the one unit that has outperformed all others is special teams.

Give it up to head coach Rocky Long. Yes, this season is not going as planned, but Long isolated arguably the weakest facet of his team and turned it into a strength this offseason.

Last year the Aztecs only converted on half their field goal attempts (8-16), that would be a mediocre average for a high school team. For a Division-I college football program it’s unacceptable. The special teams unit cost the whole team several games, most notably against Fresno State in 2013 where two missed field goals forced overtime and an Aztec loss.

Long sought out an answer for his kicking game, and found one in junior Donny Hageman who was looking to transfer from Mt. San Antonio Junior College. Fast-forward to today, and Hageman needs just one more field goal to match the total number the team has made last season.

Hageman has been everything SDSU could have asked for and more, converting seven of eight field goals to start the season--three of which have been from 40 yards or longer. Not only has Hageman sparked the special teams unit, but he brings a whole new dynamic to the offense.

No longer does the offense need to go for it on fourth down or force plays on third down. It knows once it gets the ball around the opponent's 30-yard line, Hageman will pick them up. That dynamic may be no more important right now more than ever with the news from Tod Leonard of UT-San Diego that true freshman quarterback Nick Bawden will make his second career start this week against New Mexico.

Hageman knocked in a crucial 36-yard field goal during the fourth quarter last week against Fresno State in Bawden's debut, which kept SDSU in the game.  As long as the kicking game is anchored like it has been thus far, the Aztecs have a chance to win every week, even with inexperienced Bawden at the helm.

Besides Hageman, senior punter Joel Alesi has also provided consistency in the punting game. Alesi has averaged over 38 yards a punt and has not allowed a touchback. He also took home Mountain West Special Team Player of the Week honors for his efforts against UNLV, when he pinned the Rebels inside their own 6-yard line twice.

It doesn’t just stop with the kicking game, either. Sophomore wide receiver Lloyd Mills has proven to be an explosive punt returning option.  Mills is averaging over 10 yards a return, and had a 67-yard punt return touchdown in the team's opening game against Northern Arizona University.

If you want to dig even deeper, SDSU has not allowed a punt or kick return touchdown through five games, illustrating how their special teams has been rock solid in nearly every dimension.

Dig yet deeper and you'll find that kicker Seamus McMorrow already has a staggering seven tackles on opponent kickoff returns, and these have often been touchdown-saving tackles.

Is this the best special teams unit in SDSU history? I think it may be too early to tell. This unit has only been together for five games, we don’t know what kind of continuity it will provide.

Is this the best special teams unit of the Rocky Long era? I think you could make a solid argument for that one. While the season has been below par up to this point, there’s no arguing the performance of the SDSU special teams. If it continues on with its pace it may establish itself as one of the more dominant units in the Mountain West and country.