It takes a certain type of player to be willing to put his hand in the dirt and play in the trenches, while at the same time receiving none of the accolades. This is especially true in the 3-3-5 defense that Head Coach Rocky Long has used since his days as defensive coordinator with San Diego State.
This formation tends to utilize smaller and more mobile athletes at the lineman position, not to rush the quarterback, but to occupy blockers, which frees up both the linebackers and safeties to fill the gaps and make tackles. Last year's D-line can take pride in that SDSU ranked 22nd in the nation in rushing defense, but there is always room to improve.
The defensive line does face the loss of Jordan Thomas to graduation, who recorded 21 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. It also sees a position move by senior Cody Galea from right defensive end to the weakside linebacker. Galea posted the most tackles, 36, among the defensive line last year. He also recorded 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
Long still has a plethora of defensive lineman at his disposal, though, a big strength of this unit. The fourth-year head coach should be able to rely on at least seven players to rotate amongst the front three.
Left Defensive End - #99 Jon Sanchez - 6'2" 260 pounds - Junior
In his two seasons with the Aztecs, Sanchez has not missed a single game and that durability has propelled him into the starting lineup going into this season. Coming off the bench last year, he recorded 22 total tackles, four tackles for loss and two sacks.
Sanchez has made a name for himself as a run-stuffer and has the strength to anchor the Aztecs' run defense, which is why it may be surprising that he shed five pounds in the offseason. However, that can be attributed to his new starting role, where he'll need the stamina to take on double teams and the quickness and speed to beat the tackle on the edge while hunting for the opposing signal caller.
Defensive Tackle - #58 Alex Barrett - 6'3" 260 pounds - Sophomore
After redshirting his freshman campaign, Barrrett made a huge impact for the Aztecs last season, where he showed flashes of an all-conference player. In 12 games last season, all coming off the bench, he tallied 15 total tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks. The five tackles for loss were sixth on the team, second amongst the defensive line, and the three sacks were second on the team.
Barrett started last season with limited playing time and only recorded one tackle through the first four games. That was until he stepped up for Galea when he was hindered by the flu against Air Force. Barrett played a breakout game, finishing with two sacks and two tackles for loss. After watching Barrett battle and showcase his abilities, the coaching staff felt Barrett was ready to take on a larger role in their defense and moved him up the depth chart to No. 2 at defensive tackle, where he played the final three games. He did not disappoint, recording six tackles, two for a loss, and one sack in his new role.
Now listed as No. 1 on the depth chart at defensive tackle and adding 15 pounds to his frame, Barrett is ready to give the Aztecs his all once again--this time as a starter.
Right Defensive End - #97 Dontrell Onuoha - 6'2" 290 pounds - Senior
The undoubted leader of this unit is Onuoha, who is heading into his last year of eligibility and is the only returning starter. Playing in all 13 games for the Aztecs last season, he recorded 26 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one pass breakup.
Last season, due to injuries and shuffling of the depth chart, Onuoha had to make the move from defensive end to starting defensive tackle, where he shined. In the seven games he started at defensive tackle, he registered 22 total tackles and a half of a tackle for loss.
This season Onuoha returns to his natural position at defensive end after adding 20 pounds in the offseason. This additional weight will help him when he is required to occupy that second blocker to help his rangy and speedy linebackers/safeties make plays at the line of scrimmage.
Projected Backups at Left Defensive End:
#98 Sam Meredith - 6'4" 290 pounds - Senior
#91 Jordan Watson - 6'5" 285 pounds - RS Freshman
Meredith is coming off a disappointing 2013-14 campaign as injuries prevented him from duplicating his best season with the Aztecs, which garnered All-MW honorable mention honors in 2012. His injury-plagued season also helped Sanchez earn a starting position, but don't be surprised if Meredith proves he can stay healthy and regains his starting role at left defensive end.
Jordan Watson has an uphill battle if he wants to see the field this season as he is behind two of the most experienced veterans on the defensive line. Look for Long to use him sparingly throughout the season, possibly in a different position, depending on injuries.
Projected Backups at Defensive Tackle
#96 Kenny Galea'i - 6'1" 280 pounds - Junior
#93 Malcolm Jackson - 6'3 275 pounds - Sophomore
#65 Sergio Phillips - 6'2" 285 pounds - Freshman
Kenny Galea'i suited up for the first four games of his collegiate career last year. However, he was used only in situational matchups. He should see a dramatic increase in playing time, as he is a big body that can occupy the middle of an offensive line.
Malcolm Jackson and Sergio Phillips both will have a lot to prove if they want playing time this season, but in the unfortunate case of an injury, see one of these two men needing to step up.
Projected Backups at Right Defensive End:
#30 Dakota Turner - 6'3" 235 pounds - RS Freshman
#52 Teddy Queen - 6'1" 245 pounds - Sophomore
The lack of depth at the right defensive end is what elevates starter Dontrell Onuoha's experience to greater heights. Turner, like Galea, will see a position change this year, as he goes from the strongside linebacker to playing with his hand in the dirt. The transition might be difficult, as Turner will now have to line up directly across the opposing team's left tackle and set the edge in the run game.
Queen is the odd-man out in this conversation but still can see the playing field if he can prove that he has athleticism and strength in the run defense.
Keep an eye out for junior recruit Christian Heyward at Nose Tackle - 6'3" 300 pounds - Junior
A four-star recruit coming out of Point Loma High School in 2011, Heyward committed to play at USC. Unfortunately, a shoulder surgery kept him off the field for most of his two years as a Trojan, and he now returns home to play for the Aztecs. Heyward was once a four-star, Top-100 player. If he can still play like the four-star recruit from 2011, SDSU will have another great D-lineman to throw in the mix.