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Aztecs In the NFL: Keith Ismael

SDSU’s standout center will begin the next chapter of his football career with the Washington Redskins.

San Diego State center Keith Ismael prepares to snap the ball against the Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

mouWith the 156th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Washington Redskins drafted offensive lineman Keith Ismael out of San Diego State. Let’s examine what the Redskins organization and fans alike can expect from their fifth-round selection.

Ismael was a little known prospect coming out of high school, with both Rivals and 247Sports listing him as a two-star recruit. He received just one offer from Army, though he did have some interest from the Washington Huskies. In the end, the Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep alum decided to stay closer to home and committed to the Aztecs football program.

While attending the San Francisco high school, Ismael was a swing tackle, playing on both sides of the offensive line. The offense SHCP ran was a bit unorthodox, often lining up with three players in the backfield, one tight end, and two receivers. Out of this formation, the Fightin’ Irish would call run plays, read options, and run-pass options, relying on their rushing attack heavily.

One reason Ismael was not coveted highly was because of the technique his high school coaches required from their offensive lineman. They would either line up with both hands on the ground, similar to defensive tackles, or they would have one hand down with a heavy lean forward and extremely low stance. This is far from what is expected at the college and pro levels, severely hindering Ismael’s chances of receiving D1 offers. That is why Army, who runs a similar offensive scheme, was the only team to extend a scholarship to him.

Though his technique was lacking, he already stood at 6’3” and weighed 290 pounds with athleticism uncommon for the position. He had much to work on, but the Aztecs saw enough to bring Ismael onto their roster for the 2016 season. He redshirted as a true freshman, choosing to develop his body and work on correcting his stance while saving a year of eligibility.

Due to his shorter stature and lack of depth on the interior, SDSU decided to move him to left guard at the beginning of Spring practices in 2017. The Aztecs could not deny his talent by the end of camp and awarded Ismael the starting center job as a redshirt freshman. He struggled in pass protection out of the gate, but only allowed one sack in 13 games played. He also looked a bit weak in the run game early on but had the speed to reach the second level of the defense quickly.

After starting the first seven contests at center, he was thrust into the right guard position due to injury. Though he was bullied into the backfield occasionally, Ismael stood his ground on the interior and proved his versatility. His play earned him second-team all-conference honors from the MWC coaches and media.

After a year of experience against Mountain West competition and two years of receiving D1 coaching, Ismael was ready to take the next step in his sophomore season. He once again bounced around the offensive line, making six starts at center, five at right guard, and even one at left guard in San Diego State’s bowl game against Ohio.

His run blocking was clearly refined as he helped pave the way for 2,468 team rushing yards per the school’s website. His technique was night and day compared to the 2017 season, as his leverage and He concluded his season with a first-team all-conference nod, was on PFF’s Mountain West Offensive Team of the Year, and was voted the Aztecs’ offensive lineman of the year by his coaches and peers.

Ismael definitely saved his best performance for his final collegiate season. In 2019, the mammoth upfront gave up just one sack, garnering PFF’s highest pass-blocking grade among all centers in college football. He also showed even further development in the run game, knowing when to engage and disengage blocks while also executing his assignments as designed.

The only film I was able to find was SDSU’s Week 6 matchup against Wyoming. It was not Ismael’s best game of the season, but it highlights his pass-blocking ability and his fluidity on the line.

His redshirt junior year was by far his most stellar on the field and it showed in the awards he was able to rack up. For the second straight year, Ismael received first-team all-conference distinctions as well as the team’s best offensive lineman. On top of these accolades, he was on both the Rimington Trophy (nation’s most outstanding center) and the Outland Trophy (top interior lineman in the country) watchlists.

Due to his play throughout his college career, especially his last two seasons, Ismael received early to mid Day-3 hype as a draft prospect. This was spot on with his actual selection, with Redskins choosing the Aztec stalworth in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Washington was heading into the 2020 season with holes all over their offensive line. Ishmael's versatility and play as a pass-blocker are likely what caught the eye of Washington’s scouts, as he can plug and play at legitimately all the positions up front. He is best suited on the interior, which is likely where they will keep him.

Though he may not start right away, as he does lack upper-body strength and power to dominate defenders at the NFL level, he will provide depth and stability in the middle of the Redskins offense. Ismael is no stranger to the grind that is needed to thrive in the pros, as he went form a two-star recruit with just one scholarship offer to a Mountain West Conference standout. Expect to see his name on the back of an NFL jersey for years to come!


Will Ismael start for the Redskins at some point in 2020?

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