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Grading SDSU’s Defensive Units

The Aztecs are entering next season with one of the best defenses in the Mountain West, if not the entire Group of 5.

SDSU safety Tariq Thompson is congratulated after recovering a fumble against BYU. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

I will be doing specific position evaluations a bit later into July, but while doing my preliminary research, I stumbled upon just how good this Aztecs defense can be next season. From deep secondary depth to strong athletes up front, here is what we can expect from SDSU’s defense in 2020.

Defensive Line: B

Although Rocky Long and his defensive mind are no longer on the staff, the Aztecs are bringing in the similarly defensive-minded Brady Hoke to lead the roster. Hoke was brought on as the defensive line coach in 2019, and coached his players to 25 sacks which was third most in the conference. The unit struggled to wrap up against the run occasionally, but when they did, they were tackling opposing running backs quickly after they received the hand off. The team will be returning all but one lineman from a season ago, the one being defensive end and sack leader (7) Myles Cheatum.

Even with the loss of Cheatum, San Diego State will be bringing back starters Cameron Thomas, Keshawn Banks and Caden McDonald, as well as rotation pieces Connor Mitchell and Jonah Tavai. Thomas was dominant in 2019 and will be battling with Nevada’s Dom Peterson for the label of best interior defensive lineman in the Mountain West next season. Banks and McDonald are solid off the edge and should benefit from Thomas wrecking the middle of opposing offensive lines. San Diego State’s strong front will aid a linebacking corps that needs all the help it can get.

Linebackers: C-

The Aztecs have enjoyed years of prosperity from the linebacker position with Kyahva Tezino and Calvin Munson before him. Much like their counterparts up front, the linebackers were strong against the run in 2019. They filled gaps and burst into backfields but unlike the d-line, they did not miss many tackles. The Aztecs utilize their LBs as true pass rushers, not just blitzers and have had success doing so. They only forced 6 sacks last season, which was still 5th most in the conference from the position, but they accumulated far more QB pressures than any other MW school. Nearly all of the position’s accomplishments from a year ago can be attributed to the play of Tezino, so it is safe to say his departure will be felt.

Andrew Aleki is the only linebacker coming back to The Mesa who played significant snaps last year. He had difficulty in coverage and was just average as a run-defender and pass-rusher. The starting spot alongside him is wide open which makes the linebacker position even more of a question mark. Incoming freshman Via Koha could walk on and earn a spot in the starting lineup before the season. He is already listed at 6’0” and 210 pounds, which is a decent frame straight out of high school. With great fluidity, coverage skills, and especially pass rushing ability, he can slide into the Kyahva Tezino role for the defense. Koha’s talent is undeniable and with further development and training, he could be a star for San Diego State beginning in his first year on the roster.

Although confidence in their linebackers heading into this upcoming season is wavering, it is safe to say that they will be helped by the play of the defensive line and particularly by their defensive backfield.

Secondary: A+

The real reason SDSU’s defense can wreak havoc next season is because of their star studded secondary. Luq Barcoo is gone, leaving a rather large position that needs to be filled, but the Aztecs have the talent to do so. The deadliest part of the secondary is the safety duo of Tariq Thompson and Dwayne Johnson Jr.

Thompson has lined up in the box and at free safety but he specializes in the slot. Since becoming a starter in 2017, he has been dependable against both the run and the pass. Over his past three campaigns, Tariq has snatched 11 interceptions and forced over 20 pass breakups. He should look to improve his tackling this offseason as he did miss more tackles than you would like but beyond that his play has been spectacular and he should be a mid round draft pick come the 2021 NFL Draft.

The perfect compliment to Thompson, Johnson is a hard hitting safety that any receivers crossing the middle of the field would fear. He is a tight end eraser and has experience playing both in the slot and deep safety but primarily patrols the box, similar to that of Kam Chancellor in the 2013 Seahawks defense. 2019 was his first year of meaningful snaps and should only improve in his second season as a starter.

At cornerback, the Aztecs have veteran Darren Hall on one side and a competition at the other. Hall has been a starter that past two seasons and with an increase in playing time last year, he saw an increase in production. With Barcoo in the NFL Darren will have the chance to prove he is a number one corner and can shutdown any receiver that lines up against him. Outside of Hall, the coaching staff will have to decide who they want starting opposite of him. Kyron White and Cedarious Barfield are the only other returning DBs to receive time at corner last season, even though neither saw more than a handful of snaps.

Incoming JUCO transfer Dallas Branch is the most likely candidate to win the training camp battle. He spent one year at Long Beach City College and did most with the opportunities he was afforded. According to the school’s website, he was able to rack up 50 total tackles, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and an eye-popping 6 interceptions. Branch was a playmaker and his game should be able to translate rather quickly to the D1-level. He still has three years of eligibility left and should see the field plenty during his true sophomore season.

Overall: B

I currently have the defense with an overall grade of a B but they have potential to reach an A during the season. The linebacker position severely weighs the rest of the units down but Cameron Thomas and the entire secondary should do more than enough to cover its warts. Expect the Aztecs to continue their run of defensive success in 2020 and for years to come.