Rocky Long is moving on from San Diego after nine straight winning seasons. San Diego State went 81 (second-most in school history) and 38 over that span, reigning victorious in four of nine bowl games. In the past nine years, Long has led his Aztecs to three conference titles and finishing on the AP top-25 poll in three of the last four seasons.
Early this year, Long officially resigned from San Diego State, and Brady Hoke was named as his replacement. Soon after his time with SDSU came to an end, the University of New Mexico announced Long would be joining the Lobos as their defensive coordinator under new coach Danny Gonzales. It would not be Long’s first time in New Mexico as he was their head coach from 1998 to 2008 and was an assistant coach back in 1978-1980.
Out with the old and in with the new, well sort of. The Aztecs next head coach will be Brady Hoke, who was the head coach of the program from 2009 to 2010. His first season he went 4-8 which is not all that impressive, but was an improvement over the previous years 2-10 record. In 2010 San Diego State went 9-4 under Hoke, the school’s first winning record in over 12 years. Hoke then spent time as Michigan’s head coach before bouncing around as an assistant coach, eventually finding his way back to the Meca in 2019 as SDSU’s defensive line coach under Long. Now back at the helm, what can we expect from Hoke’s Aztecs in 2020?
This will be a very interesting year for all sports due to the current pandemic and although the Big Ten and PAC-12 have already made their rulings, there are still many conferences who have yet to make a statement on the matter, including the Mountain West. Despite this, we will be taking a look at SDSU entering the 2020 season and try our best to predict how the year will play out.
Reasons for optimism: Everything but the quarterback. Continuity is the theme for the Aztecs as they are returning nearly their entire offense. They will be bringing back three of their five starting offensive lineman, though tackle Jacob Capra also made more than a handful of starts himself. Kobe Smith and Jesse Matthews lead the way of returning receivers as Chaz Collins is the only one not coming back who had at least one target a year ago. The list of running backs return with starter Juwan Washington graduating, though his departure may be beneficial as he was one of the least efficient backs last season.
Lastly, Daniel Bellinger returns at tight end and looks to be one of the team’s deadliest weapons as he was exceptional in limited playing time in 2019. With so many key players returning, it is safe to assume the offense will only take a step forward next season.
Cause for concern: Quarterback. After two years of stability with Ryan Agnew under center, the Aztecs will be looking to a new signal-caller in 2020. There are really only two options to choose from, them being redshirt sophomore Carson Baker and Georgia Tech transfer Lucas Johnson. Neither player has extensive experience on the D1 gridiron, but both have promise. Although I have them listed as a cause for concern, it is mostly out of the rest of the offense not having many holes at all.
Whoever starts at QB will have a plethora of quality running backs to hand the ball to as well as stellar receiving options to target. The offensive line should provide solid protection upfront giving them time to make the correct throws.
Wildcard: Lucas Johnson His name might be familiar to some diehard Aztecs fans as he originally committed to the program in November of 2015 before decommitting in favor of Georgia Tech just nine days before his signing day. His career with the Yellow Jackets was marred by injuries, causing him to see little of the football field. Johnson played in 14 games in his time in Atlanta, Georgia, starting twice and completing 21 of 37 passes for 187 yards and a touchdown. He also added another 68 yards on the ground on 19 carries. All 37 of Johnson’s pass attempts came last year, when he started two of his five appearances.
With Ryan Agnew graduating, the quarterback position is wide open. Johnson brings great size, athleticism, and running ability to the Aztecs, a skillset they have not had from their recent signal-callers. Despite his high school highlights being a bit outdated, his speed and arm strength are undeniable. Redshirt sophomore Carson Baker is the projected starter and is the only current SDSU QB to take snaps under center last year. Though Baker may begin training camp ahead of him on the depth chart, Johnson is a dark horse to win the battle come the start of the 2020 season.
Reasons for optimism: The Aztecs had the best defense in the Mountain West a year ago and one of the best in the entire country. They allowed a mere 12.7 points per game which was not only the lowest in the conference but the second lowest among all 130 FBS teams. The secondary was by far the strongest part, leading the Mountain West in interceptions with 18 and that was with quite a few being dropped over the course of the season. Pressure was also brought all year long as the Aztecs sacked opposing QBs 31 times which was tied for the second most with Wyoming.
The team is returning defensive stars Tariq Thompson, Dwayne Johnson Jr., and Cameron Thomas as well as various other productive players such as Keshawn Banks and Darren Hall. The loss of cornerback Luq Barcoo and linebacker Kyahva Tezino are significant but the Aztecs have the capacity to maintain their first-class play in 2020.
Cause for concern: Linebacker. Mentioned before, Kyahva Tezino is onto the NFL but SDSU is also losing Troy Cassidy to graduation. These two made up for the majority of linebacker snaps last season and leave senior Andrew Aleki as the only returning LB who received significant playing time in 2019. This is not a good thing, however, as Aleki missed over a dozen tackles throughout the season and allowed nearly everything into his coverage.
The Aztecs are bringing in some strong true freshman linebackers but they need time to learn the system and build on their frames. The linebacking corps does not have to be more than above-average as the defensive front and secondary are among, if not the, best units in the conference so all they have to do is wrap up and not allow any chunk plays which should be relatively easy.
Wildcard: Dallas Branch The junior college transfer was a standout cornerback in his freshman season at Long Beach City College. According to the school’s website, he was able to rack up 50 total tackles, three sacks, two forced fumbles, and a whopping SIX interceptions. Not only are his six interceptions eye-popping, but what should intrigue Aztecs fans, even more, are his three sacks and two forced fumbles.
He is a hard hitter once he gains some speed and plays far bigger than his size. At 5’11” 184 pounds it is easy to pigeonhole Branch to a slot corner on only dime or nickel packages, but he is able to stand on an island outside and line up against bigger receivers. He can sometimes bite too hard on routes, allowing receivers to get the best of him, but he offsets this with his instincts and playmaking ability.
Best case scenario: Carson Baker or Lucas Johnson provide impressive quarterback play unlike what San Diego State is used to. One of the running backs produces close to Rashaad Penny/Donnel Pumphrey numbers while the Matthews and Smith continue to provide solid hands for their QB. Daniel Bellinger becomes the next great SDSU tight end and reels in 10+ touchdowns. The defense lives up to its extremely high standard and once again limits teams to less than 15 points per game.
The Aztecs sweep the schedule, beating the likes of Wyoming and Nevada and stumbling just once to Colorado State’s top notch offense. The Aztecs play in the Mountain West Championship with a 9-1 record.
Worst case scenario: It’s 2018 all over again. San Diego State enters the season with a ton of hype, but cannot live up to it. They start the season with a victory over Toledo but drop the ball against Nevada, Wyoming, San Jose State, Colorado State, BYU and Fresno State. After reaching midseason at a stout 4-1, they go 1-5 to finish the year, concluding in a disappointing 5-6 season.
For this to happen, Baker and Johnson would both prove incapable and put up below-average numbers, effectively holding the offense back. None of the running backs seem to take the mantle of lead and the rotation does not scare opposing defenses. On the other side of the ball, the holes at linebacker destroy the defense as big play in the middle of the field occur all season long.
What will likely happen: The Aztecs will likely fall in the middle of the two scenarios. 9-1 is much more realistic than 5-6, however, so I have them ending 2020 with an impressive 8-2 record in Brady Hoke’s first season. The only losses I see happening are to the Wolf Pack and the Cowboys. Even then, I believe the games against Nevada and Wyoming can go either way depending on the play of their QB. That is the key this season, how will the Aztecs quarterback situation play out and how will they perform? If they can provide just moderate play, SDSU should not have a hard time reaching eight wins come the conclusion of the year.
Whatever happens, one thing is for sure: the Tariq Thompson and Cameron Thomas led defense would have continued to be one of the nation’s finest and San Diego State games would have been worth watching.