The road warrior Aztecs will finally lay claim to their permanent home this fall when they officially move into Snapdragon Stadium. This long- awaited addition to the San Diego State facilities will be a welcome change from the rental stadium at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson. Finally, crowds of more than 11,000 will be enthralled by the features of the new 35,000 seat Aztec home. But face it, it’s not just the stadium that will be front and center this year. SDSU, fresh off a 12-2 campaign has high expectations both on and off the field in this, their 100th year of football. In addition to having a team with three nationally recognized players, two conference players of the year, and seven all-conference players, much attention and ink is being given to the Aztecs as the favorite to be promoted into the Pac 12/Pac 10/Pac something. The possibilities are about as eye-popping as a Jordan Byrd kick return. The scenarios are mind-boggling and hinge on quite a variety of events happening, none of which the Aztecs have control over. So what is coach Brady Hoke to do? Get his team ready to play football of course. There are 21 practices scheduled between this week and the first game on September 3. Let the school administrators handle the ultimate decisions of realignment and which conference the university will be a part of. The fans and opinionated sports writers make projections, predictions, and prognostications about everything realignment. This writer will choose to keep his opinions to himself at this time and focus on the potential for a memorable upcoming year.
Heading into a new season generally brings excitement in two areas: schedule and player personnel. The Aztecs have reason to be both excited and cautious on both fronts. Seven games are virtual locks barring the usual injuries or mind-meld meltdowns. These happen to be most of their home games. The Aztecs will be wanting to create traditions early on in their new home. Establishing Snapdragon as a hostile venue for the visiting team will be an early team objective. The location and newness will be a draw for fans and hopefully with the Aztecs playing well, will contribute to a growing fan base, who are hungry for a home game. Three away games will be a true indicator for this potentially magical season. An early game in Salt Lake City against Utah, a Friday, September 30 game versus Boise State on the Smurf Turf, and finally, a titanic showdown on Halloween weekend in Fresno against the highly touted Jake Haener and the explosive Bulldogs can go either way, pointing to either success or a near miss.
An offseason that included some key transfers should be able to shore up some early questions. Virginia Tech transfer quarterback Braxton Burmeister looks to have the early reigns. He spent two years with Oregon before transferring to the Hokies and is now looking to finish up his collegiate career as an Aztec. He brings skills that seem to suggest he will do more good than harm. He is a 55% passer with nearly 2,000 passing yards, 14 TD’s and only 4 interceptions. He is adept at running with 117 attempts garnering 521 yards and 2 TD’s. Several JUCOs and transfers from Tulsa, Washington, Oklahoma State and Hawaii look to fill some voids left by top performers Cameron Thomas, Matt Araiza, Greg Bell and Lucas Johnson. Several key returners highlight this Aztec team. Safety Patrick McMorris, LB Caden McDonald and Center Alama Uluave have all received pre-season accolades. Add in all conference performers RB/KR Jordan Byrd, WR Jesse Matthews, Defensive linemen Keshawn Banks and Jonah Tavai and you can see why the Aztec coaching staff is smiling. Things are looking nice in Snapdragon Land. As long as the coaches and players continue to keep their eyes on each game and not the realignment game, success should follow. It also looks as if NCAA rushing leader DJ Pumphrey will join the staff as a grad assistant. One can never have enough team legends offering insights. Finally, reading news about several players involved in an off campus rape has put a somber mood on the team the school and team are cooperating with authorities. We will see how this shakes out.
Reasons for optimism: The Aztecs are like an old plug-and-play. Big offensive linemen to block. Quick, powerful backs to bust holes. Reliable and not a flashy quarterback to deliver the occasional ball with a minimum of mistakes. Wash and repeat. Last year’s stats are a bit deceiving, showing a pretty good balance of rushing and receiving performance. With an average rush of 4.3 yards and pass reception of 11.2 yards, the Aztecs have shown they can move the ball with balanced consistency. With eleven offensive linemen on the spring roster, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of depth, but that is offset by talent and size. All eleven are over 300 pounds while towering with a consistent 6’5” across the line. The lone exception is the best player, Alama Uluave anchoring the center position. Expect Cade Bennett at left guard and Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson and Jonathan Harrison, two behemoths over 6’5” to anchor the offensive line with the remainder competing for the other open spots. RS offensive linemen Christian Jones and Josh Simmons both reported to camp 30 pounds lighter.
Returning running backs Chance Bell and Jordan Byrd looks to get the majority of the handoffs. Bell averaged 4.7 yards per carry and Byrd 6.6 showing they both have good breakaway potential. In addition, Keenan Christian has shown some flashes of excitement. Preferred walk-on Nicholas Gardinera may also see some time. The Aztecs seem to be looking for youth development, having taken four high school running backs and activating redshirt freshman Cam Davis out of Dallas Texas. The quarterback position, as previously mentioned, is not a highlight, but it doesn’t seem to be a liability unless Burmeister gets injured. He has had several injuries in his career and it remains to be seen how he manages the season. The only reserve with any experience is highly touted redshirt Will Haskell. He threw for 47 yards in three games last season. Also of note is DJ Ralph, a preferred walk-on from Central Catholic. Additionally, 5th string QB Marshall Eucker is no longer considered active and is “more of a coach”, says head coach Brady Hoke. Walk-on freshman QB Tobin O’Dell was not yet in camp. The mantra should be to keep our QB healthy. The receiving corp left me scratching my head. All-league performer Jesse Matthews highlights this receiving corp that has several question marks. Tyrell Shavers, Brionne Penny, Mekhi Shaw and Darius De Los Reyes are the only receivers with any game experience with Shavers, a 6’6” transfer is being touted as the number two go-to. Senior TJ Sullivan could also be in the mix. Matthews brings his unique ability to score, having secured nine touchdowns last year. We haven’t even looked at Tight Ends. This will probably go to Washington transfer Mark Redman to replace all-league Daniel Bellinger. Jay Rudolph and Gus McGee wait in the wings. Receivers are going to either be a cause for concern or a breakout success. Finally, what to do when you lose All-American Matt Araiza, a once in a generational talent. Expect an instant drop-off in performance as well as field goal attempts from a shorter distance. Jack Browning will have broad shoulders to carry this responsibility as well as punting.
Reasons for Concern: There is always the challenge to replace departed talent. The Aztecs will need to find a way to bring together each unit, give them reps and avoid injuries. Offensive lineman Kyle Trombley is out until midseason with an injury and with fall ball started, stay tuned for a few other possible injuries of note. The QB position will be monitored every week, but with no real defined backup, expect Burmeister to play through growing pains. He’s a veteran of football from the Power 5, so it will be his responsibility to limit mistakes and avoid unnecessary hits. Running backs have shown skill, talent and versatility. They can play in a variety of formations and function as both blockers and receivers. This area is less of a concern as the running game is the central function of the offense. The offensive line is a unit with potential, but may be pushed because of a lack of depth. The aforementioned injury will be impactful and it will be incumbent upon the unit to stay healthy, with the back-ups getting adequate practice reps to be able to step in at a minute’s notice. Receivers have some questions to answer aside from Matthews. There is some potential talent in Shavers, Sullivan and Penny, but it remains to be seen how they gel together. Working with a new quarterback may take some time to be on the same page with routes. Tight end will be difficult to match last year, but Redman seems to be the key, yet he lacks any tangible experience.
Key Stat: With Byrd’s 1116 total yards and Jesse Matthews 647 yards, the Aztecs return 2 of their top 3 all-purpose players. These two all-league performers could continue their climb to success this year and be on a national spotlight watch. I expect Byrd’s numbers to be even greater as he should see more duty as a running back. These two will anchor the Aztec offense while the remainder of the positions works to find their purpose.
Wildcard: Two potential players who have created a bit of buzz are running back Keenan Christon and wide receiver Tyrell Shavers. They seem to have the talent to be stars once given the opportunity and may provide the additional spark on offense. How well the units bond and come together will determine who is the next to step up as either a support player or the go to player.
Reasons for optimism: Is it possible this unit can be even better than last year’s unit which was ranked in the top 20 in total and scoring defense? A resounding yes. Ranked third in the country in run defense, the Aztecs present a formidable front to thwart anyone who wants to run on them. Defensive linemen Jonah Tavai and his brother Justus along with Defensive end Keshawn Banks are poised to show their dominance both in run stoppage and pass rush. Add to this, linebackers Caden and Cooper McDonald with their bulk and speed and it will be another dynamic dominating run defense. In the backfield, the leader is unquestionably Safety Patrick McMorris. His 90 tackles and four picks led the team. His leadership is unquestionable but he will need others to step in. Corners Noah Tumblin, Dallas. Branch and Noah Avinger all contributed last year. Safety Cedarious Barfield is a capable backfield mate along with talented CJ Baskerville. It remains to be seen if they can improve upon a team total of 17 picks.
Reasons for concern: This starts with how to replace All-League performer Cameron Thomas. His 11.5 sacks led the team and the Aztecs will be looking to spread those stats around. Fortunately, they have adequate backups and should probably be at or near last year’s defensive level. Tulsa transfer lineman has left the team due to nagging injuries as well as Pa’a Ewaliko. Linebackers will be solidly anchored with McDonald and Shawcroft generating most of the tackles. The only real question heading into the season is how the defensive secondary comes together. Fortunately, the Aztecs are in a very strong position on defense that it doesn’t create or cause too many coaching headaches.
Key Stat: the aforementioned league-leading 17 interceptions is a high mark to strive for again. With the success of the defensive against the run, teams will be forced to pass. Can McMorris snag more than four picks this year? 9 different players had interceptions, truly a team effort. This will be a fun stat to watch.
Wildcard: I’m looking at the Transfer Brothers Tavai and McDonald to see how well they complement their returning siblings. Football is a brotherhood and these guys have made it extremely personal. Be interesting to see how they work together. Any sibling rivalries here?
Reason for Optimism: The return of Jordan Byrd. His numbers should continue to shine giving the Aztecs an ever-improving field position. The offense will be the beneficiary of shorter fields. This will work strongly in the Aztecs’ favor. The other area is kicking. Judo transfer Jack Browning will replace Matt Araiza with both punting and place-kicking. I expect his field goal percentage to be an improvement basically because the Aztecs won’t attempt ridiculously long kicks. If he can average 45 yards a kick that will be a win. Long snapper Ryan Wintermeyer looks to be solid.
Reason for Concern: the area I would pay attention to is the yards allowed to the opponent on returns, especially kick-offs. This is an area the special teams will need to secure and lock down to allow the defense a good starting field position.
Key Stat: can Browning get anywhere near the high bar of 51 yards average per punt? It’s doubtful but I see this team competing at a high level, looking for both team and individual marks.
Wildcard: Who is the backup for Jordan Byrd? He’s going to get the majority of touches but who steps in with an injury? The only other player with any return experience is Tyrell Shavers with 27 punt return yards.
2022 San Diego State Schedule
Saturday September 3, 12:30 PM pt- ARIZONA WILDCATS
Saturday September 10, TBA - IDAHO STATE BENGALS
Saturday September 17, 8:00 PM mt - @ Utah Utes
Saturday September 24, TBA - TOLEDO ROCKETS
Friday September 30, 6:00 PM mt - @ Boise State Broncos*
Saturday October 8, 7:30 PM pt - HAWAII WARRIORS*
Saturday October 15 - Bye
Saturday October 22, 7:30 PM pt - @ Nevada Wolfpack*
Saturday October 29, TBA - @ Fresno State Bulldogs*
Saturday November 5, 4:00 PM - UNLV REBELS*
Saturday November 12, TBA - SAN JOSE STATE SPARTANS*
Saturday November 19, TBA - @New Mexico Lobos*
Saturday November 26, 6:00 PM pt - AIR FORCE FALCONS*
Saturday December 3, TBA - Mountain West Conference Championship*
*denotes conference game
Home games in caps and bold
Thoughts: The season starts with the home/home rematch against an Arizona team bent on revenge from their 38-14 shellacking last year. The Wildcats are much improved but the Aztecs are still the dominant team. Next are the Bengals from Pocatello Idaho. Stay true to the game and come away with a dominant performance with a lot of backups seeing playing time. The next game is penciled in on everyone’s calendar. At Utah to see how improved the Aztecs are. Utah is the reigning PAC-12 champion and is picked to finish first in the current media poll. All fingers are pointing at a Utah win, wanting revenge for last year’s overtime loss. My take is if the Aztecs win, they will likely run the table. If they lose, how will they be able to bounce back? There is no shame in a loss, but the Aztecs, have shown they know how to play with the big boys. Next up is Toledo, back at Snapdragon. This is a tough team, and that oversight could lead to a nasty surprise. Again, this will hinge upon the previous game and how quickly the Aztecs can put whatever result behind them.
Heading into conference play lands the Aztecs on the Smurf Turf in Boise. Owning a two-game winning streak against the Broncos, the Aztecs will face their first tough in-conference game. A determined effort by the Aztecs can propel them into the middle part of the season. How they respond to either a win or loss will dictate their success or failures from here on. A home game against Hawaii followed with a bye and a road trip to Reno against the Wolfpack should be expected wins. All this is leading up to the western conference showdown of the year against Fresno State. The Aztecs are 4 and 6 against Fresno in the last 10 outings including last year’s 30-20 loss. In all likelihood, the winner will be a representative in the conference championship game on December 3. The big question, is will the Aztecs’ defense be dominant and shut down the highly proficient offense behind Jake Haener? Usually, a good defense will be a good offense.
The final games of the season will be a home match against an improved UNLV team and then home again on Saturday, November 12 against San Jose State. Most people expect the Spartan matchup to be an easy win, but they forgot it took two overtimes for the Aztecs to finally dispatch a spirited San Jose team. It was a game of field goals until a pair of Jesse Matthews touchdowns clinched it. Key stat: The Spartans outgained the Aztecs by over 100 yards on offense. Don’t write off the Spartans as this alum is prone to remind anyone. The year ends away at the hapless Lobos in Albuquerque and the season finale at home against Air Force. The Aztecs are 9-1 against the Falcons since 2019 including last years 20-14 win. Always a tough game. Will the Aztecs have enough in the tank to withstand the dreaded Falcon triple option? Thanksgiving weekend should see quite the ground game by both teams.
Best Case Scenario: San Diego State runs the conference table, dominates their non - conference schedule, and hangs on to narrowly beat Utah finishing with a 12-0 season and a berth in the Conference Championship game. A win there would solidify the Aztec chances at a high-quality bowl game. Could it be like last year’s fairy tale Cincinnati team in the national playoffs? With quality wins over Boise State, Fresno State, Air Force, and Utah, one would have to give serious consideration to their bowl consideration.
Worst Case Scenario: This is always painful to contemplate when you consider all the effort that goes into each season. Off field discipline issues may rise their ugly head, to what extent remains to be seen. A season-opening loss to Arizona will send the Aztecs swirling to the depths of depression. Losses against Utah, Fresno State, San Jose State, and Air Force will put the Aztecs in a 7-5 season. A major disappointment considering high expectations at the start. Will these dreams flutter away into a spiral of despair, making fans wish they had the Chargers back? I expect more of the fans and the team, that’s why this is a nightmare worst-case scenario.
What’s probably going to happen: The Aztecs are fully armed with a formidable defense and a capable, time-consuming offense. A new stadium, long overdue, will finally be christened. Continued high expectations are the norm for this Brady Hoke team. They are going to want to come out strong, playing their type of grinding game. I expect to see efficient time management, minimum turnovers, and more frequent big plays from both the offense and special teams. The defense will dominate many offenses, resulting in a superb field position for the offense. Don’t expect to see a Covid-related meltdown like last year. Too many protocols and safeguards are in place for that to happen again, Burmeister will find his groove and be an efficient offensive leader, deftly distributing darts to his receivers and tucking and running behind his gigantic line. Byrd and Bell will be exciting to watch as they develop their unique style of running the ball. Following are my picks and scores:
Arizona: Aztecs win 35-21
Idaho State: Aztecs roll 55-7
Utah: Aztecs fall 28-25
Toledo: Aztecs win 27-17
Boise State: Aztecs continue rolling with a 32-24 win
Hawaii: Aztec win 48-28
Nevada: Aztecs win again 35-23
Fresno State: Defense wins out with an Aztec squeaker 23-21
UNLV: Aztecs tired after last week’s win and settle for a 27-23 win
San Jose State: Neither offense can gain traction but Aztecs win late 20-17
New Mexico: Back on track with a dominating 48-13 win
Air Force: Close but home-field advantage with a 32-28 win.
San Diego State will end the season with an 11-1 record, 8-0 in conference. Strong consideration for a New Year’s Bowl. Successful new season at Snapdragon. Another dominating performance will lead SDSU into more discussions of league realignment in the offseason.