Aztecs head into a new season with many questions.
The Aztecs head into the 2023 season with guarded optimism. Each year presents challenges and opportunities. Last year this writer seriously began in earnest to look at the 2022 season and high expectations for Aztec football. The big news heading into last year was the new Snapdragon Stadium. Hopes were high and most fans surely thought a conference title was theirs for the taking. The season wound up disappointing most fans. The Aztecs ended with a 7-6 record, 5-3 in the conference (good enough for second place in the west), and did include a bowl game, which turned into quite the debacle. Talent levels were plentiful with Patrick McMorris, Caden McDonald, Alama Uluave, Jordan Byrd, Keshawn Banks, Jonah Tavai, and Jesse Matthews and QB newcomer Braxton Burmeister highlighting the pack. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The offense failed to materialize during the first half of the season which necessitated a new leader under center as well as a change to offensive coordinator. Enter Mississippi State transfer Safety Jalen Mayden as the new QB. Surprisingly, he delivered satisfactory results and became the team leader. Ryan Lindley the Aztecs all-time leading quarterback was hired to run the offense. During his tenure as the Aztec signal caller, he helped lead the Aztecs with a balanced offense as well as strong rankings in offense and pass-offense. The losses, while not a surprise, were definitely disappointing. Several blowouts and several collapses of epic proportions ensued, including a devastating last-minute loss to Fresno State. This year Mayden is firmly entrenched as the starter, but questions remain as to the rest of the team's talent. Combine this with the continuing “exitgate” drama which has taken up much of the offseason conversation and you have a convoluted conundrum facing the Aztecs. Recent events have upset the world of college sports and it looks like the Aztecs backed into a situation not of their making. Calls were made that the Aztecs would join the Pac 10. Well the conference is in their last dying convulsions. The football Aztecs hope that they can generate a sustained level of excitement similar to last year's National Championship run by the Aztec basketball team. That was a magical run, not likely to be duplicated, but certainly, the national attention was exciting.
The Aztecs have reason to be excited looking at their schedule. They cannot look past the Ohio Bobcats, a strong contender for the MAC lead before they take on in back-to-back weeks, UCLA and Oregon State. The Bruins come to Snapdragon Stadium with some memories of redemption for their 2019 loss in the Rose Bowl. The Beavers come next with a dual in Corvallis. The Beavers and Bruins are beatable and Oregon State could be a future conference foe. The other side of the coin is that the Aztecs could be 1-3 heading into back-to-back games against Boise State and Air Force. There will be obvious challenges with the front-loaded portion of their schedule.
At the MWC Media days, the Aztecs were picked to finish 4th behind Boise State, Air Force and Fresno State. Pre-season All League performers are tight end Mark Redman, Offensive guard Cade Bennett, Linebacker Cody Moon and Punter Jack Browning. It is obvious that other players will need to step up to fill in for much of the departed talent. The Aztec system is not quite a plug-and-play of natural talent, but it is a fill-in-the-blanks system. Expect a strong defense to gradually gel while the offense develops. There should be a bit more controlled passing by Mayden if his offensive line gains traction and provides adequate protection.
Reasons for optimism: As mentioned about the quarterback situation, Mayden looks to be the go-to guy. Lindley’s objective is to simplify the offense as much as possible while still maintaining an efficient system. Mayden has shown himself more than capable as long as he can avoid any costly turnovers. The Aztecs continue to attract size across the offensive front. These linemen need to be their best at opening holes for the backs and providing Jalen Mayden time to execute the offense. Projected starters including center Thomas Mirabella (6’4, 300, JR), guards Cade Bennett (6’3, 305, JR) and Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli (6’4, 315, SO) and tackles Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (6’6, 310, SR) and Christian Jones (6’9, 315, SO), yes, that’s right, 6’9’’! The line reminds some of power Big 10 football size. They are young, showing the Aztecs ability to develop raw talent and getting them into the lineup early in their careers. This should develop into a strong unit and be a force to contend with into the future. Quarterback Jalen Mayden emerged last year as the surprise quarterback replacement. He is athletic, had played quarterback in high school and has the mental fortitude to make the better decision most of the time. He completed 141 out of 237 attempts with 12 TD’s and 10 interceptions. He also ran for 353 yards. His lost yards were minimum showing his ability to avoid the big sacks. He will be exciting to watch as he continues to develop. By now, he will have had enough snaps to become comfortable in making split-second decisions. Backing him up will be DJ Ralph, Liu Aumavae, Kyle Crum and Tobin O’Dell. These quarterbacks combined for 6/25 and 55 yards. The Aztecs are praying to the sun gods that Mayden stays healthy.
After running backs Chance Bell and Jordan Byrd got the majority of the handoffs last year, it is expected that there will be a slight vacuum with running backs. The two that look to be set to step in are SR Kenan Christian (71/316 yards) and JR Jaylon Armstead (52/324 yards). After this, the experience drops, but there are a number of potential in the making players who may get some experience. This includes Lucky Avinger, Cam Davis, Nick Gardinera, Martin Blake, Lucky Sutton, and Sheldon Canley II. Canley is a talent out of Lompoc whose father ranks 4th on San Jose States' career rushing list.
If any position is going to be thrown to the wind and up for grabs it is the wide receiver position. Much like last year, this unit took time to produce, as evidenced by the passing game during the first five games. The Aztecs would like to ‘cinco forgetto’ those games and focus on the resurgence in the second half of the season. New WR coach Jonathan Krause has replaced previous coach Hunkie Cooper and has realistic expectations. Returner and projected starter JR Mekhi Shaw will be the key returner. He caught 29 balls for 349 yards and three scores. SO Phillippe Wesley II looks to be in the mix as well as Western Carolina transfer Raphael Williams Jr. The former Catamount accounted for 117 catches and 1,617 yards with 15 scores during his last two years. These are eye-popping numbers and if Williams can elevate his game to match the competition, he may have another breakout year. Early indications are that he will need some time to adjust to the speed and physicality of a stepped-up game. Unfortunately with all that promise, the Aztecs have to wait for a waiver to allow him to play immediately. NCAA rules state that a two-time transfer must sit out a year. This might be premature exhilaration. Senior Brionne Penny has been a bit of an enigma. Great size, yet underwhelming numbers (12 receptions/166 yards). This could be his breakout opportunity. Youth and inexperience and upperclassmen will fill in the rest of the receiving group starting with Freshmen, Baylin Brooks, Tyson Berry, Mikey Welsh, Derek Smith, and Pierce Brown. Sophomore Josh Nicholson holds promise as do Juniors Darius De Los Reyes and Nino Remigio. Coach Lindley may have some weapons from which to deploy, but it remains to be seen if they will be able to coordinate this season or wait a year for full development.
Moving over to look at the tight end position. This looks to be an extremely strong area for the Aztecs. Pre-season all-conference Mark Redman returns and is primed for a breakout season. The 6’6” Washington transfer should maintain his all-league status while sharing time with fellow senior Jay Rudolph. Waiting in the wings are two underclassmen, Cameron Harpole, and Logan Tanner. They are undoubtedly part of the Aztecs future tight end corp. Focus will be on line blocking followed by downfield receiving. I expect Redman to improve on his 20 catches and 225 yards. Looking at special teams, the Aztecs are ensconced with all conference Kicker/Punter Jack Browning. He might not be the best kicker in the conference, (behind Wyomings John Hoyland) but he is definitely the best punter in the Mountain West. On the return side, replacing Jordan Byrd will be difficult. Kenan Christon looks to have the skill set to be able to return both punts and kickoffs. If not him, then another of the skill players, perhaps even a redshirt freshman might step up.
Reasons for Concern: Losing the talent that the Aztecs did without definite replacements will cause the coaching staff many sleepless nights. Coach Hoke has managed to fill the ranks as needed. More now with transfers than in previous years. There are quite a number of high school signees and redshirts that are making their way through the system. Linemen look to be a position of depth, as twelve underclassmen are on the fall roster. Developing a cohesive unit of backups will be key as there are always a few injuries that happen during the season. Who will be the next to step up? Speculation is that Washington transfer Myles Murao may be the one. At 6’3” and 320 pounds, he may be ready to be a key cog in the present and future Aztec line machine. The Aztecs have also made a concerted effort to keep local players playing on the Mesa. Over 20 roster players are from the San Diego area. Local makes for a good story. Jaylen Mayden might wind up being the third best quarterback in the conference behind SJSU Chevan Cordeiro and Boise States Taylen Green. Of course this will depend on the Aztecs being able to establish a dominant running game. The backfield has potential talent with Christon and Armstead but this position will remain a question mark. I don’t feel that the Aztecs will have a running back of note for the year. Receivers are needed to get open. The Aztecs struggled last year with finding talent at this position. The good news story was Mekhi Shaw obtained a scholarship. The Aztecs have size and potential. Eyes are on Raphael Williams Jr. With eye-popping stats at Western Carolina, people are wondering if that type of success can transfer over to tougher competition. No Aztec is on the radar more than Williams. Playing in a conference with Tory Horton, who is arguably the best receiver in the conference and one of the best in the country, should take some of the burden off any preconceived expectations, but the Aztecs will still need to be able to stretch the field in order to have any success.
Key Stat: Jaylen Mayden threw for 2,030 yards and rushed for 353 direct rushing yards. Those will be under the microscope as the offense will revolve around him. How many times will he tuck the ball and run when faced with pressure? Can he avoid large sacks putting the Aztecs in challenging big-yardage downs? He has shown he can do just that. With the lack of an obvious go-to person, the success will sit squarely on Mayden’s shoulders. His cast of supporting characters has yet to show they are breakout performers. My prediction is if Mayden is close to these numbers then the Aztec ground game will have found its form and dominate with rushing yards. The other scenario is a spike in passing yards combined with lower rushing yards will tell me the Aztecs will become more reliant upon throwing because their ground game has gone AWOL. As Mayden goes, so will the Aztecs.
Wildcard: Some skill players to watch for will be WR Phillippe Wesley II, WR Nino Remigio and RB Lucky Sutton and RB Sheldon Canley II. Talent abounds. If given the opportunity will any of these wildcards make the most of it.
Reasons for optimism: The Aztecs are sitting in a similar situation as in years past. Coach Kurt Mattix will renew his focus with several key players returning on improvement and a reputation as having one of the best defenses in the conference. Strong, dominant line performance with support from the linebackers is a generic and basic playbook, but the Aztecs have found ways to achieve this with regular consistency. This year they will have to do it without their key standout safety Patrick McMorris who transferred to California to finish out his career. Gone also are Caden McDonald, the Tavai brothers and Keshawn Banks. Returning is LB Cooper McDonald, and safeties Davaughn Celestine and Cedarious Barfield. They must account for much of the defensive production. They will not be alone in this task as Coach Mattix welcomes New Mexico transfer LB Cody Moon. He may be exactly what the Aztecs will need if they are to maintain a strong defensive presence. He is a ball hawk, accounting for 149 tackles over two seasons with the Lobos. Moon and McDonald may well be a strong presence at the backer position. The secondary looks to be in decent shape with several returning players who have had experience. Noah Avinger, Noah Tumblin and Dallas Branch all contributed last year. They are extremely athletic and combined with the aforementioned safeties, this unit looks to be possibly the best of the defense. Of interest is Colorado transfer Tayvion Beasley. It will be interesting to see how he acclimates himself to the Aztec system. The Aztecs signed only one freshman as a DB but Sam Dunnell, at 6’4” will be worth watching as he develops. The Aztecs picked off 13 passes last year, a drop from the previous year's 17. The defensive line, long a stable mainstay of San Diego State leadership is unquestionably the unit with the most concerns. There is senior leadership among players with experience from last year including Garret Fountain and Wyatt Draeger, but the big news is from Oklahoma State transfer Samuela Tuihalamaka. He brings Power 5 experience as well as being a Mater Dei graduate. At 6’1” he’s a bit short, but his 290 pounds make up for the line beef. The Aztecs have a mature contingent of linemen with only three freshman out of the roster of fifteen. All the line is about 6’3 - 6’4 and 270+ pounds. One signee of interest is freshman Brady Nassar, a 6’5” 240 pound all league performer out of Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton. I helped coach his two older brothers when I was a teacher/coach and it’s always interesting to see familiar student/athletes get game time.
Reasons for concern: Basically having to replace the front 6 in a 3-3 defensive scheme is a Herculean task. There is maturity among the upperclassmen and will be plenty of opportunity for the next up to make plays. Replacing the Tavai brothers as well as Banks will be a challenge. Controlling the line of scrimmage is key to every game for every team. The Aztecs have enjoyed this luxury in the past. This year is not a given to start the season. Time will show who mixes well and can provide strong run support as well as quarterback pressures. If this unit struggles to find its identity, expect the Aztecs to get down early and often by the better teams they play.
Key Stat: The Aztecs dropped their production in interceptions from 17 to 13 last year. This is an area that will need to be addressed—lost opportunities with plenty of room for improvement. Ten players contributed with Dallas Branch leading the way with three. Multiple picks is probably a target for Coaches Kyle Hoke and Demetrius Sumler. Who will step up to be the leader in the defensive backfield? This will be interesting to see how it develops. A strong performance and teams will avoid throwing that direction. A weak performance and it’ll be an aerial show.
Wildcard: As the name implies, throwing an unknown wildcard into the mix can bring surprise results. The Aztecs have several unknown factors and players. I believe the most tangible and needed area for that special player will be on the defensive line. To that end, I will put Samuela Tuihalamaka on the wildcard watch list. He is listed as a DE at 6’1 and 290 pounds. He will need to be able to sustain an aggressive push and gain angles against tackles who are around 6’6 and 325 pounds. Quickness in this position is paramount. A solid performance and he could help the Aztecs turn that corner.
Reason for Optimism: As mentioned, Jack Browning returns to handle the kicking and punting duties. He is more than adequate, garnering various pre-season awards. His heir apparent is redshirt freshman Zechariah Ramirez out of Upland. It is unlikely he will see any action, but one can bet he will be a good student. The return game will have serious questions. Kenan Christon looks to be the first up for kick and punt returns. It will be difficult to replicate the numbers that Jordan Byrd produced. Look for a receiver or two to also take kicks and punts to see if some magic can be made. Again, long-snapper Ryan Wintermeyer looks to be solid and consistent.
Reason for Concern: Several key points are the always important opponent kick-off return yards as well as balls down inside the 20-yard line. Both of these areas of focus, if executed well, can severely limit the starting ability of the opponent. This can help with securing the Aztec defense in a strong position to succeed.
Key Stats: Browning averaged 46 yards per punt last year with 28 of 68 punts inside the 20. Of the 59 kickoffs, 37 were touchbacks. Those would be measurements from which to set a standard.
Wildcard: Who is the backup for Kenan Christon? This is wide open and likely to initiate some competition.
2023 San Diego State Schedule. (All times are Pacific time unless noted. Home games are listed in bold. * denote MWC games. All games are broadcasted on San Diego Sports radio 760)
Saturday August 26, 4:00 PM, FS1 - OHIO BOBCATS
Saturday September 2, 7:30 PM, CBSSN- IDAHO STATE BENGALS
Saturday September 9, 4:30 PM, CBS - UCLA BRUINS
Saturday September 16, 12:30 PM, FS1 - @ Oregon State Beavers
Friday September 22, 7:30 PM, CBSSN - BOISE STATE BRONCOS*
Saturday September 30, 5:00 PM Mountain, CBSSN - @Air Force Falcons*
Saturday October 7 - Bye
Saturday October 14, 5:00 PM Hawaiian, CBSSN - @ Hawaii Warriors*
Saturday October 21, TBA, FOXSN - NEVADA WOLFPACK*
Saturday October 28 - Bye
Saturday November 4, TBA, FOXSN - UTAH STATE AGGIES*
Saturday November 11, 5:00 PM Mountain, CBSSN - @ COLORADO STATE RAMS*
Saturday November 18, 7:30 PM, CBSSN - @ SAN JOSE STATE SPARTANS*
Saturday November 25, TBA, FOXSN - FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS*
Saturday December 2, TBA - Mountain West Conference Championship*
Thoughts: The 2023 season has four of the first five games and the first three at Snapdragon Stadium. Fans will be treated to Ohio, Idaho State, UCLA and Boise State. The away game is at Oregon State. The season starts against a very good Ohio Bobcats team that will compete for the MAC title. They are led by preseason first team QB Kurtis Rourke. The Aztecs have an 0-1 record against the Bobcats, losing in 2018 27-0. Next up are the Idaho State Bengals who will struggle again this year. The Aztecs had no problem with them last year winning 38-7. Next is the highly anticipated game against UCLA. The Bruins have owned the Aztecs in the all-time series, but the last meeting resulted in a 23-14 Aztec victory in Pasadena. Expect a loud and sold-out Snapdragon, hoping the Aztecs can repeat their success. Following the Bruins is another Pac 10 game in Corvallis Oregon against the Beavers. They are expected to be a very good team featuring first-team all-league running back Damien Martinez and arguably the best offensive line on the west coast. Four games in should give a pretty good indication of where the Aztecs season is heading. A 3-1 start would be a huge positive heading into conference play. A 1-3 start is not out of the question and will lead to much soul-searching heading into their contest against Boise State. Being the team to beat, the Broncos will be looking to cruise into Snapdragon and come away with another victory. They start the season against Washington, UCF and North Dakota and the game against the Aztecs will be a used as measuring stick for the Broncos season. The Aztecs then hit the road for a game against Air Force, a bye week and then Hawaii. The Aztecs offense struggled against both of these teams last year. Hopefully, they will have established their offensive plan at this stage. Following that are back-to-back home games again Nevada, another bye week, and then Utah State. Both of these games are winnable and should be if the Aztecs are wanting to compete for the conference championship game. Next up are away games at Colorado State and San Jose State. The Aztec secondary will be seriously tested by all-league WR Tory Horton. The Rams may be playing for bowl eligibility by this time, so this game is not a pushover. Next up are the Spartans who feature all-league quarterback Chevan Cordeiro. The Spartans will be coming off of a game against Fresno State. The outcome of that game may show which team will show up. The Spartans have tended to play like Jekyll and Hyde are hard to predict. The Spartans may be wanting to improve upon their collapse from last years game. Finally, the Aztecs finish out their season at home against Fresno State. Regardless of how the season goes for both teams, this will be a game to watch. After the Aztecs collapse against the Bulldogs last year, they did bounce back to finish 3-2, but their title hopes were dashed. One hopes this game may decide one of the two conference playoff spots. On display will be highly touted sophomore UCF transfer Mikey Keene. What a fitting game to close the curtain on the 2023 regular season. If last year's game is any indication, this could well be a barn burner on the Mesa.
Best Case Scenario: Too many roadblocks are in the way for an outstanding season, The Aztecs will need to put together a surprisingly strong performance to end up at 9-3. I see them struggling against Ohio and Oregon State, but beating UCLA], but losing to Boise State or Fresno State. If this is the case, the Aztecs will have a six game winning streak heading into the finale against the Bulldogs. I don’t see them competing for the conference championship, but do expect them to pull in a decent bowl bid.
Worst Case Scenario: The Aztecs are too good to have a nightmare season. Last year showed how a team was able to rise from the smoldering ashes to turn in a decent performance. Coach Hoke has too much experience to allow a disaster, but let’s see what the worst might be. Sure wins against Idaho State, Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah State could put the Aztecs within striking distance of a .500 season. The magic number is six wins to be bowl eligible. They would need to defeat Colorado State and San Jose State in desperate games. The expectations this year are more reasonable, but the worst it would be is 5-7 with much to improve upon for the following season.
What’s probably going to happen: The Aztecs defense will gel and find their purpose. The offense will be more balanced than last year, behind the experienced leadership of Jalen Mayden. A tough schedule will challenge the Aztecs early on. An unlikely victory over Boise State will set the Aztecs up for a season finale against Fresno State. It will be interesting to see how they fare against UCLA and Oregon State. Are they competitive or are they outmanned? Wins against both of these teams should rocket the Aztecs to league favorite. The running game will need to establish its identity and presence early on. A strong game and the passing game could open up nicely. This team has been up and down with moving, not moving, moving? At this recent time it doesn’t appear there is a league to move to and the Aztecs will continue in a new iteration of the MWC. It’s been amazing to see what the last few weeks have held and it looks like, the MWC is best situated to continue with the possible additions of a few teams such as Oregon State and Washington State. In all likelihood the Pac Conference is done and in its place is a slightly improved MWC. Following are my picks and scores for the upcoming season:
Ohio: Aztecs win a tight game 21-17
Idaho State: Aztecs roll 42-13
UCLA: Aztecs hang on with a 28-24 win
Oregon State: Beavers too tough winning 32-17
Boise State: Broncos control game with a 38-21 victory
Air Force: Aztecs finally turn the tables with a 21-17 win
Hawaii: Aztecs travel to the Islands and come away with a 27-21 win
Nevada: Aztecs firing on all cylinders with a 42-14 dominating win
Utah State: Aztecs rude guests winning 27-13
Colorado State: Aztecs shut down the Rams offense winning 32-15
San Jose State: Spartans exact revenge at home with a 31-28 thriller. This is a Homer prediction.
Fresno State: In the game of the year, the Aztecs close out with a last-minute win, 35-32.
San Diego State will end the season with a 9-3 record, 6-2 in the conference, good enough to play as the second seed in the MWC championship game. 8-0 in conference. Playing Boise State for the second time results in a similar 33-24 loss. The Broncos are too strong and dominate the conference. The Aztecs will play in a bowl game to be announced. The Aztecs will turn many questions at the beginning of the season into answers and finish the year with positive momentum into the 2024 season,