Aztecs’ head coach Rocky Long has always been a defensive-minded coach.
Long is currently entering his eighth season as the Aztecs’ head coach. It is his tenth season with the team, as he served as the defensive coordinator for the Aztecs from 2009-2010 under Brody Hoke. Since taking over control of the Aztecs, Long has successfully brought the program to seven consecutive bowl games. Every season Long has been the head coach, the Aztecs have made a bowl game.
He has truly transformed the program into the powerhouse of the Mountain West Conference, along with Boise State. Over the last few years, the program has gained the most national coverage it has seen since the Marshall Faulk days.
Although Long was a quarterback in his playing days, he has taken a smashmouth, run-the-ball defensive unit approach as a head coach. The Aztecs’ defense has been consistently dominant over the past few years. Last year, the team may have taken a step back defensively, but still rated as one of the best in all of college football. The Aztecs had the best defense in the Mountain West last season, and were ranked the 11th-best in the country. In scoring defense, the Aztecs ranked 23rd in college football, allowing 20.2 points per game. On four separate occasions the Aztecs’ defense allowed 10 points or less.
The Aztecs’ defense was potentially the deciding factor in two of their biggest wins in the 2017 season against Pac-12 schools, Stanford and Arizona State. The secondary was tremendous in 2017, led by now-Dallas Cowboy, Kameron Kelly. The pass rush on the quarterback seemed non-existent at times, finishing with only 23 sacks on the year. The team would produce a solid 1.5 turnovers a game during the 2017 season.
After losing five starters, the defense will look quite different this season. They lost linebacker Jay Henderson, Safety Trey Lomax, CB Kameron Kelly, and defensive linemen Sergio Phillips and Dakota Turner.
Returning starters (6), include safeties Tariq Thompson and Parker Baldwin, CB Ron Smith, LB Ronley Lakalaka, LB Troy Cassidy, and DE Chibu Onyuekwu.
The likely remaining starters in 2018 are DE Anthony Luke, NT Noble Hall, LB Kyahvza Tezino, LB Andrew Aleki, Safety Darren Hall, and CB Kyree Woods.
The Aztecs’ defense in 2018 will be filled with playmakers, but some notable names to watch for include senior linebacker Ronley Lakalaka, senior safety Parker Balwin, second year safety Tariq Thompson, and Jr. cornerback Ron Smith.
Ronley Lakalaka led the Aztecs in total tackles in 2017 with 83, including 9.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. In 2016, Lakalaka finished second on the team in tackles behind only LB Calvin Munson, who now plays in the NFL for the New York Giants. Lakalaka is a dominant force in the Aztecs’ defense gobbling up opposing offenses. He will be a leader and a consistent contributor for the Aztecs’ defense in 2018.
Sophomore safety Tariq Thompson exceeded expectations during the 2017 season as a true freshman. He led the Aztecs’ in interceptions with four and was a ballhawk in the secondary. Thompson will look to make even more noise in 2018 as a second-year starter.
Cornerback Ron Smith was tremendous in 2017. The corner who lined up across from him was Kameron Kelly, now plays for the Dallas Cowboys. Ron Smith looks to step into the number one CB position in 2018. Smith led the Aztecs with 16 pass deflections in 2017, to go along with two interceptions. Smith will be the leader of the Aztecs’ secondary this coming season. The Aztecs’ secondary has made a name for themselves the past two seasons with two players going to the NFL. Kameron Kelly, mentioned above, went undrafted, although was signed by the Cowboys the day after the draft. The other is Demontae Kazee, who is starting for the Atlanta Falcons, and has created a lot of hype coming into the 2018 season. Ron Smith may be the next name going to the NFL from the Aztecs secondary.
Senior safety Parker Baldwin was second on the Aztecs’ defense in tackles in 2017 with 76. He does his job well, and as a Senior, will look to make another step forward in 2018.
Newcomer DE Noble Hall is a name to look out for in 2018. The senior will take over the nose guard position. The Aztecs’ line struggled at times in 2017 getting pressure on the quarterback and locking down the run game. Hopefully Hall can step into the starting role and turn things around for the line this coming year. Hall had some notable playing time in 2017, producing 38 tackles, 7.5 of them for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. Hall was the most dominant force on the line last season, and with a full season of playing time, it will be interesting to see how much more success he may find.
Overall, the Aztecs’ defense looks to be dominant once again in 2018. Their defense is potentially the biggest component to the Aztecs’ success. The defense projects to be the best in the Mountain West again, and also one of the best in the nation. Week one, the Aztecs take on 13-ranked Stanford on the road. This will likely be the Aztecs biggest competition in 2018. In order for the Aztecs to return with a win, the defense will need to do the same thing it did last season, when they held the Cardinal to only 20 points. Shutting down Heisman contender running back Bryce Love will be a true challenge. The Aztecs defense will need to stack the box, and force long third-down conversions to be successful.
2018 will be another great competitive season for the Aztecs, so go out and support.