2023 Preview: San Diego State Defense

SDSU's defense held SJSU to their lowest yardage total of the season. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

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DC Kurt Mattix watches on with his defenders. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The genius of SDSU’s 3-3-5 defense is its ability to stay effective while adapting to its personnel. In 2018, Kyahva Tezino burst onto the scene. SDSU built its attack around the blitzing ability of its middle linebacker. When Tariq Thompson proved incredibly adept at covering slot receivers, the division between the boundary (BW) and field warrior (FW) safety was fully defined. With Cameron Thomas, Keshawn Banks, and Jonah Tavai up front in 2021, the Aztecs did not blitz as much to create pressure, and the defense, at times, resembled more of a 4-2-5 than a 3-3-5.

“Coach Long and Coach Hoke put this system in together at Oregon State,” SDSU defensive coordinator explained on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “We have evolved it a little bit. Morphed it a little bit, no different than (Mississippi State head coach) Zach Arnett, (or) coach Tony White at Nebraska. We’ve all taken coach Long’s system, coach Brady Hoke’s system, and evolved it a little to highlight what our players do best and put them in that position over and over.”

This plasticity is brilliant for the college level. No matter how skilled a player is, their time on campus is limited. Even schools like Alabama and Georgia have struggled to replace stars in their less malleable systems.

Building a unique defense every year around the players on the roster also has the advantage of making SDSU less predictable early in the season. As Ohio University scouts the Aztecs in preparation for its opening tussle in August, last year’s film will not be very informative because of the number of new starters in Mattix’ charge.

There is risk in this approach. Its success depends on the skill of the coaches to properly evaluate their own players and correctly build the system for that season. Mattix has a proven track record of success and is among the best defensive minds on the West Coast. SDSU’s players, likewise, have to implement whatever Mattix ultimately lands on for his plan of attack.

Last year, the defense did not get enough pressure the first six games of the season. Against its first five FBS opponents, SDSU averaged just four tackles for loss (TFL) and 1.2 sacks per game. Over the final seven contests, the defense increased its output to 8.5 TFLs and four sacks per game.

When asked about the improvement, the players shouldered the blame, saying that they simply played better. However, there were significant changes to the defense after the bye week, suggesting that Mattix missed on his designs heading out of fall camp.

Whatever the ultimate cause of the early issues, SDSU cannot afford to duplicate them in 2023. Their opening six contests are a gauntlet, and they will have to be playing their best football to start the year on a positive note.

Dez Malone makes a stop against Toledo last year. (Credit Don De Mars/EVT)

Cornerback: Overall Grade: A-

Expect Mattix to build his game plan around a deep and talented secondary. They are the strength of SDSU’s defense heading into 2023. Mattix said that SDSU’s top five CBs could start or at least be in the two-deep on any team in the conference. The unit is led by Noah Avinger.

The 6-foot-1, 190 lbs junior has a new number (2) this fall. Mattix mentioned Avinger as the player in the room who had the best spring, and SDSU is hoping he builds on that in 2023.

Avinger is joined by Dez Malone, Noah Tumblin, Dallas Branch, and Chris Johnson as players who saw time a year ago and are back for the Aztecs. According to Mattix, Branch emerged at the end of last season and was playing the best at the position. Tumblin had a slow start to the spring but was the star of the Spring Game with a pair of interceptions.

The competition for playing time at the two corner spots should be fierce this fall. Adding even more intrigue is the possibility of Mattix employing three corners and sliding one of these five over to FW safety. Mattix always looks for the five best DBs, and given the depth at CB, it may come from this room.

Malone switched from safety to corner, so playing FW should not present much of a challenge for him. Branch has the look of a traditional nickel corner and could match up well with the smaller WRs often employed in the slot. One player who will not be in the mix is Colorado transfer, Tayvion Beasley. He is ineligible for the upcoming season due to utilizing a second transfer in the offseason.

Projected Starters: Noah Avinger and Dez Malone

Player with the most career starts: Noah Tumblin (13)

Key Stat: SDSU ranked 39th in the NCAA, giving up 208.85 yards per game in 2022.

Notable Player: Dez Malone

“I don’t know if I feel confident to say ‘yes’ and then be disappointed,” Mattix said when asked if Malone is ready to take his game to the next level. “He’s still a work in progress. … Dez Malone, when all (the competition in 2022) settled, emerged as one of the top guys. Now, in my opinion, and I love him to death, but I don’t know if he was playing his best ball at the end of the season though. I think he played well, not to the point that we wanted to take him out. … he’s had a great summer, though, talking to coach Hall, where he’s at mentally, where he’s at physically, how he’s running. … he is physical, he is tough, he does the things we want him to do.”

(Don De Mars/EVT)

Safety: Overall Grade: B

Patrick McMorris’ transfer to CAL leaves an unexpected and gaping hole in the secondary. How Mattix fills the aztec (AZ) safety is one of the storylines to follow in fall camp. Kyron White backed up McMorris at the position for the past two years. He was moved to LB this past spring because Mattix thought he was one of the best 11 defenders on the team.

With McMorris gone, White will be back competing at AZ. He is the most obvious replacement for SDSU’s former team captain. He will be pushed by Max Garrison, Jatavious McGee, and Marcus Ratcliffe.

Mattix could also dip into a loaded warrior safety room and slide Cedarious Barfield, Texas transfer JD Coffey, or TCU transfer Deshawn Mccuin over to AZ. Among these options, Barfield could offer the most upside. The senior, in his sixth year in the program, has been a star in summer workouts while both Coffey and Mccuin are acclimating to the defense.

Former walk-on Davaughn Celestine rounds out the warrior safety room. Beginning the second week against Idaho State, Celestine solidified the back end for the Aztecs. His play was enough to earn a scholarship.

Another way this year’s defense could be unique compared to years past is Mattiix could decide to employ a 3-2-6 as a third-down package or against spread teams like Nevada, Colorado State, and Utah State. He said that option could get more of his best players on the field and take away how the opposition game plans against SDSU. He considered the tactic enough to move White to LB before McMorris’ departure.

Projected Starters: Cedarious Barfield, Davaughn Celestine, and Kyron White

Player with the most career starts: Cedarious Barfield (20)

Key Stat: SDSU’s Red Zone defense (69.08) ranked third in the nation a year ago.

Notable Player: Cedarious Barfield

“First of all, he’s an old man,” Mattix said of Barfield with a smile. “Let’s be honest. He’s going on year six. … he just knows the system so well. It’s the same installs that he’s had now going on his sixth year. We’ve had consistency with the coaching, his position coach. Let’s not see the true things. There’s games where he’s played really well, and there’s games where he didn’t play as well as he needed to. … the competitive nature that Cedarious has, the inner confidence within himself that he knows he’s put in that work. He knows that he’s been committed to this program.”

Vai Kaho joins in on a tackle during the Spring Game. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Linebacker: Overall Grade: C+

The pedestrian grade for the LBs at SDSU has more to do with inexperience than talent. Mattix said he expects the rotation among the position group he leads to resemble 2020 and 2021, when the staff relied more on its depth than a season ago.

Redshirt freshman Trey White is pushing Cooper McDonald to start at SAM LB. White impressed as a true freshman and has continued his upward trajectory. He played defensive line as a prep star at Eastlake High School. His switch to LB looks to have paid off for the Aztecs. McDonald has flashed potential, but Mattix said the staff needs more from him in his second year with the program. He has great size and experience but needs to turn that into production on the field.

WILL LB, on paper, should belong to New Mexico transfer Cody Moon. Voted as a preseason all-conference player, Moon brings great production to the room. Despite playing in a similar defense, he has yet to fully acclimate himself to SDSU’s version of the 3-3-5. He is pushed for time by Brady Anderson, who turned heads this spring.

With Zyrus Fiaseu and Vai Kaho manning MIKE LB, the position is in good hands. Fiaseu’s consistency allowed him to jump Kaho for playing time a year ago. Though undersized, he was strong at the point of attack in his six starts in 2022. Kaho has every physical tool, but his instincts have caged his ability. If he puts everything together, he could be the attacking force lacking from the position in 2022.

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Projected Starters: Cooper McDonald, Zyrus Fiaseu, Cody Moon

Player with the most career starts: Cooper McDonald (16)

Key Stat: SDSU finished 23rd in the nation in sacks per game (2.77) and tackles for loss per contest (6.85).

Notable Player: Brady Anderson

“It starts with consistency in (number one) how you’re playing.” Mattix, when asked why he, previously described Anderson’s spring as “elite.” “Number two, how physical are you playing? Number three, when you blitz, are you productive? We blitz a lot. What is your productivity? That was one of things coach Hoke asked me to do at the end of spring was go back through and take all of the blitzes that we had during the spring and evaluate who are our best blitzers … what we found is Brady Anderson was pretty productive with the threes. Well, then, we moved up to the twos. Rotated him with the twos; he’s pretty productive there. Let’s try him with the ones. Next thing you know, he’s making plays with the ones. He’s playing with confidence and relentless effort.”

OL Cade Bennett against DL Garret Fountain during individual drills. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Defensive Line: Overall Grade: D

Every player on the defensive line has questions. Garret Fountain is expected to lead the line despite never starting a game in his career. Fountain has played in 36 games and shined when given the opportunity. He has had three sacks and six TFLs in each of the last two years. His 41 tackles last year were tied for the eighth most on the team.

Around Fountain is even more unknowns. Dan Okpoko was invited back for a second senior year after improving as much as anyone on the team in 2022. He looks to stay healthy enough to make an impact. Oklahoma State transfer Samuela Tuihalamaka arrived for spring camp. He has trimmed down and should be better equipped to handle the stunts and movement required of SDSU’s linemen.

Underclassmen Dom Oliver, Darrion Dalton, and Ryan Henderson look to join the rotation, but it is unknown how many snaps they will be ready for this season. Five junior college linemen fill much of the rest of the room. Mattix admitted SDSU recruited the junior college ranks because it failed to land a few FBS and FCS transfers it had higher on its recruiting board. Although not the Aztecs’ first choice, the JC transfers need to prove they were the best choice for SDSU.

Expect to see a large rotation, especially early. Whichever players rise to the occasion and produce will be given more snaps. The task of defensive line coach Bojay Filimoeatu is to have the line competing at a high level at the start of the year while this competition plays out.

Projected Starters: Garret Fountain, Samuela Tuihalamaka, Daniel Okpoko

Player with the most career starts: Samuela Tuihalamaka (3)

Key Stat: SDSU’s scoring defense (20.54 points per game) ranked 19th in the country but only fourth in the Mountain West.

Notable Player: Samuela Tuihalamaka

“Sammy was a guy that came from Oklahoma State, so we had high expectations,” Mattix said. “Right before spring practice gets Covid and then, comes out and is playing, and I was sitting here saying to myself, ‘oh no.’ Oklahoma State doesn’t move much; more of a two-gap team. Coach Bojay and myself sat him down, ‘hey, we need better effort out of you.’ Next thing you know, practice six, he finally gets back in shape, his lungs are back from the Covid situation, and had like practice six, seven, eight, nine, to the rest, he was almost unblockable at times.”

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