2023 Preview: San Diego State Offense

SDSU's offense erupts in celebration after scoring a touchdown on Monday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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SDSU’s offense takes the field for the first time against UNLV. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Fixing the SDSU offense has seemingly been on the docket every fall since quarterback Ryan Lindley graduated from the school in 2012. In Lindley’s final season in 2011, the Aztecs racked up 427.38 yards per game on offense (32nd in the country), featuring a balanced attack that ranked as the 30th-best rush offense and 49th-best pass offense in the nation. 

Shortly thereafter, the Aztecs’ rush offense exploded on the scene behind NCAA all-time rushing leader Donnell Pumphrey and 1st-round NFL draft pick Rashaad Penny, while the pass offense dipped and remained stagnant over the years. 

In 2022, the worst of both worlds collided. The pass offense was held to historically poor figures over the first five games of the season and the rush offense had its worst performance since 2019. The result: the 114th offense in the country, averaging only 324.9 yards per game. 

The man in charge of resurrecting the offense back to 2011 levels is the quarterback from that team. After taking over as QBs coach midway through the 2022 season, Lindley was named the offensive coordinator in January. 

He led the Aztecs through spring camp and summer workouts. Now, Lindley heads into his first fall camp as OC.

“The number one thing is finding ways to keep it simple,” said Lindley on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast when asked the best advice he had received heading into fall camp. 

Lindley described the heavy information download that coaches receive from the time spring camp ends to the start of fall camp that can become overwhelming. With a limited amount of time and repetitions with the players in fall camp, the focus has to be on what they do best. 

“If you do a lot of stuff a little bit, you aren’t going to be very good at anything,” he remarked. “Keep it within the wheelhouse of what our guys can do and kind of let it build from there.”

After installing facets of the new offense in spring camp, the summer provided an opportunity for the coaches and players to evaluate what worked and what did not and make necessary adjustments. Lindley was pleased with how his players responded.

“It’s always good to see guys check-in and ask questions referring back to things in the spring game,” Lindley said. “We wanted to evolve, wanted to push some things, and you can tell because there’s stuff that was hard to pick up in the spring that seems like guys are picking up a lot easier, and when you want to start evolving and when they want to be in the mix and talk about game planning, you can tell they’re learning the stuff that we’ve talked about.” 

Fall camp begins on Friday, with the opening game against Ohio four weeks from Saturday. Here is a preview of each of the offense’s positional units. 

Jalen Mayden drops back as Ryan Lindley coaches the receivers. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Quarterbacks: Overall Grade: B-

As a former quarterback, Lindley knows about the importance of the fraternity of the quarterback room, even more so in a position where only one guy is expected to play. 

“The quarterback room needs to compete but also needs to support the one guy that is planning on playing that week,” he said. “They want to compete. Each guy wants to play but also understands that (his) job is also supporting the guy that’s out there on the field right now.”

Improving last year’s overall play at the position will not be difficult. In 2022, SDSU quarterbacks combined to complete 186 of 343 passes (54%) for 2,360 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions over 13 games. The 181.5 pass yards per game ranked 117th in the country. 

The room consists of a sixth-year senior, two redshirt freshmen, one true freshman, and two walk-ons. Jalen Mayden, the lone senior, began last season as a safety after failing to earn a starting or primary backup role in his first season at SDSU in 2021.

Eight starts and an All-Conference Honorable Mention recognition later, Mayden enters 2023 as the established guy. While SDSU fosters continual competition across every position on the roster, it was well established that Mayden would be the starter in 2023 the minute he announced his intention to utilize his COVID-season of eligibility in 2023. 

Despite struggles in the final two games of the 2022 season, Mayden likely presents the highest ceiling of any quarterback that has donned the Scarlet and Black in some time. His dual-threat abilities provide the Aztecs with a dimension that can strike fear in opposing defenses. Mayden gained 353 yards on direct rush attempts (not including yards lost on sacks) and scored three touchdowns in addition to passing for 2,030 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

Interceptions present the biggest issue for Mayden. After not throwing an interception in his first two starts, he threw ten in the final six, including five in the final two games. Add in three interceptions in the Spring Game, and the questions about ball security continue to linger. 

Lindley understands the issue needs to be resolved but is cognizant of not trying to limit Mayden’s strengths and aggressiveness in the process. 

“The biggest thing when we talk to (Mayden) is don’t allow things to snowball,” Lindley explained. “People are going to make mistakes. I’d love for him to have a two-interception season, but I think in a lot of ways, just getting him to understand having that next-play mentality. Stuff is going to happen. It’s going to go awry. Things aren’t always going to work out the way he wants them to, but being able to flush it and get to the next play, that’s his big thing.” 

The last SDSU quarterback to be a team captain was Ryan Agnew in 2019. Leading an offense that is looking to replace five senior starters with younger replacements, Mayden will need to be the main leader of that side of the ball, whether he is named a captain by his teammates or not. 

Projected Starter(s): Jalen Mayden

Notable Player: Kyle Crum

“(Crum) probably had the best spring overall. (Crum) made the most growth, I should say, from where he was at, picking it up, not really getting a ton of reps last year, and how he just kind of took the reins of that backup job. He did a really good job on that front. (Aumavae) is doing a heck of a job right behind him. (Crum) probably did a little bit better overall throughout the spring, but that doesn’t mean (Aumavae) isn’t right at his heels.” – Lindley

Kenan Christon warms up as Adam Hall looks on in the background. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Running Backs: Overall Grade: B

After losing super seniors Chance Bell and Jordan Byrd to graduation, the Aztecs added zero scholarship players to the running back room this offseason, either via the transfer portal or the freshman class, a potential sign that the coaching staff is very confident in the five returning players. 

Lindley admitted the group was not where they wanted it to be in the spring but has seen immense growth throughout the summer. 

“I think there were times that each individual might have been doing their job as they thought it was taught, but getting together and making sure the running back understands that this is how the offensive line works off of the double-team (and) this is the kind of leverage that the tight end is coming off the ball with,” explained Lindley. “(This) helps those guys as runners kind of get together and have some second nature to everything they’re doing whether they’re making a cut or understanding the read. I think that the cohesion of the group, I’ve just been excited to where it’s at coming off of spring.” 

Transfer Kenan Christon is poised to lead the unit in his second year in the program. In 2022, he rushed for 247 yards on 60 carries and caught nine passes for 207 yards, but flashed his explosive ability with a 49-yard touchdown run and 49-yd and 73-yd touchdown receptions. 

Junior Jaylon Armstead was an FBS leader in yards per carry last season before an ankle injury derailed his season, finishing with 313 rushing yards (on a team-high 6ypc) and two touchdowns.

Listed at 220lbs, could Armstead team up with Christon to form a “Thunder and Lightning” duo in 2023?

“Thunder and lightning is kind of a sexy term, so we’ll use it,” Lindley noted that he didn’t believe in pigeonholing a player into only one role. “But at the same time, we’re going to put guys in a position to be successful by doing what their skill set allows them to do. Can Kenan only run outside and do things on the edge? No, he’s going to run our inside zone game and all the different stuff too. I’m really excited for what each one of those guys brings to the table.” 

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Lindley challenged the returning players to bring their best to fall camp. Ideally, he would like to see one guy elevate himself as the lead back who touches the ball 25 times a game. But, the coaching staff is also comfortable rotating various backs in because of their versatility and differing skill sets. 

The fullback position returned to the Aztecs’ depth chart in the spring. Walk-on Nick Gardinera made an appearance there on the post-spring depth chart, while freshman walk-on Leo Kemp was recruited to SDSU specifically for the position. 

“I think Nick has done a phenomenal job of answering the bell there and then stepping up and really growing leaps and bounds in the spring at that position,” remarked Lindley. “Really excited for him to definitely lead that charge in the fall, and hopefully Leo follows suit and pushes him.”

Projected Starter(s): Kenan Christon (RB), Nick Gardinera (FB)

Notable Player: Lucky Sutton

“I think Lucky has done a good job of answering the call. You still look at him, and he’s such a big freaking kid, and he’s so strong, you forget that he just finished up his first year in college. You got to realize that some of that is coming along for him. It is our job as coaches to make sure it comes along faster, but it is coming along for him. And we’re excited how he’s taking that coaching and is moving along with it.” – Lindley

Daniel Bleske tells the person handling the jugs machine to launch the football while running Mark Redman through the drill. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Tight Ends: Overall Grade: B+

If the Aztecs offense under Lindley will truly resemble Utah’s, as the coaching staff has divulged numerous times in the offseason, the tight ends will be counted upon heavily in the passing game. 

Washington transfer Mark Redman will look to take the next step in his senior season. Despite earning Second-Team All-Conference honors in his first year at SDSU, Redman’s 21 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns would be considered a disappointment if only duplicated in 2023. In three of the final five games of the season, he hauled in at least 34 receiving yards. 

“(Redman’s) a guy that we see as a big-time player that has got to make the big-time plays for us in those games when he’s called upon,” Lindley exclaimed. 

The rapport Redman and Mayden develop could be the key to unlocking the Aztecs’ offense. But as the play-caller, Lindley understands the connection has to happen organically versus force-feeding Redman the ball when other receivers are open.  

“Going through that with Moose though, being a sixth-year guy, being an older guy, I think he understands that as a little more cerebral guy at that level,” Lindley explained. “There are certain plays that Moose knows are called to get Mark the ball or want to get Mark the ball. Obviously, if he is double-covered, we got to move on in the progression.

The remainder of the tight end room comprises two seniors (Jay Rudolph and transfer Dez Melton) who have primarily played inline blocking roles in their collegiate careers and two youngsters (sophomore Cameron Harpole and redshirt freshman Logan Tanner) who have potential big-play abilities. 

Lindley credits the unit for having positionless players who can play wide, off the ball, and inline. 

“The thing I like most about a lot of those guys is they’re all pretty versatile and multiple,” he noted.

Projected Starter(s): Mark Redman (Y) and Cameron Harpole (H)

Notable Player: Cameron Harpole

“Cam’s a guy that can be on the ball and can be off the ball. I thought he really stepped up in the spring and showed his receiving prowess, and has put on a lot of good weight. He’s coming through; he’s had a really good summer. I’m excited for him going into fall camp. He is that guy that I don’t see it as like; he goes in, and there’s a tendency. Having worked on defense, there are certain personnel that, like, okay, when 84 enters the game, now it’s 80 percent pass. When 88 enters the game, that’s a lineman, and when he’s in, they are running the ball.” – Lindley 

Raphael Williams (5) runs away from Jelani Whitmore (35) after a reception. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Wide Receivers: Overall Grade: C

For the first time in nine years, the unit has a new voice leading it. Jonathan Krause replaced Hunkie Cooper as wide receivers coach and used the spring and summer to acquaint himself with the group.

The departures of Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers leave gaping holes on the outside. Last year’s No. 3 receiver, Mekhi Shaw, emerged on the scene in the latter half of last season and earned a scholarship by the time the fall semester was complete. His 33 receptions and 391 yards in two years of play lead the entire unit in productivity at the FBS level. 

“Shaw can be that jack-of-all-trades guy … that we can get out in space and use that athletic ability to expose the defenders in space,” said Lindley.

Raphael Williams, Jr., the lone transfer addition in the first transfer portal window before spring camp, struggled with adapting to the physicality at SDSU during portions of spring camp but showed glimpses of what he could become in the offense during the Spring Game. At FCS Western Carolina, Williams caught 120 passes for 1,617 yards and 15 touchdowns. 

In his fifth year in the program, this may be Brionne Penny’s final chance to put it all together on the field. Lindley hopes Penny can step up when his number is called. 

The rest of the wide receivers, such as Josh Nicholson, Phillippe Wesley, Jalil Tucker, Tyson Berry, and Baylin Brooks, are young but expected to contribute. 

“That’s kind of a theme that we’re going to say of the young guys that haven’t played,” remarked Lindley about needing the young guys to grow up faster. “There is a bit of an unknown, and I look at that as a positive. I think so many of them are on the precipice of really breaking out and stepping up. It’ll be really exciting to see if we talk again in three months here, which guy you’re talking about as, like our stud wide receiver, that’s the go-to guy. Someone or multiple people will step up, it’s a matter of who at this point.” 

Projected Starter(s): Mekhi Shaw (X), Brionne Penny (Z), and Raphael Williams (F)

Notable Player: Jalil Tucker

“I think it’s always exciting to get a guy who comes back home. The biggest thing for him is he’s making the transition (from CB to WR), there’s going to be a developmental period there. There’s going to be a buffer zone, a period there where you’re getting back in the swing of things, but I think the biggest thing when you look at 10.5 (100m time) isn’t walking around everywhere on campus here for us so there could be some things that obviously his skillset begs to get some immediate attention. We’re looking forward to him kind of hitting it fast and getting started.” 

“That’s why we hired Jonathan Krause because he’s a guy that’s done it at a high level, done it at the professional level, has been around some phenomenal developers, and is one of the best that I’ve been around in my short time around the game and developing receivers and really kind of getting in those guys mindsets. If anybody can make the flip for him, make the switch for him and coach him through that quickly, it’s our guy coach Krause.” – Lindley

SDSU offensive linemen Joey Wright (79), Drew Azzopardi (74), Dean Abdullah (76), Christian Jones (70), and Cade Bennett (60). Jones and Azzopardi played tackle with the first team for much of spring camp. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Offensive Line: Overall Grade: C+

The Aztecs return three starters (Cade Bennett, Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli, and Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson), but require replacements at center and left tackle, the two most valued positions on the offensive line. After struggling through most of the season, the group is posed to bounce back in 2023

Sophomore Christian Jones spent most of spring camp taking snaps at left tackle with the first team and came away as the starter on the post-spring depth chart. Joey Wright and JUCO transfer Kyle Stanback will provide competition for Jones in fall camp. 

Perhaps the most important positional battle in fall camp across the entire team lies at center, replacing a three-year starter and First-Team All-Conference honoree, Alama Uluave. 

“Center to me is like the quarterback position up front,” Lindley remarked. “You go in at center, you have to be ready to go. I think the guys that we’ve had that have been backups and even had some playing time behind Alama in the past, I think they’ve positioned themselves and endeared themselves to be ready to go.”

In the spring, Thomas Mirabella, Dean Abdullah, and Ulugalu-Maseuli took turns with the first team at center. Myles Murao, a late transfer addition, however, may sneak in and solidify the spot. 

Ultimately, Lindley foresees a plug-and-play mentality across the line where the five best players are on the field. 

“We have some guys that can flow and rotate up front too, and part of that conceptually is understanding that ‘I know what to do at center and right guard, I know what to do at center and left guard, I know what to do at left guard and left tackle’ because you’re working in concert with those guys so often you kind of have to know their job as you know your own job,” Lindley described. 

“Sometimes the next best up at that position may be taking a guy from another spot, floating him in, and working somebody else up. Somebody goes down knowing the sixth-best guy needs to find his way into that mold; however, we need to shuffle it to get it across.”

Projected Starter(s): Christian Jones (LT), Cade Bennett (LG), Myles Murao (C), Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli (RG), and Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (RT)

Notable Player: Myles Murao

“Bringing (Murao) in is a really big positive for us. If we can get that position the way we want to get it and have Ross then play guard, I think it helps us down the road. We’ll work him in at center, but he will also get some guard work.” – head coach Brady Hoke  

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