2023 Preview: San Diego State Special Teams

Jack Browning congratulates his teammates Christian Jones and Ryan Wintermeyer. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Jack Browning makes an extra point with Ryan Wintermeyer snapping and David Delgado holding. (P.J. Panebianco/EVT)

No preview would be complete without putting the upcoming season into context.

San Diego State’s 2023 comes on the heels of 13 consecutive seasons with at least a .500 record. This mark is tied for the sixth-longest streak in the nation. Only seven schools have played in more bowls than the Aztecs since 2010. SDSU stands arm-in-arm with Alabama, Appalachian State, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Oklahoma as schools with five seasons of double-digit wins between 2015 and 2021.

Pinpointing the main reason for this sustained success is challenging. Among the possible factors, one proves most effective in explaining how the Aztecs went from one of the worst football programs in the nation to where they are today.

SDSU’s best players are committed to playing special teams.

Participation in the third phase of the game illustrates SDSU’s competitive spirit. Over this 13-year run, SDSU’s margin of victory has always been small. Its ability to play harder and longer has catapulted them from the doormat to the national stage.

“It’s been the standard, and they know the margin of victory is the slimmest of margins,” SDSU Special Teams Coordinator Doug Deakin said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “The most evident thing that they see is nine players are in NFL camps that were seniors last year. Every single scout came into my office to talk about Jordan Byrd, to talk about Tyrell Shavers, and here they are embarking on fall camp to earn their spot on the 53-man roster.”

SDSU boasts more former athletes in the NFL than any other Mountain West Conference (MWC) team. There are 26 Aztecs For Life on rosters across the league. This is tied for the 39th most in the country and ahead of notable schools like BYU (24), Virginia (17), and Washington State (13).

Boise State is second (22) in the MWC, followed by Fresno State (17), Colorado State (10), and Utah State (10). No other school is in double digits. Air Force (2) has the fewest.

Punter: Overall Grade: A+

Deakin’s ability to develop depth among the specialists is impressive. 2022 backup kicker and punter David Delgado graduated last year and left the program. This offseason, he earned a full scholarship from the University of South Alabama. SDSU’s players thrive because Deakin makes them compete in everything they do.

This approach allowed Jack Browning to seamlessly assume Matt Araiza’s role a year ago. In 2021, Browning went kick-for-kick with Araiza in practice. He did not just become one of the best punters in the nation last season. He was already among the country’s elite even as he backed up one of the best the game has ever produced.

Araiza averaged 51.19 yards a punt and a 43.04 net punting average his final year on the Mesa. Browning averaged 46.1 yards a punt with a 41.87 net average last season. The 2022 MWC Special Teams Player of the Year may not have been as flashy as the 2021 recipient, but he was every bit as effective.

Redshirt freshman Zechariah Ramirez and junior transfer Gabe Plascencia round out the depth, with Ramirez currently the backup to Browning.

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Projected Starter: Jack Browning

Key Stat: SDSU finished 12th in the nation with a net punting average of 41.87.

Notable Player: Jack Browning

“To do what he did was conference player of the year worthy. You want to talk about netting over 40 yards. … Jack takes great care of his body, and he’s just a diligent worker and a competitor. Just very proud of all the work that he put in that, ultimately, he brought to fruition in season. 80% on field goals. Had a tremendous touchback ratio on kickoffs. He legitimately was the Special Teams Player of the Year and couldn’t be more proud to coach him.” – Deakin.

Field Goal Kicker: Overall Grade: B

Browning connected on 20 of 25 field goals a year ago. As with most kickers, there was a clear divide between attempts inside 40 yards and outside that distance. When the line of scrimmage was inside the 23-yard line, he connected on 15-16 (94%) attempts, but only 5-9 (55%) when the line of scrimmage was at or beyond the 23.

Jack Browning refuses to run out of bounds on a fake punt. Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Digging deeper into the numbers suggests distance is not the issue for Browning. He finished 3-6 from 40-49 and 2-3 from beyond 50. His punting prowess and the booming sound of the ball when he kicks also suggest accuracy, not power is the issue.

Growth for the Preseason MWC Special Teams Player of the Year has more to do with figuring out the rigors of doing all three phases and staying true to his technique than any flaw in his kicking mechanics. Missing is part of the game, but Browning only missed one in the first six games compared to four in the final seven.

Deakin’s preference is to have a different punter and placekicker because the muscles needed for kicking wear down as the season progresses. Browning is expected to do all three roles in 2023, just as he did in 2022 and Araiza did in 2021. Managing his body and the limited practice reps is something he is continually figuring out.

Projected Starter: Jack Browning

Key Stat: SDSU’s field goal percentage (80.08) was 47th in the nation.

Notable Player: Jack Browning

“He’s as humble as it gets. Rest in peace, Stu Scott, but he’d call him, ‘as cool as the other side of the pillow.’ I’ve used the same catchphrase for him because he is even-keeled when it’s a tremendous moment. Yeah, he’s fired up but is not over the top. And, if he has a poor rep, he doesn’t tank. He does not lose his self-confidence. … for how hard he has worked in this offseason, you wouldn’t have known, he was player of the year.” – Deakin

Holder: Overall Grade: C

Browning was the holder for Araiza in 2021, and Delgado took the role in 2022. This year the trend continues of having another specialist as the holder, with Ramirez the favorite to win the position. The holder needs to be comfortable with the snapper and the kicker, so the more time they spend working together, the better the operation functions.

Zechariah Ramirez holds in spring camp. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Ramirez is backed up by Plascencia and WRs Darius De Los Reyes and Mikey Welsh. When the non-specialists spread out during practice to run their positional drills, the specialists continue holding for each other. These added reps make it challenging for anyone outside the room to win the role.

Earning a C grade is because Ramirez is young and has yet to hold in a real game. Deakin’s emphasis on competition suggests the mark is far too low.

Projected Starter: Zechariah Ramirez

Key Stat: SDSU has converted 86 consecutive extra points. Its last miss was in the second quarter against Colorado State on December 5, 2020. The 2013 Aztecs missed six PATs.

Notable Player: Zechariah Ramirez

“He proved to be through spring ball, sure-handed, and gets the job done. Ultimately, he knows exactly how Jack wants the ball prepared on the ground. And (he has) the most rapport with Ryan Wintermeyer, the long snapper and short snapper on field goals. – Deakin

Snapper: Overall Grade: A+

In 2021, Ryan Wintermeyer was a walk-on long snapper who answered every question about his ability to handle those duties as a freshman. Last year, he added weight to be able to start as the short-snapper on field goals. His snaps are crisp, easy for the punter and holder to catch, and they are consistent. Unlike most college long snappers, he helps in the blocking scheme on punts.

Jaylon Armstead (38), Ryan Wintermeyer (50), and Isaiah McElvane (27) cover a punt against Idaho State. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

Entering his third year as a starter, the prospects of a professional career come into focus. Physically, he has transformed his body and needs to continue building bulk while maintaining the flexibility to man the position. Wintermeyer will also be looking to improve his snapping speed. Should he master getting the ball to the punter at great pace without losing the soft touch on his spirals, the NFL will be a likely destination.

Hometown hero Tyson Chavez from San Marcos is the backup. Chavez is more physically imposing than Wintermeyer.

Projected Starter: Ryan Wintermeyer

Key Stat: SDSU’s long snapper, Ryan Wintermeyer, leads the team with 27 career starts.

Notable Player: Ryan Wintermeyer

“He has great spin on the ball. He’s a quarterback who just so happens to throw it between his legs, so that is why he earned it as a true freshman. Now, it will be about snap speed. That is something he is working on this offseason to improve because that helps the operation time. First and foremost, it is about accuracy and the spin of the ball.” – Deakin.

Kick Returner: Overall Grade: B-

Jordan Byrd is competing for a spot with the Steelers, leaving the role open for someone to become the next great SDSU kickoff returner. There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, Byrd was an all-time great at the position. On the other, in 2022, the return group failed to reach the high expectations its success has created for itself.

Kenan Christon carries the ball against Toledo. Credit Don De Mars/EVT

SDSU ranked 59th overall with a 20.35 average. Given that only 65 teams in the country average at least 20 yards per attempt, the Aztecs’ middling performance does not appear too poor at first glance. However, seven MWC teams also finished in the top 65, and SDSU was sixth among those seven. Byrd, Colin Lockett, Rashaad Penny, and Juwan Washington created too much of a legacy for that position in the conference.

Deakin has a stable of choices to replace Byrd. RB Kenan Christon excelled in the role during spring and is first on the depth chart. He is every bit as fast as the man he is trying to replace. Deakin mentioned Cam Davis and Sheldon Canley as other players that excite him with their potential.

Given Byrd’s reputation, his inconsistent 2022 might have more to do with blocking than the returner himself.

Projected Starters: Kenan Christon

Key Stat: Only once (2018) in the last eight seasons has SDSU failed to return a kickoff for a touchdown.

Notable Player: Kenan Christon

“Kenan Christon is just as fast as Byrd. And, we’re talking Jordan Byrd was state champion in the state of New Mexico, coming out of New Mexico at 10.3. Well, here is another one, a hometown hero and San Diego’s finest in Kenan that also ran a sub 10.5, 100 meters, and he lit it up in practice. He would alternate reps with Byrd last season.” – Deakin

Punt Returner: Overall Grade: C

SDSU had 177 punt return yards in 2022. 116 of those came on Jordan Byrd’s 66-yard punt return for a TD and Tyrell Shavers’ 50-yard return for a TD against Boise State. On the remaining 24 attempts, they gained 61 yards. Aside from the two scores, only a pair of returns went longer than 10 yards. In contrast, MWC leader Nikko Remigio had more than double Byrd’s output in terms of explosive returns.

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

Some of this might be due to Deakin choosing to emphasize pressuring the punter instead of sitting back to set up the return. Despite the subpar returns, the punt unit produced three touchdowns.

Mekhi Shaw is the only returner with game experience catching punts. Dez Malone turned heads in spring camp. Cedarious Barfield and Mikey Welsh are next behind them on the depth chart. Deakin’s priority is ball security.

Projected Starters: Dez Malone

Key Stat: During conference play, Jordan Byrd averaged 0.7 yards per punt return.

Notable Player: Dez Malone

“Someone that emerged out of spring practice was Dez Malone, our cornerback, jersey number four. Boy, oh boy! Electric. The first tackler down there never makes the tackle when we were in live reps during spring practice. So, he’s emerged and really pushed.” – Deakin

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