Fans will think twice before getting up from their seats at Snapdragon this year to grab a snack or use the bathroom during kickoffs or punts. This year’s special teams unit is special, and can’t-miss plays can happen at any moment.
Football’s third phase has always provided opportunities for players buried on the depth chart to get on the field and make an immediate impact. It takes a special kind of player who is willing to do the dirty work and make those hard hits or long returns to set the team up for success. This is where athletes earn their spot and show the coaches they will do whatever it takes to help the team win.
This year’s team is filled with returning talent that is sure to have Aztec fans excited. From the kickers and skilled long snapper down to the blockers and hard-hitting defenders that will make pads pop loud enough to be heard in the stands.
New special teams coordinator Zac Barton gets to lead this great phase of Aztec football for this upcoming season.
Here is an in-depth look at the most important pieces of SDSU’s special unit.
Projected Two Deep: Gabriel Plascencia and Zechariah Ramirez
Transfer Need: Medium
Gabriel Plascencia, a junior, and Zechariah Ramirez, a sophomore, will compete for the kicking job this spring, with the clear path most likely being the upperclassman Plascencia.
Plascencia saw a little playing time last year and showed he can come in and get the job done. He was 2/2 on field goals against San Jose State, with his longest being 46 yards, and he also knocked in an extra point. He also went 2/2 on field goals against Colorado State with a long of 38 yards and was successful on another PAT attempt. Plascencia was also responsible for 16 kickoffs with a 62-yard average.
With his experience and consistency on the small sample size from last year, as long as Plascencia continues to improve and impress in Spring Camp, he should be the starter for the Aztecs in 2024.
Ramirez has not seen any action at the D1 level and will need to make big strides to earn a shot.
There have been three social media commits for this position as well, Nick Clegg formerly with Sacramento State, Nick Lopez who was previously with Louisville, and Abraham Montano Carillo, a Fresno State transfer. This position consists entirely of walk-ons, so the competition should be intense this spring, with a scholarship on the line to whoever wins the starting job.
The kicker hierarchy, the Aztecs have seen progress from Araiza to Browning and now to Plascencia or one of the transfers should continue into the 2024 season. All of the kickers listed above are walk-ons. The winner of the kicking competition will not only earn playing time but will likely earn a scholarship as well.
Projected Two Deep: Tyler Pastula, Zechariah Ramirez
Transfer Need: Medium
With the loss of Jack Browning, the punter position was at the top of the list for transfer needs on special teams. To fill that need, the Aztecs signed punter Tyler Pastula on scholarship for the 2024 season. He is a great addition to compete with Zechariah Ramirez in the spring.
While Plascencia is expected to take over for kickoffs and field goals, Pastula is the frontrunner to take over punts. Pastula joins the Aztecs from the University of Albany. He had impressive stats in 2023; starting all 11 games, he punted 61 times for 2,602 yards. He brings good experience to the position, which should make for good competition for walk-on Zechariah Ramirez.
While kickoffs and getting points on the board through extra points and field goals is important, punting is a very crucial part of the game. Having someone you can trust to pin the opposing team deep in their own territory is key to winning games. This overlooked aspect of football will be very important this upcoming season.
Projected Two Deep: Ryan Wintermeyer, Tyson Chavez
Transfer Need: Low
Wintermeyer has been extremely reliable ever since his freshman year, where he started all 14 games and even forced a fumble. He went on to start all 13 games his sophomore year as well and all 12 his junior year. He shows no signs of slowing down heading into his senior year.
Chavez is going into his sophomore year after not playing in 2023. Chavez is a solid backup with his size and ability, but he will have to wait his turn. He has a great teammate to watch and learn from and can hopefully take over the position the following season.
Wintermeyer has proven himself over the past three seasons and has shown he can get the ball into the hands of the punter or holder every game. He has been automatic, his consistency may be underappreciated but is huge to the team’s success. This position is in good hands for the 2024 season.
Projected Two Deep: Kenan Christon, Sheldon Canley II, Martin Blake, Cam Davis
Transfer Need: Low
Christon, who spent two seasons with USC before coming to SDSU in 2022, is a fast and powerful back who catches the ball well out of the backfield. He had 15 kick returns last season for a combined 331 yards, with his longest return being 71 yards. Expect him to remain the top kick returner on the team this upcoming season as his quickness and power allows him to set up the offense with great field position and even have the ability to break one for a touchdown.
Sheldon Canley II had the second most returns last season with six for 102 yards and an average of 17 yards per return. He should remain in that number two spot with Christon and create a scary duo this upcoming season.
Behind Christon and Canley are two other viable options if needed. Martin Blake and Cam Davis saw some action in the return game and should improve during the spring to be even more viable options. If Christon is the top back, he could be used too much in Sean Lewis’ offense to return kickoffs for the Aztecs.
Another name to watch this spring is transfer Ja’Shaun Poke. Poke spent 2019-2022 at Kent State as a receiver and returner under Lewis before transferring to West Virginia for the 2023 season. He brings experience to the return game, with 44 returns for 1,110 yards and a long of 50 yards. He could be a great option to give Christon some rest if he has a heavy workload and still give the Aztecs an explosive return man.
Projected Two Deep: Mekhi Shaw, Cam Davis
Transfer Need: Low
Shaw is a returning senior who has been a top receiver as well as a great punt returner for the Aztecs. He was the top punt returner for the team, with 14 total returns for 101 yards. This solid, consistent performance was good. His 6.9 yards per return average ranked fourth during Mountain West play among players with at least 10 attempts. His longest on the year was just 15 yards, so expect the competition to rise.
Cam Davis, who also is a viable backup on kickoff returns, is a solid backup for punt returns as well. This was seen a few times last season as he had 2 punt returns for 25 yards, with his longest being 21 yards. His ability to be on kickoff and punt returns makes him a great asset to the special teams unit. If he can improve his ability as a returner, Davis could see many more opportunities in the return game this upcoming season.
Special Teams Coverage
Highlight Players: Trey White, DJ Herman, Chris Johnson, Arnold Escano
Transfer Need: Low
Special teams needs big hitters to stop return men in their tracks and force fumbles. The Aztecs have plenty of players that fit that need, and two who will be exciting to watch this upcoming season are linebackers, DJ Herman and Trey White.
Herman stands at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds and played on special teams in 2022 and 2023. He is someone who can really improve this spring and be able to make an even greater impact on special teams. His size and speed gives him all the features he needs to be great.
Another hard hitter who is even more proven is Trey White. He played all 12 games in 2023 on special teams and had a great defensive year, making plays all over the field. His ability to cover the field sideline-to-sideline and be a power hitter makes him the perfect special teams tool.
Fast and elusive gunners who can get down the field quickly and also track down those speedy returners are just as essential as big hitters. The Aztecs have a great one in cornerback Chris Johnson. Johnson is the reigning 2023 SDSU Special Teams Player of the Year. He will have plenty of time this spring to improve his craft and get even better.
Another one to watch is junior Arnold Escano; he has great speed and played on special teams for 11 games last season. He is someone that can really improve this spring on his speed and ability to seek out the ball on punts. Lookout for him all over the field as he is due for a great season.
Johnny is born and raised in San Diego and a diehard fan of all his hometown teams. He is an avid collector of sports memorabilia that help paint a picture of the history of sports in San Diego. He spends a lot of his time attending sports games across San Diego county and enjoys studying the history and spreading knowledge of San Diego’s diverse sports.