Jesse Matthews, Braxton Burmeister, Tyrell Shavers, Jordan Byrd, Chance Bell, and Mark Redman are listed as starters at the marquee offensive positions on the post-spring depth chart. As fans daydream of Aztecs scoring touchdowns in Snapdragon Stadium, the players from this list are undoubtedly who they have in mind. With all due respect to the skill players and the quarterback in that group, the most important offensive player on the Aztecs is center Alama Uluave.
“I have unfinished business here,” Uluave said on a future episode of the SDSU Football Podcast. “Coming back for my second senior year, I’m hoping that I can get better as a player, as a person, just overall growing. And, I want to win a ring. That’s really it.”
The value of a player is determined as much by the circumstances as anything else. Uluave likely has a future in professional football because of his great skill. His importance to the Aztecs, however, is rooted in the past. SDSU won a program-record 12 games a season ago. Last year’s success was part of a trend. The program has had double digits victories in five of the last six full seasons. Their lone outlier was a 7-6 2018 season that culminated in an embarrassing 27-0 undressing by Ohio in the Frisco Bowl.
There is an alarming number of similarities between the offenses of that team and the upcoming 2022 Aztecs. Both teams graduated their top RB and QB from the previous year. The 2018 offensive line had 13 members, about three players fewer than normal. In 2022, SDSU is expected to have 14. Both squads, with their limited number of linemen, were unable to field two full units in their respective Spring Games. Instead, the O-lines donned gray jerseys and blocked for both squads in the annual affair. Another commonality between the two teams: Uluave.
“Coach (Adam) Hall actually brings up the 2018 team a lot,” Uluave explained. “He talks about the talent. There was a lot of talent left on that team. Really, the only thing we could blame was ourselves. We didn’t go into practice every day with the energy we needed, and things fell apart. It’s a good thing that it happened back then as a freshman, and I’ve seen it then.”
“Now, coming into my senior year thinking, ‘I’m not going to let this happen to this team.’ I’m not going to let us get comfortable, especially coming off a 12-win year. It’s just something I don’t want to repeat in my life. I put in so much work in, (and) to just lose, is not a good feeling.”
Though similar in number, the 2018 OL was actually more seasoned than what the 2022 version is projected to be. If the Aztecs are going to avoid repeating history, Uluave’s tutelage of a young offensive line will be one of the main reasons why. It is this opportunity that makes Uluave the most important offensive player on the team. SDSU wins on the strength of their physicality. When the offensive line fails to establish its will, the team’s identity and swagger are lost.
The right side of the line is the strength of the unit heading into the offseason. Right tackle Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (BCD) is the only other returning starter in addition to Uluave. He had a solid season as a first-year starter. The Aztecs are counting on BCD to be even better in 2022. Uluave and BCD bookend right guard Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli. The 6’4” 350 lb redshirt freshman exceeded all expectations by securing a starting spot in spring camp. That Ulugalu-Maseuli did not have to wait until fall camp to be named Will Dunkle’s heir apparent speaks volumes about his potential.
The left side of the line is where the questions are. Four players without much playing time are on top of the two-deep. Only one, Kyle Trombley is an upperclassman. Zavier Leonard and Jonathan Harrison are locked in a tight battle at left tackle. Trombley and Oklahoma State transfer Cade Bennett are competing at left guard. With so much youth around him at all four spots, the value of Uluave’s apprenticeship with his teammates cannot be understated.
“It’s different in the aspect that I’ve been playing with Will (Dunkle), Zach (Thomas), Chris (Martinez), and all those guys for years, and now I have to start from scratch, Uluave said. “It’s not that it’s a hard thing because we have talented guys. We have really talented guys in our O-line room. They’re coming along really well. They’re young, so we’re just teaching them the Aztec Way. We’re ready to roll. That’s really all it takes. The main difference really is just age and experience. That will come with time.”
Uluave’s impact will probably be felt most during the non-conference portion of the schedule. As the year progresses, the young players should improve with playing time. A best-case scenario would see the unit hitting its stride when SDSU starts conference play on the road against Boise State. Even in this ideal situation, Uluvae will have to help navigate an arduous opening stretch against two PAC-12 teams. Plus, a contest against Toledo that is expected to have the best defense in their conference. Add to that the excitement surrounding the opening of a new stadium and a trip to Salt Lake City to take on Utah, a Power Five powerhouse, and Uluave’s challenge comes into focus.
Fortunately for SDSU, an increase in responsibility is precisely what their Hawaiian center wanted when he returned for a second senior season. When he informed head coach Brady Hoke of his choice to be a member of the 2022 Aztecs, he asked for a bigger role in getting the offense set up correctly, calling out blocking schemes, and doing anything else he could to help the team excel. Uluave’s mentorship of the younger linemen is natural at SDSU because older players leading their younger teammates is already part of the team’s culture.
Stepping up to accept a larger role should also help Uluave realize his ultimate goal of playing in the NFL. In a backward way, the team’s struggle in 2018 may have catalyzed the Aztecs’ success in the following seasons. The recruits who came in that year and stayed evolved into some of the best players in the nation. Cameron Thomas, Daniel Bellinger, Matt Araiza, and Will Dunkle came in as two-star prospects and worked their way into the league.
Arguing which player is the most valuable on a team is an entertaining but pointless exercise. Every Aztec on the roster is essential if SDSU is going to reach its goal of winning the 22nd conference championship in program history. The debate, though, is an effective tool to highlight the rare occasion when a team’s center belongs in that conversation alongside the starting QB or skill-position players.
Imagine where the squad would be if Uluave was preparing for a professional career instead of a return to the Mesa. Nothing can temper the excitement surrounding Snapdragon’s opening, but the hope this upcoming season could end with a Mountain West title would be greatly diminished. Fortunately for the Aztecs, Alama Uluave will be the center of SDSU’s success in 2022.