SDSU Aztecs Year in Review: Secondary

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Credit: AP Photo

Question: What do Rene Siluano, Nat Berhe, King Holder, Trey Lomax, Gabe Lemon, and JJ Whittaker have in common?

Answer: There were all among a group of defensive backs who transformed SDSU’s defense into what it is today, and all are under six feet tall.

A cursory glance at the SDSU’s football rosters over the years reveals an obvious trend: SDSU’s defensive backs are getting taller. In 2013, there were only nine DB’s on the roster taller than 6’0. Most were not key contributors. In 2017, that number had ballooned to 14. In 2021, the roster projects only four defensive backs under 6’0” and 17 6’0” or taller.

Among the reasons for this shift is keeping up with the rule changes in college football.  Increasingly, defenders are penalized for playing physical while at the same time offensive players are rewarded the more physical they are. Gone are the days when a shorter corner could get into the body of a taller receiver to prevent the wideout from jumping.  Likewise, receivers today do not even pretend to worry about pushing off when the ball is in the air.

Taller defenders, then, offer the best chance to contain offenses with the rules clearly stacked the defense. The Aztecs have employed this strategy with great success. Already one of the best defenses against the run, SDSU has become one of the better defenses against the pass. In 2020 they ranked 14th in the country, giving up 185.3 yards a game.

Starters in 2020

#18 Trenton Thompson 6’2” 210 lbs Senior Safety

Career Stats:    Tackles    Sacks    Interceptions    Passes Defended     Forced Fumbles

147           1           1                            9                                 1

Trenton Thompson is somewhat of an enigma. Anyone who has watched the Aztecs can see Thompson is dripping with talent. Throughout his career, he has come up with huge plays for the team. He has blocked multiple punts, scored a special team touchdown, and saved games for SDSU. On the other hand, Thompson leaves the feeling that he has more to offer.

Fortunately, he will get another chance to realize his tremendous potential. He took advantage of the NCAA extra year of eligibility and will return to the Mesa for a second senior season.

In 2021, Thompson needs to replace one of the greatest safeties in program history, Tariq Thompson. Trenton has played Robin to Tariq’s Batman throughout his career. With the latter entering the NFL draft, it is time for Trenton Thompson to assume the central place in the secondary. His ability to step into that role will go a long way in determining if SDSU reloads it’s secondary or is forced to rebuild.

#9 Tayler Hawkins 6’1” 205 lbs Senior Corner Back

Career Stats:    Tackles    Sacks    Interceptions    Passes Defended     Forced Fumbles

64            0            1                           9                                 0

A solid if an unspectacular player in 2020, Hawkins was the weak link last year in a secondary featuring four NFL caliber players. A versatile athlete, Hawkins lined up all over the field but settled in at the corner opposite Darren Hall as the season progressed.

Despite being the focal point of the opposing offense’s attack, Hawkins performed well in all aspects of the game. He was a Pro Football Focus Third-Team All-Mountain West selection. Hawkins will return to SDSU for a second senior year, which is a huge benefit for the team.

In 2021, Hawkins, much like Trenton Thompson, has the opportunity to step into a playmaking role for the team. The Aztecs need to replace Darren Hall’s game-changing ability at corner. Hawkins has not proven to be that type of player yet. He has another opportunity to prove he is more than just a guy and prove that he is the man!

#14 Tariq Thompson 6’0” 210 lbs Senior Safety

Career Stats:    Tackles    Sacks    Interceptions    Passes Defended     Forced Fumbles

219          1             12                        35                               6

A Hometown Hero out of local St. Augustine High School, Tariq Thompson has been one of the better players on every field he has been on since starting as a true freshman. He is simply a pro, and it will only take one team who values instincts and production over forty times and tape measures for him to hear his named called in the upcoming NFL draft.

In 2020, Thompson made his superior play look routine and almost effortless. He often lined up on the slot wideout whichever side of the formation the receiver was at. Replacing this aspect of his game will likely be the most difficult for SDSU in 2021.

If the model player for the Aztec position is a Safety/Linebacker, Thompson turned the ideal Warrior player into a Corner Back/Safety. Of all the terrific defensive backs the Aztecs have had at that position since Rocky Long installed the 3-3-5, Thompson is the best and most unique. He set a new standard for the position for future Warriors to live up to.

#36 Dwayne Johnson 6’2” 215 lbs Senior Safety

Career Stats:    Tackles    Sacks    Interceptions    Passes Defended     Forced Fumbles

147          1            1                            8                                 1

Credit: SDSU

An annual tradition during the early part of Johnson’s tenure on the Mesa was the highlight hits he would have in the annual Red and Black game or the team scrimmage in Fall Camp. With each punishing blow, the anticipation of his inclusion in the starting unit rose. When Johnson’s number was finally called his junior season, he did not disappoint.

Johnson followed excellent players at the position: Nat Berhe, Na’ im McGee, and Parker Baldwin. Each put their own spin on the position, and Johnson was no different. He attacked from the position, inspiring physicality out his teammates. If the defense’s motto is “eleven hats to the ball,” Johnson was the finisher, the punisher, who completed the tackle for defense. In a few short weeks, he should be making a similar impact on an NFL team.

#23 Darren Hall 6’0” 190 lbs Junior Corner Back

Career Stats:    Tackles    Sacks    Interceptions    Passes Defended     Forced Fumbles

134           2.5        6                           31                              3

Darren Hall was the latest in a group of shut down corners who have graced the Mesa. His decision to leave school early is no surprise. He simply has little left to prove at this level. Hall embraced all challengers and has the desired competitiveness at the position.

Despite not being the focal point of team’s offensive attack, he still found ways to make impactful plays. His 57-yard interception return for a touchdown against Colorado improbably kept the Aztecs in the game when their offense was unable to get much going.

Hall is simply a playmaker. He is physical, a willing tackler, and will be competing in the NFL next season. Replacing Hall in 2021 will be a tall task for SDSU. Cedarious Barfield and Dallas Branch enter camp in the lead to earn that role. It will be one of the most important battles to keep an eye on in Spring Ball.

2nd on the depth chart in 2020

#12 Dallas Branch 5’11” 175 lbs Sophomore Corner Back     

Games Played: 8

Branch came to the Mesa over an offer from BYU. He spent a year at Long Beach City College, where he showed a nose for the ball. In his one season, he had six interceptions and two forced fumbles. Playmaking ability is precisely what the defense will need as it looks to replace Hall, Johnson, and Thompson.

Branch, who signed in December of 2019, will be in his second season in the program. It is the time players make their biggest strides in the program.

In 2021, Branch needs to seize control of one of the cornerback positions. It would appear he is behind Barfield in the competition going into 2021, but he does not necessarily need to beat out Barfield to see the field. He could see playing time if he does enough for the coaches to feel comfortable sliding Tayler Hawkins back to his natural safety position. In addition to competing with a young and talented group of corners, then, Branch is also competing with Tariq Thompson’s replacement.

#29 Allan Mwata 6’0” 190 lbs Sophomore Safety  

Games Played: 4

Among other offers, Mwata chose SDSU over BYU, which should endear him to the Aztec Faithful. The Salt Lake Tribune listed Mwata among a group of “high-profile” recruits who chose other programs over the Cougars.  As a junior in a crowded defensive back room, Mwata has the time and experience in the program to slide into the vacated safety positions.

In 2021, to realize the potential that made the faithful in Utah pine over his services, Mwata needs to become a leader in the secondary. He has all the physical tools necessary to make an impact. An upperclassman this year, Mwata is among the favorites to start next season.

#20 Rashad Scott 6’2” 190 lbs Junior Safety       

Games Played: 23

Scott is a Hometown Hero. He came to SDSU from nearby Helix High in La Mesa. The 2017 San Diego Section Defensive Player of the Year, Scott has been a fan favorite since he first committed to the university.

Health has prevented him from making as much of an impact on the field as expected, but his development off the field has been an inspiration to the community. Diagnosed with blood clots, Scott bravely chose to continue his playing career and recorded an interception last season against Utah State.

In 2021, Scott becomes part of the senior class that leads the program, and it is difficult to think of a person better suited for the task. In his short life, he has faced and overcome obstacles many do not face in a lifetime. Listed as second on the depth chart at the Warrior position, Scott has the size to play the Aztec position as well. San Diego is certainly cheering for its native son.

#33 Patrick McMorris 6’0” 210 lbs Sophomore Safety      

Games Played: 16

When Dwayne Johnson missed the  Nevada game to attend the funeral of his grandmother, the coaches turned to McMorris to replace him in the starting lineup. McMorris played well against Nevada. He was never caught too far out of position, and as the game went on, began attacking ball carriers and not waiting for them to come to him. That experience should fill him with confidence as spring ball comes around.

In 2021, McMorris needs to become the heir apparent to Johnson. The 3-3-5 position hinges on the play of the Aztec safety. When that player is elite as Johnson has been these past two season, the defense thrives. Fortunately, SDSU has been able to reload the position. McMorris will be pushed by Segun Olbi and others for the coveted role.

#27 Cedarious Barfield 5’11” 190 lbs Sophomore Corner Back 

Games Played: 16

Barfield started the first few games of the season as Trenton Thompson’s injury moved Tayler Hawkins back to safety. The move might be a clue that the coaching staff prefers Hawkins at safety.

Credit: SDSU

Barfield is an attacking corner with the size of a safety. A couple of blown assignments against San Jose State cost him more playing time, but he flashed enough brilliance to provide hope for the position moving forward.

In 2021, Barfield needs to build off his 2020 season and have him join the ranks of Leon McFadden, Damontae Kazee, Luqman Barcoo, and Darren Hall as NFL-level players at the cornerback position. There may not be anyone on the roster in the same class as that list, but if there is one, Barfield is the most likely candidate.  He needs to improve his play recognition, which would make his aggressiveness pay off more with big plays for defense.

3rd on the depth chart in 2020

#17 Eric Wilson 6’0” 185 lbs Senior Corner Back 

Games Played: 11

A Hometown Hero from Oceanside, Wilson was a decorated junior college transfer who provides the constant reminder that potential and production are often worlds apart. Wilson was a senior in 2020 and did not use the extra year of eligibility to return to the Mesa in 2021. An Aztec for Life, Wilson was part of the senior leaders who spearheaded the health and safety efforts of the team during the pandemic.

#31 Davaughn Celestine 6’0” 190 lbs Redshirt Freshman Safety  

Games Played: 3

A redshirt freshman in 2020, Celestine enters his third year in the program in 2021. An under-the-radar recruit, Celestine showed elite speed in high school. He played corner at El Dorado High School in Placentia, CA, and will have experience covering wide receivers from the Warrior safety position. His size, speed, and toughness profile well. If his intangibles have caught up with his tangibles, he could play his way into contention for playing time.

#19 Kyron White 5’11” 180 lbsRedshirt Freshman Safety    

Games Played: 7

Special teams can be a pathway to playing time. In 2021, White hopes that proves true. His forced fumble against Hawaii, where he raced 50 yards downfield, shed blockers, and arrived at the punt returner at the perfect moment, was a game-changing play that bodes well for White’s future. Fast enough to be a gunner on special teams, White has shown instincts and grit in his time on the Mesa.

White was a major recruit in high school. A native of Arlington, Texas, he chose SDSU over an offer from in state and Big XII member Baylor.  A jump into the mix at safety would no surprise.

#32 Dezhon Malone 6’2” 195 lbs Freshman Safety         

Games Played: 2

One of the prized recruits of the 2020 class, Malone, is listed as a redshirt freshman in 2021. His participation in two games this past season and his inclusion on the third team of the depth chart suggest Malone is ahead of the learning curve.

He chose SDSU over offers from Oregon State, BYU, and Fresno State. Football is a game of inches, so Malone’s superior size should help his case for playing time.

#10 Noah Tumblin 6’2” 180 lbs Redshirt Freshman Corner Back

Games Played: 7

Another Hometown Hero, Tumblin, from Mira Mesa High, is a tremendous athlete who played quarterback and point guard in high school. He began 2020 second on the depth chart but slipped to third by the time the season rolled around.

In 2021, Tumblin needs to regain the confidence that saw him ascend up the two-deep as a true freshman. This will be his third year in the program, the time when huge jumps in production occur. Tumblin has great size, speed, and athleticism for the corner position and could be the next San Diego kid who starts for his local university.

4th on the depth chart

#26 Mekhi Shaw 5’10” 170 lbs Freshman Corner Back   

Games Played: 0

Shaw was committed to Nevada as late as early June. Late in June, however, Shaw decided to become a Hometown Hero and walk on to the Aztecs. A true scholar-athlete at Scripps Ranch High, Shaw had a 4.2-grade point average in high school.

His feats in the classroom and on the field were rewarded. He earned multiple scholarships, including awards from the National Football Foundation and the Durkin Impact Foundation. His inclusion on the depth chart puts him on the same level with more decorated recruits. He looks to be another in a long line of walk-on athletes to produce for SDSU.

#16 Cassius Savage 6’1” 165 lbs Freshman Safety   

Games Played: 0

Cassius and his twin brother Caine were both three-star recruits in high school. Both earned division one scholarships. Both play defensive back. Caine plays for the University of Utah, Cassius for the San Diego State.

Another terrific student on the roster, Cassius, had a 3.8 GPA in high school. In high school, he played receiver and safety and shows good hands for the position. Entering his second year on the Mesa, finding his way on the field on special teams could set him up for success in 2022.

 #21 Brody Hughes 6’1” 210 lbs Freshman Safety          

Games Played: 0

Production on the high school gridiron could indicate excellence by a player, or it could indicate the weakness of the league the player played. Only time will tell if Hughes incredible career at Temecula Valley High was more a product of who he competed against than who he is as a player. Hughes led a team from 0-10 in 2017 to a State Championship berth in 2019. He rushed for over 2,000 yards, had nearly 500 receiving yards, recorded over 200 tackles, and even blocked four kicks.

In 2021, Hughes needs to see that level of production during the spring to bring him into the conversation for playing time in the fall. He has the size to play special teams and could be a key performer there.  Hughes has the look of an Aztec safety down the road. In high school, he played in the middle of the field and reacted to what the offense was doing. He was a ferocious downhill tackler but could also be counted on in the passing game.

#48 Adonis Brown 6’0” 175 lbs Junior Corner Back    

Games Played: 3

A transfer from Texas Tech, Brown was buried on the depth chart for the Aztecs in 2020. He was 2nd on the depth chart for the Red Raiders and even had a pick six in the team’s first scrimmage in spring 2019. He provides experience at the corner position and could move to safety, the position he played in high school if needed.

In 2021, he enters the ranks of the senior class tasked with leading the team. His professionalism, attention to detail, and focused work ethic will go a long way to helping the younger guys at the position.

Others Unlisted on the Depth Chart

#34 Isaiah McElvane 6’ 0” 185 lbs Freshman Corner Back       

Games Played: 5

A prolific running back, track star, and baseball player in high school, McElvane played in five games as a true freshman in 2020, though he was not listed on the team’s depth chart. In high school, McElvane was a superior athlete who read the quarterback’s eyes nearly the entire play, which would suggest he might be more comfortable in zone than in man. McElvane is an exciting prospect who is dripping with potential.

In 2021, McElvane needs to continue producing on special teams while earning reps at corner. He enters 2021 as a sophomore.

#35 Jelani Whitmore 6’2” 185 lbs Freshman Corner Back 

Games Played: 0

Whitmore is another scholarship athlete who was a multisport star in high school. He was a prolific kick returner in high school and was the fastest player on the field.

In 2021, Whitmore enters his second year in the program, and he is among a group of underclassmen who the Aztec nation should be excited about. Whether SDSU fans can be excited about him now or in a few years remains to be seen, but Whitmore is another corner with great length who should thrive on the outside of the defense in time.

#37 TyRee Bracy 5’10” 175 lbs Sophomore Corner Back 

Games Played: 0

A walk-on in 2020, Bracy is not listed on the roster in 2021. In high school, he played quarterback and threw for over 4,500 yards in his career.

2021 Recruits:

Noah Avinger 6’1” 175 lbs

The second highest-rated recruit in the 2021 class, Avinger is another in a growing list of Aztecs who could have played in nearly every conference in America. Oregon, Utah, Kansas, and Boston College are just four of the Power Five schools that Avinger turned down to make his home on the Mesa.

Listed at 5’11” and 165 on his recruiting profiles, SDSU lists him at 6’1” 175, so he is filling into the position. He was a receiver and corner in high school and looks to have enough hands to stay on the offensive side of the ball if had chosen to do so. His brother Lucky is a running back on the team.

Any season, the odds are stacked against a true freshman starting in 2021. Factor in the lost 2020 season, and it feels even more unlikely for Avinger to come in the summer and compete for a job. A redshirt or helping on special teams is likely in his immediate future, but the coaches will play the best player. If none of the defensive backs seize control of the job in spring, it could open the door for this talented player.

CJ Baskerville 6’2” 195 lbs

Baskerville is another player from the Dallas/Fort Worth area who Jeff Horton convinced to join him in San Diego. He was a coveted recruit, who joins the Aztecs instead of heading to Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Duke, and Syracuse, among others. In high school, he played receiver and safety.

Texas did not cancel their high school football season, so Baskerville was able to play in 2020. He shows terrific hands-on offense and was able to use his impressive size to absorb defenders and still make the catch. As a defender, he is not as physical as he needs to be tackling but covers an impressive amount of space.

In 2021, a redshirt season appears the most likely. Once Baskerville is acclimated to the college game, he will be an impactful player.

Jaiden Brown 6’0” 175 lbs

A Hometown Hero from local Helix High, Brown chose the Aztecs over each of SDSU’s Mountain West Western Division rivals. Brown mentioned having the city behind him and opening the new stadium with his family in attendance as the reason he chose SDSU. Like all California recruits, he missed the 2020 season, so playing time in 2021 seems unlikely.

On tape, he plays quick, attacks downhill, and is a willing tackler. He played corner and safety in high school and contributed on special teams. Brown recognizes plays well, pursues the ball, and is another exciting defensive back in the program.

DJ Bryant 6’0” 175 lbs

Of all the defensive backs, Bryant is the most underrated of all the defensive back prospects. One look at his tape; however, and he has the look of a diamond in the rough. He played quarterback at San Leandro High in San Leandro, California.

Watching him elude defenders rolling to his right and then throwing a pass 50 yards downfield across his body shows his athleticism. Defensively, he played all over the field and was simply dominant against the competition he was facing.

New Zealand Williams 6’2” 200  lbs

Williams is the most likely of the 2020 recruits to see time next season because he is an early enrollee and is on the Spring Football roster. Instead of accepting offers from Georgia, Colorado, or Nebraska, among others, he chose to play in America’s Finest City. Posing in an SDSU sweater when Williams signed was 2024 recruit Zacharyus Williams, who already has an offer from Florida State.

New Zealand Williams already has the size to play in 2021. In high school, he played in the middle of the field, reading and reacting to the offense. He showed good a high football IQ and made plays outside of his area. Another very exciting prospect, he will be fun to watch this spring.

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