Aztecs Year in Review: Wide Receiver and Tight End

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Credit: SDSU Athletics

A look at the San Diego State Aztecs’ receiving group. 

A balance between the running and passing game is Brady Hoke’s stated offensive philosophy. When coach Hoke first took over at SDSU in 2009, he inherited a pass-first system.  In 2007 and 2008, the Aztecs had 1,587 plays from scrimmage. Just under 60% of those (947) of those were passing plays. The talk when Hoke took over at that time was reestablishing the running game. Instead of radically shifting the offense away from what the players were accustomed to under Chuck Long; however, Hoke shifted to a more balanced attack over two seasons.

Last year, Hoke inherited another imbalanced offense from his predecessor, but it was the opposite of what was handed to him during his first stint on the Mesa. SDSU had 1,764 total snaps in 2018 and 2019. Nearly 60% of those (1,055) were runs.

As he did in 2009, Hoke did not revolutionize the offense overnight, but there were signs of a gradual change towards more balance. In blowout wins against UNLV, Utah State, Hawaii, and Colorado State, SDSU called 109 more run plays than pass. In their other four games, all losses, they called 45 more runs than pass.

In 2021, expect even more passing than in 2020 as the offense moves closer to matching Hoke’s philosophy. There will be a new quarterback to start the year, and aside from Jesse Matthews and Daniel Bellinger, the competition for who the new signal-caller throws to will be intense.

Players with Receptions in 2020.

#45 Jesse Matthews                     Sophomore                      Wide Receiver

Receptions                      Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

24                                       326                      13.58                                 1                          51

Favorite QB: Carson Baker: Baker found Matthews ten times when he was the starter, though Johnson (five receptions) and Brookshire (nine catches) targeted him plenty.

The career of Jesse Matthews is one of the better developing stories in San Diego sports. A walk-on from local Christian High, Matthews worked his way onto the practice squad, moved past more highly decorated recruits on the depth chart, and started as a redshirt freshman.

In 2020 Matthews led the Aztecs in receptions and yards. He was a nominee for the Bulsworth Trophy, an annual award given to the best player in the nation who began his career as a walk-on. This was the second year in a row he earned that honor.

In 2021, Matthews will be an upperclassman and given his meteoric rise. There is every reason to expect the next step in his development. For Matthews to attain the next level, he needs to become more of a threat at each level of the field. He is terrific in the intermediary routes but has not shown too much of an ability to make a defender miss after a short completion or to stretch the field. Darren Hall described Matthews’ strengths as “great feet and great hands.” Being a threat all over the field will make these qualities even more dangerous.

#88 Daniel Bellinger                      Junior                                Tight End

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

21                                       203                      9.67                                   0                          21

Favorite QB: Brookshire: 12 of Bellinger’s 21 receptions came in the final three games with Brookshire at the helm.

Tight ends are often lost in the shuffle of modern-day offense, but San Diego State continues to utilize and develop terrific tight ends. Gavin Escobar, Parker Houston, David Wells, and Kahale Warring are all recent SDSU tight ends who played in the NFL. Daniel Bellinger looks to be the next in line.

At 6’ 6” 255 pounds, Bellinger possesses great size and is already an elite blocker at the position because of his toughness, tenacity, and technique. In many ways, he is like having an extra offensive lineman in the game. Often, it was Bellinger who had the key block that freed the running backs for huge gains.

As a receiver, Bellinger made huge strides this season, especially towards the end of the year. He came into the season with 16 career receptions. In only eight games, he surpassed that total.

In 2021, for Bellinger to continue his upward ascent, he will need to learn to use his impressive frame and athleticism to bully his way to more receptions. Like a big brother dominating his younger sibling, Bellinger should be able to impose his will and catch the ball with defenders draped on him. Whether catching the ball high in the air, using his body to shield smaller defenders, or running away from bigger defenders, growing into a matchup nightmare is the next step for this elite talent.

#92 Kobe Smith                             Junior                                Wide Receiver

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

13                                       122                      9.38                                   2                          23

Favorite QB: Carson Baker: Nine of his 13 receptions came when Baker was throwing the rock.

A year after recording 58 receptions, Smith took a step back with only 13 receptions in 7 games. In 2019, he averaged 4.5 receptions a game, but that dropped to only 1.9 a game in 2020. More concerning, nearly half of his receptions (six) came in one game against Utah State. In the rest of his games, he had only seven receptions, including three games in which he was held without a catch. On a positive note, he led the team in receiving touchdowns with two.

Credit: AP Photo

In 2021, the Aztecs need the 2019 version of Smith to reemerge. There was a four-game stretch beginning at the Rose Bowl against UCLA where Smith looked poised to become an NFL draft pick. He had 24 receptions, 360 yards, and four touchdowns in those four games.

Smith’s talent is very evident. More than anyone on the roster, Smith is able to create separation from defenders. If Matthews, Bellinger, and Kothe can make difficult receptions when covered, Smith is best among the group at getting open. Consistency is key for Smith next season. He is simply too good to disappear as often as he does.

#96 Elijah Kothe                             Junior                  Wide Receiver

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

7                                         111                      15.86                                 1                          33

Favorite QB: Lucas Johnson: Brookshire actually threw one more completion to Kothe than Johnson. He also threw Kothe’s only touchdown reception. However, Johnson was the only quarterback to use Kothe in the flow of the offense, and not primarily on broken plays.

2017: SDSU’s transformation from a balanced offensive attack to a run-dominated scheme was complete. In response, opponents were stacking the box, leaving receivers in single coverage and daring the Aztecs to pass. To take advantage, the Aztecs began recruiting taller wide receivers in the mold of the wideouts Stanford had found success with. Kothe was a product of this strategy.

Unsurprising, then, Kothe has been at his best on jump balls where he can use his size and leaping ability to make catches high in the air. Unfortunately, his opportunities have been lacking during his career, though he had a solid end to the 2020 season.

In 2021, the Aztecs need Kothe to grow into more than an occasional contributor in the passing game while continuing to be an asset in the screen and run game as a blocker. Kothe has shown flashes of the ability to adjust to passes wherever they are thrown.

He possesses an elite skill that is basically unstoppable: quarterbacks can throw him open. Whichever quarterback can form chemistry with Kothe and unlock his potential should have a leg up in the competition.

#41 BJ Busbee                 Junior                                Wide Receiver

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

7                                         49                        7                                         0                          17

Favorite QB: Lucas Johnson: Johnson’s start against Nevada was the only game Busbee had more than 20 yards because Busbee’s skill set in the screen game is most effective when other elements of the passing game are effective as they were in Johnson’s start against Nevada.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

The Aztecs have been searching for the smaller receivers who create tension on opposing defenses by being versatile in the way they get the ball and what they can do after they get it. Busbee, along with Ethan Dedaux and Jordan Byrd, have been among the group SDSU has tried in this role. They have had limited success.

In 2021 to continue to justify the number of snaps he receives, the Aztecs need more from Busbee. He has flashed brilliance. His 90-yard punt return for a touchdown shows what he is capable of in space. Busbee needs to be more decisive in the screen game instead of allowing the defense to close in, and he needs to become better at catching the ball, especially in traffic.

#81 Ethan Dedeaux                      Junior                  Wide Receiver

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

5                                         36                        7.20                                   1                          12

Favorite QB: Carson Baker: Had one more reception thrown by Brookshire, but his one touchdown on the season was delivered by Baker. It was the first score of the 2020 season.

Like Busbee above, Dedeaux was brought into SDSU to be a player who could hurt opposing defenses in multiple ways. To this point in his career, it has not developed, but Dedeaux has shown enough to the coaches in practice to continue earning reps in the game.

In 2021, Dedeaux needs to become the all-around playmaker he was in high school, where he spent time at running back and wide receiver. Helping out in the return game would be an obvious place for him, but like most on the SDSU roster, he has had trouble fielding punts in the past.

Success for Dedeaux likely rests as much on the development of the offense as a whole as it does on him. If SDSU is able to develop a consistent deep threat, it will open up underneath routes and other holes where Deadeaux could thrive.

#80 TJ Sullivan                 Sophomore                      Wide Receiver

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

4                                         56                        14                                       0                          27

Favorite QB: Brookshire: Sullivan had two receptions against BYU.

Sullivan is a Hometown Hero who came to SDSU from Mt. Carmel High School. Originally part of the 2017 class, Sullivan gray shirted and joined the program in Spring of 2018 and then redshirted.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Sullivan has played in 17 games in his career. Each season his final game has been his best. His career highlight to date is a diving, one-handed touchdown grab in the 2019 New Mexico Bowl.

In 2021, Sullivan needs to capture more reps from the players above him on the depth chart. Their inconsistency could open up opportunities for him. This will be his third year in the program and fourth since graduating high school. As an upperclassman, it is his time to shine.

#13 Isaiah Richardson                  Junior                  Wide Receiver

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

4                                         43                        10.75                                 0                          21

Favorite QB: Carson Baker: Three of his four receptions came in the first two games of the season.

Listed second on the depth behind Jesse Matthews at the Z position, Richardson production and opportunity have been lacking to this point in his career. Along with the rest of the juniors in 2020, Richardson will have an opportunity to open the New Aztec Warrior Stadium if he takes advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.

In 2021, Richardson will be pushed by players below him on the depth chart while he pushes those above him for time. Five years in the program should see him at the height of his athletic prowess. Richardson knows the system, the coaches’ expectations and has played in 22 games. Is it his time to produce?

#6 Dominic Benson                       Senior                 Wide Receiver

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

3                                         37                        12.33                                 0                          15

Favorite QB: Brookshire. All of his receptions occurred in the final two games of the season.

Brought in to be a deep threat out of Ventura College, Benson never made an impact during his time at SDSU. A senior in 2020, he did not exercise his option to come back in 2021.

#85 Nolan Givan                            Senior                 Tight End

Receptions                       Yards                   Yards per Catch               TD                       Long

3                           34                                       11.33                                 0                          14

Favorite QB: Brookshire. Two of his three receptions occurred against BYU.

Primarily a blocker, Givan was an unsung hero in 2020 after transferring in from Ball State as a graduate transfer. In 2021, he will be playing elsewhere. He is transferring from the program.

Other Wide Receivers on the Roster

#11 Brionne Penny

Measurables                    Year

6’3” 185                            Redshirt Freshman

Rashaad Penny’s final season was arguably the best year any player has ever had in program history. His shadow looms large over the running backs, who are unfairly held to the standard he set. It also casts shade over his younger brother’s career at SDSU.

Expectations continue to be through the roof for the younger Penny. The Aztec faithful are hopeful 2021, Penny’s third year in the program, will be the year he steps out of his brother’s shadow.

#48 Darius De Los Reyes

Measurables                    Year

5’9” 170                            Freshman

Credit: Twitter

A local athlete who played at Eastlake and Lincoln, De Los Reyes chose the Aztecs over six other offers, including Mountain West rival Air Force. A versatile athlete, he lined up all over the field for the Hornets. In 2020, he was listed fourth on the depth chart at the ‘H’ wide receiver and will likely be competing for playing time at that spot. The position has not been a strength for the team, so an opportunity exists for De Los Reyes.

#86 Ronald Gilliam

Measurables                    Year

6’2” 200                            Freshman

Florida, Oregon, Arizona State, and Kansas offered Gilliam a chance to play in a Power Five conference. Gilliam chose the Aztecs, and in the time he has been with the program has grown two inches and added weight to his already impressive frame. As a true freshman, Gilliam was included on the depth chart.

In high school, he did not run the smoothest routes but was electric when the ball was in his hands. College coaching should improve Gilliam’s technique as a route runner.

#87 Koby Duru

Measurables                    Year

6’ 2” 210                           Junior

A preferred walk-on, Duru transferred to San Diego State from Montana State in 2019. Duru was listed third on the depth chart at the ‘Z’ position. Duru has impressive size and will try to join the list of former walk-ons who have thrived at SDSU.

Other Tight Ends on the roster

#32 Connor McBride

Measurables                    Year

6’2” 240                            Junior

A walk-on who played running back in high school, McBride moved to fullback when he arrived at SDSU. Once the position was eliminated, McBride, along with many of the other fullbacks, moved to tight end.

While a little bit dated, his social media is a great place for some pictures of what the players are up to off the field. He is clearly a great teammate.

In 2021, he will be among the senior leaders on the team. There is a void for a blocking tight end with Nolan Givan transferring. McBride could be a dark horse for some playing time. McBride was listed as fourth on the depth chart at ‘TE – H’ position in 2020.

#40 Andrew Alves

Measurables                    Year

6’2” 230                            Sophomore

Another Hometown Hero on SDSU’s roster, Alves, came to star at St. Augustine. He arrived at the Mesa as a linebacker but has switched over to the offensive side. He has played in 17 games on special teams. He recorded three special teams’ tackles and recovered a punt against Hawaii.

In 2021, expect Alves to continue in his role on special teams. He is listed as a linebacker again on the spring roster. It will be interesting to see if this is for depth at the position or if he will be able to fight for playing time.

#47 Rory Morgan

Measurables                    Year

6’7” 215                            Freshman

Listed fifth on the depth at the ‘TE-H’ position, Morgan’s height is intriguing for the position. In high school, he played defensive end and tight end. He was also on the basketball team. A walk-on at SDSU look to see if he has added weight when the roster is updated with new measurables.

#49 Charlie Rogers

Measurables                    Year

6’2” 240                            Redshirt Freshman

Listed third on the depth chart at the ‘TE – H’ position, Rodgers came to SDSU as a walk-on full back. After the position was eliminated, he moved to tight end. According to his Twitter profile, he has entered the transfer portal.

#82 Jay Rudolph

Measurables                    Year

6’4” 235                            Freshman

Impressively listed as the backup to Nolan Givan as a true freshman, Rudolph participated in every game this past season. He came to SDSU over an offer from Oregon State, among others. Listed at 215 in high school, he has already added twenty pounds.

In 2021, Rudolph is poised to start in Jeff Hecklinski’s offense opposite Daniel Bellinger. He possesses more receiving ability than Givan, and SDSU should expect more in the passing game from the ‘TE-H’ position this season.

#83 Alex Wilson

Measurables                    Year

6’4” 255                            Junior

Listed second on the depth chart at the ‘TE-Y’ position, Wilson came to SDSU as a walk-on in 2017. He has participated in 23 games the past three seasons, mostly on special teams. He is not listed on the team’s 2021 Spring Roster.

#89 Kyler Albanez

Measurables                    Year

6’ 5” 255                           Junior

Albanez, a scholarship player, was buried deep on the depth chart in 2020. He was listed fifth on the depth chart at the ‘TE-Y’ position. Albanez came to SDSU as part of the 2020 recruiting class from Saddleback Community College.

In 2021, Albanez will be given the opportunity to leap up the depth chart. He lined up all over the field for Saddleback, and his versatility could be on full display soon for the Aztecs.

#94 Aaron Greene

Measurables                    Year

6’4” 275                            Freshman

At 275 pounds, Greene has the size to play defensive or offensive line but was listed third on the depth chart at the ‘TE-Y’ position as a true freshman. He was listed at 255 pounds in high school, so he is putting on weight, not taking it off. If he sticks at tight end or moves to another position, his size and athleticism combination should help him make an impact whenever he steps on the field.

2021 Recruits

Phillippe Wesley                            Wide Receiver

Measurables                    Year

6’ 0” 185                           High School

Wesley was one of 50 of the top high school players invited to Dallas, Texas, to participate in the 7 on 7 Pylon Football All-American game. Wesley has terrific hands, which should be college-ready.  A consensus three-star recruit, he came to the Aztecs despite two Power Five offers.  Wesley is an exciting prospect for the Aztecs.

Cameron Harpole                          Tight End

Measurables                    Year

6’4” 220                            High School

Harpole is an intriguing prospect because he has good size and athleticism for the tight end position. In high school, he lined up all over the field, including on the outside as a receiver. As a receiver, he showed the ability to run past smaller defenders. If he can add weight and retain the ability to stretch the field, he will be a special player on the Mesa.

Joshua Nicholson                           Wide Receiver

Measurables                    Year

6’0” 170                            High School

Could Nicholson be the deep ball threat SDSU has been looking for? This past March, Nicholson ran an 11.11 in the 100 meters. That speed was on full display in high school highlights. His burst off the line of scrimmage is impressive, and he has the making of an under-the-radar signing for the Aztecs.

JP Murphy                                      Tight End

Measurables                    Year

6’4” 240                            High School

Murphy is a name to remember for one simple reason. He chose the Aztecs over an offer from USC. SDSU now routinely beats out Power Five schools for players, but a victory over the Trojans for a player is still noteworthy. Murphy’s talent is evident. He shows good hands at all levels. His strength is impressive. In a college weight program, he will add weight to his frame and will be a player to watch.

Gus McGee                                     Tight End

Measurables                    Year

6’5” 235                            High School

Gus McGee will move across the country to join the Aztecs. He went to high school in Florida his senior season and went to school in his home state of Massachusetts prior to that. He had 20 offers, most notably from the University of Cincinnati. He looks like a fit for the tough-nosed Aztecs: His first highlight video is his blocking compilation. A big, physical player, McGee shows surprising quickness.

Tyrell Shavers                                Wide Receiver

Measurables                    Year

6’ 6” 216                           Graduate Transfer (2 Years Remaining)

Shavers announced his intention to transfer to SDSU in a tweet. He originally signed with Alabama out of high school before transferring to Mississippi State. He only played one year for the Bulldogs and will come to SDSU along with teammate Jalen Mayden.

Shavers has always been an intriguing talent because he has elite size, speed, and quickness, but the Aztecs will be his third school. It is anyone’s guess the player they will be getting.

Any questions or comments about the group, please leave in the comment section below.

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