“Be the A1PHA🐺” starts with SDSU’s QBs

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Matt Johnson helping SDSU’s QBs warm up. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Not to be confused with the theory on alpha males popularized in Frans de Waal’s 1982 seminal work, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes, the genesis of SDSU’s head coach Sean Lewis’ “Be the A1PHA🐺” mantra started with some puppy love. 

Back in 2012, Lewis added a dog to his family. Through training the new canine, he saw how, each day, the puppy instinctively went about developing the skills necessary to be the leader of the pack. Lewis, at the time a position coach at Eastern Illinois, brought that singular focus of aligning one’s life to daily, personal growth to the athletes under his care. 

When he took over at Kent State, “Be the A1PHA” began. The No. 1 has a special meaning for SDSU.

Lewis has charged the Aztecs with a “+1” mentality. To be the A1PHA, they have to attain a small measure of growth every day. String enough of those days together, and they will improve by leaps and bounds by the time the season rolls around. The aim is to have each player be the leader of his own life and develop into the best version of himself on and off the field. 

Quarterbacks as A1PHA leaders

Due to their star appeal, the importance of the position, and the expectations placed upon them, quarterbacks lead every team. Aztec signal callers must embody Lewis’ philosophy.

Matt Johnson at SDSU’s practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“’Be the Alpha’” for us as the quarterbacks (is) everything is going to fall on our shoulders whether it’s our fault or not,” QB coach Matt Johnson said after practice on Thursday. “You’ve got to want that pressure. You’ve got to accept that pressure.”

Modeling how the players need to grow each day, their QB coach finds ways to keep the goal of continual improvement in front of them. Competition is key. Johnson gave asking the QBs random trivia as an example of how he spurs their competitive spirit.

A couple of days ago, he asked his QBs to name as many of the eight NFL teams that end in “ers” as they could in one minute. Danny O’Neil won the challenge by naming seven of them.

Johnson aims to teach a mindset that the QBs come to work with every day. Since they are at the premier position on the team, they cannot afford any off days. 

With the arrival of spring camp, continual growth took a different form than it had in winter conditioning. Following Tuesday’s practice, Johnson emphasized the need to protect the football. Collectively, his group threw four interceptions. Thursday, they responded with a much cleaner day.

“First and foremost, the guy who (starts) is going to protect the ball,” Johnson said. “That was a big emphasis for us after Day One is being able to protect the ball. … We like to talk about the quarterback is driving the Cadillac. His job is to bring it back without any scratches.”

avance Tupou’ata-Johnson at SDSU practice. The QBs wore a white stripe so the coaches could see where their eyes were on tape. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Practice No. 2

The second practice was only open to the media for 45 minutes. By design, there was not much to glean from that time. Most of the team drills were special teams work and warm-ups.

The QBs started on the side, taking reps under center and in the shotgun from the prospective centers on the teams. After, they paired up. It was split between new guard AJ Duffy and O’Neil and old guard Kyle Crum and Javance Tupou’ata-Johnson. Johnson signaled various calls from the sideline and the QBs simulated the handoffs and fakes the particular signal called for. 

On one rep, with their partners playing center, the QBs in the shotgun simulated quickly, drawing the defense offside like teams utilize on fourth and short. The QBs took turns moving from the shotgun to under center, calling a few hard counts, before dropping back, and with a hand signal informing their imaginary team that they were not snapping the ball after all.

AJ Duffy throwing a pass (Don De Mars/EVT)

With their signal work behind them, they joined the receivers and tight ends, throwing numerous passes in quick succession. The only thing definitive from these warm-up drills is that the rumors of Tupou’ata-Johnson’s arm strength were not exaggerated. All of the QBs threw the ball well and with good accuracy on the variety of routes. 

The rest of the practice, as described in the postgame interviews, was better than Day One but nowhere near where they wanted it to be. Crum said the defense won on the afternoon before adding that while he improved on the pages of insights he was given to focus on after the first practice, he made new mistakes he looked forward to fixing. Duffy echoed Crum’s sentiment about his performance, feeling like it was uneven. Both players are excited about their next opportunity on Saturday.

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Leaders off the field

Embodying the A1PHA ethos is more than just throwing a pass or reading a defense. For Lewis, it is about developing habits and a frame of mind that will help his players be better husbands and fathers down the road. To that end, Duffy, Crum, and the rest of the QBs have been busy in the community.

Danny O’Neil stretches in practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

About a year ago, Crum started coaching kids in the offseason. Growing up, he remembered the excitement when a college QB would come to his workouts.  He is now in a position to be that older signal caller for those behind him. As Crum has given back to the community, he has received insight into himself. He sees coaching in his future after his playing days are done. 

Duffy visited kindergartners at Carlton Hills Elementary School in Santee. He played with the kids at recess, participated in arts and crafts, and read to the young audience. Duffy left the school particularly proud of a red robin he made out of Play-Doh.  

“It was great,” Duffy said with a smile as he described the experience. “We just messed around, played tag, hide and seek, we played with Play-Doh. It’s kind of cool to do stuff like that, especially for me. I have three little sisters, so it reminds me of them. I look forward to stuff like that.”

All of the signal callers also participated in a We See You San Diego event, where they served dinner to those in need. The unique restaurant-style event saw SDSU athletes creating the meals, working in the food line, or as waiters for the customers. 

“That was awesome,” Crum said about the event. “All the quarterbacks and some other guys on the team as well went and helped out the homeless shelter. But, they are not just a homeless shelter. The part I thought was cool is they actually sponsor people for rehab programs. They are actively trying to get people off the streets. I felt that was the best way I could give back by going and helping out.”

The Clock is Ticking

Part of the evaluation of Spring Camp is to see if any of the four quarterbacks on the roster are good enough to lead the Aztecs in the fall. Johnson said he believes the QBs currently in camp can win the job while admitting that with the transfer portal, additions or subtractions are always possible. 

Kyle Crum at practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“I feel confident that one of those four is going to be the guy,” Johnson said. “I understand where we’re at in this day and age of the portal. You always got to be on your Ps & Qs not only for what’s in the portal but guys that are in your room that might be thinking about it. That’s become a reality for what we deal with as coaches. But I feel confident that one of those four guys can get the job done for us.” 

SDSU’s new QB coach also emphasized that all four have an equal chance to win the starting job. Duffy and O’Neil do not have a leg up simply because the old staff brought in Crum and Tupou’ata-Johnson. 

Johnson also said at this point in Phase II of the calendar, the competition between them is close but did give a slight edge to the sophomores. The biggest movement will come soon as Spring Camp unwinds and each gets more reps in the offense. 

The athlete who will win the job will be the one who, through daily improvement, separates himself from the rest. Whoever stacks the most consecutive “+1 days” through spring and summer will lead the Aztecs through the tunnels at Snapdragon Stadium on August 31.    

As the signal callers work through this process, they provide an example to the rest of the roster because “Be the A1PHA🐺” starts with SDSU’s QBs.

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