SDSU Aztecs football opens fall camp on August 5.
As part of the East Village Times’ ongoing preview of the upcoming season, we connected with Aztec head coach Brady Hoke for an exclusive interview.
Below are five storylines to follow as the Montezumans start their 100th football season on Friday.
Shortening the Learning Curve
Hoke began his coaching career at Yorktown High School in Indiana. His primary occupation at the time was in law enforcement, visiting parolees or attending courtroom proceedings while working at Yorktown on the side. One day, he went home and told his wife, Laura, that he was quitting his job. Surprised, she responded, “I thought you liked working with those kids.” Hoke had to break it to her that the job he intended to quit was the one that paid well and brought his family benefits.
The opportunity to influence young people at this critical juncture in their lives and help them grow soon became the calling he dedicated his life to. Through the decades and different stops along the way, the core of what ignited his passion for coaching remains steady.
“Well, number one, I got into coaching to help kids grow,” Hoke told EVT. “I had a coach, Chris Allen, who absolutely helped me grow as a young man. That’s what I give back. You want to help them grow from an academic, social, and football, you know, all three aspects of it. …”
“Chris Allen really helped me as a coach and helped me and direct me and kick my ass when I needed it, which was, at that time in my life, pretty often. I want to help guys. You could see yourself in some of the guys maybe going down the wrong road, but at the same time, you saw them grow and mature and graduate and became pretty dag gone successful people. So, you know, that’s the reason.”
The pace of growth varies with the people pursuing it and the circumstances surrounding it. In 2022, SDSU needs to grow quickly if they are to remain on the national stage. Their first five games are their toughest stretch of the season. With inexperience at a number of positions and new faces throughout, the Aztecs need to come together in fall camp ready to play at a high level.
Coach Hoke is as energized as ever to help his players grow to reach that standard.
Achieving Balance on Offense
Arguments over the shape of SDSU’s offense have raged among fans since 2018. On social media, podcasts, and message boards, the Aztec faithful opine about the optimal attack for the Scarlett and Black. As valuable as these discussions might be, a fair evaluation of the coaching staff should involve assessing whether the coaches reached their own goals.
Coach Hoke and offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski seek balance in their offensive attack. In two seasons together on the Mesa, SDSU is still out of balance, with the ground game continuing to preoccupy opposing defenses. There are indications that 2022 could be the year this changes.
Hecklinski has run the offense for 22 games. Only once during the first 13 of those games was SDSU’s run-pass ratio within 10 attempts. On average they attempted 21.6 more rushes than passes per game (45.2 rushes to 23.6 passes) during that span. Over the last nine games, as defenses have dared the Aztecs to pass, SDSU’s run-pass ratio has been within 10 attempts seven times. The final five games of 2021, the Aztecs averaged 37.6 rushes and 32 passing attempts per contest. With the QB tucking and running after trying to throw and end-of-game rushing attempts factored in, that is as balanced as a team can be.
“Being a defensive coach, you look at what’s hurt you,” Hoke explained, describing his offensive philosophy. “A balanced attack, nobody can line up, either in the run game or the pass game. The one thing I always know in being a defensive coach is we’re going to have an offense that’s going to be able to hang onto a lead and finish a game. Whether that’s taking the time off the clock and playing to your defense a little bit … or having the ability to make the big play, in both of those scenarios, it starts at the quarterback position. In both of those scenarios, it’s your front and what they bring.”
“I think when you look at where we’re at right now, when you look at the skill positions, the quarterbacks, and the tight ends, I like where we are at. We’re going to learn a little more as we get into fall camp about up front offensively because that has been my biggest concern since the spring.”
For the past two years, SDSU has been particularly run-heavy during the first four games of each season. In those eight contests, they rushed over 40 times every game and, on three occasions, had over 50 attempts.
According to Hecklinski, the reason it took so long to achieve his desired offense is because the team was not ready to handle anything else. He is going to build his game plan around what his players, particularly his young offensive line, do best. An easy-to-see benchmark, then, of the offensive staff’s success in fall camp will be the play-calling ratio during non-conference play. If they can start the season with effective balance, the transition from the run-centered offense Rocky Long favored to the one Hoke prefers will be complete.
Transfers Fitting In On the Field
With the exception of Deven Lamp, who has been slowed by injury, the transfers coming into the program have received rave reviews for their work. All indications are they have acclimated to their teammates and the culture of the program. The depth chart reflects this fact.
While emphasizing that he does not like the transfer portal, Hoke joked that maybe he should change his mind because SDSU has benefitted so much from the new rule. The staff is high on their transfers and will depend on them to replace key pieces from their 2021 team that won 12 games.
Braxton Burmeister quickly separated himself in the QB competition. If the season started today, Justus Tavai, Cade Bennett, and Mark Redman would start at nose tackle, left guard, and tight end, respectively. Cooper McDonald would be the first substitution at SAM LB.
Last month, Hecklinski said RB Kenan Christon would likely be on the same progression as WR Tyrell Shavers a season ago. Shavers was ready to contribute halfway through the year. The USC transfer is doing everything he can to beat those expectations.
“The portal and the guys that we’ve looked at and taken off the portal have been a real positive for us,” Hoke said. “Kenan Christon, he has come in here. He has put his nose to the grindstone. He’s come in and impressed a lot of people. Same with Braxton, Cooper McDonald, Mark Redman, Justus Tavai, Cade Bennett. They’ve all come in here, and they’ve all jumped right in. Cause if you’re a new guy in the program, I guarantee you if I’m in the program already, I’m going to test you. I’m going to see what you’re all about. I think they’ve all done a very, very good job, and I’m really excited about what they’ve done. … we’ve got some really good character guys that are going to be a part of what we’re doing.”
As the season moves to its final and most important phase, the transfers have a new challenge in front of them. It is one thing to acclimate well in the offseason, it is another to have chemistry during games. The goal when they first arrived was to earn the respect of their teammates and coaches. With that accomplished, their next task is to elevate the team to a championship level.
Maturing the Offensive Line
Last year, SDSU won the most games in program history without playing a contest in San Diego County. They accomplished this feat with an inconsistent offense that ranged from very bad to very good. Too often, it was on the lower end of the effectiveness scale. As the Aztecs prepare for 2022, there is hope they will be improved at nearly every position on the offensive side of the ball.
Burmeister has already shown a better acumen as a passer than his counterparts from last season’s team. 2021 starting running back Greg Bell might be more talented than those on this year’s team, but he was also turnover prone. The backs this season can be better overall simply by securing the football. Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers return in 2021, but numerous teammates do not. This should lead to more snaps for the talented duo, and the level of play from the wide receivers could be better as a result. Expectations are for Mark Redman and Jay Rudolph to collectively replace Daniel Bellinger at tight end. The one key exception to all of this positivity is the offensive line.
Young players across college football seldom play up front because the demands of the position are more easily handled by athletes with maturity. Even phenoms, who are large enough and strong enough to play the position at an early age, have to wait because the rigors of skillfully blocking for 80 plays in a game across 12-15 contests is too much for a young person to handle, mentally and emotionally.
The Aztecs will depend on at least one young player on the offensive line in 2022. The staff thinks Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli is one of those special players who can break the rule about playing early. Amazingly, he nearly contributed last year as a true freshman. He all but cemented his hold on the starting job at right guard during spring camp.
The number of young linemen playing early balloons to two if Zavier Leonard wins the left tackle competition over Jonathan Harrison. Harrison’s age and maturity in the program make him the favorite in the camp battle. Oklahoma State transfer Cade Bennett is a redshirt sophomore entering his third season of college football. During fall camp, it is the staff’s job to coach the linemen and bring them to the level of the rest of the offense.
“I think they have done a pretty good job during the summer,” Hoke said. “I think when we get in (to camp), obviously, we’ll see where they are at. Once we get in that first inside drill or whatever, see where they are at. Alama (Uluave) and his leadership, Brandon Crenshaw, his leadership, as guys who have played and had reps, I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the guys who are there. We’ll have some tests and see what the growth’s been.”
Capitalizing on the 100th season of Aztec Football
The momentum of the 2022 season is already moving at a great pace. With the opening of Snapdragon Stadium, the Aztecs have San Diego’s attention. The appeal of the first game at their new home extends nationally, as evidenced by CBS choosing to air the contest against Arizona. Conference realignment has highlighted the reality that SDSU is already a Power 5 school in a Group of 5 conference. This buzz must be built upon to elevate SDSU to new heights.
On the field, this means winning in 2022. Off the field, the glitches that come with every new stadium must be minimized. From the traffic coordination to the sound system to the efficiency of the concession stands, everything matters.
SDSU’s football staff is not in control of all that must be done to fully capitalize on the increased interest, but they do have agency over the most essential area for the growth of the program: recruiting.
The next few recruiting classes should be among the best in program history. Higher-level recruits than ever before are considering San Diego as their home for college. At this critical juncture in SDSU history, Hoke is replacing the person who coordinates the school’s recruiting efforts. At the beginning of the summer, Hoke tapped Craig Smith to replace Matt Razzano as the Director of Player Personnel.
Hoke coached with Smith’s father, Mark, at Ball State, SDSU, and Michigan. That relationship was paramount to Smith’s ascension to his new position. Through his family, he knows the types of players that Hoke is looking for, and he can use that expertise to lead the recruiting efforts at SDSU in the coming years.
More than familiarity, Smith brings charisma, organizational know-how, and a wealth of skills to the Director of Player Personnel position. His is one of a hundred other jobs that need to come together for a successful start to the Snapdragon Era. With the early signing period five months away, Smith needs to hit the ground running.
“Craig brings so much from the standpoint of what recruiting has become,” Hoke said. “In saying that, you talk about the technology and all those things that he’s done a great job with. His demeanor, how he does things, and his organization. All those things are really a strong suit for him. I’m excited about him. Being here already … he’s known me for a long time, and he understands how I like to do things, how I like to recruit … At the same time, he’s brought some different personality to the recruiting and what we’re trying to get done.”