Juwan Washington RB
Despite having the back-to-back MWC Special Teams Player of the Year, RB Rashaad Penny, returning for the 2017 season, running back Juwan Washington may be the most exciting player to watch on the Aztec offense.
Washington put up impressive numbers in 2016, numbers that on other teams would have easily made him the primary or secondary back. He had a team high 8.0 yards per carry on 55 attempts and scored on 8.3% of his touches from scrimmage, another team high. At 5’7″, Washington was hard to find on the field not only due to his size, but also because he can line up anywhere along the line of scrimmage.
Used in the slot or backfield, Washington has excelled at pre-snap motion plays that allow him to use his speed and smaller stature to confuse defenses and give opposing coordinators fits. Don’t take Washington for a misdirection, one trick pony, however. One of the most physically impressive players on the Aztec’ team, Washington uses all 190lbs he has to shake through the tackles and deliver blows on opposing defenders. With Rashaad Penny carrying the brunt of the load this season, look for Washington to deliver the kill shots and big plays that were his trademark in 2016.
Ronley Lakalaka LB
What junior LB Ronley Lakalaka brings to the Aztecs may not show up in the stats sheet, but it will show up in the win/loss column.
Filling the hole left from four-year starter Calvin Munson would appear to be one of Rocky Long’s greatest challenges this season, but with Lakalaka stepping up, don’t expect the LB corps to skip a beat. Lakalaka was second to only Munson in tackles in 2016, and is expected to lead the team in that category for the next two seasons.
One of the team’s leaders on defense, Lakalaka brings confidence and focus to an Aztec defense that thrives on chaos. Considered undersized for the LB position, Lakalaka uses all of his 6’0″ stature to create an imposing force in the middle of the Aztec front six. Ronley’s younger brother, Seyddrick, is a highly touted incoming freshman linebacker who is expected to make an early impact for the Aztecs’ linebacker corps.
Kameron Kelly DB
The only senior on our list, Kameron Kelly is not a new name to Aztec fans.
The standout defensive back has seen the field in difference capacities over the past three seasons, but is now lining up at cornerback for the Aztecs. Kelly, a former HS quarterback, has a great football IQ and has a knack for making big plays in big games. A key INT vs CAL, a PBU in the conference championship game at Wyoming, and two highlight reel INT’s vs Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl are just a few examples of Kelly’s playmaking ability.
Filling the roll of possibly the best cornerback in San Diego State history, Kelly will need to make similar big plays in 2016 to help maintain the Aztecs’ secondary as one of the best in the country. The 6’2″ 200 lb cornerback will have the opportunity to play on an island and lock down the opposing team’s best receiver, as well as play a key roll in defending against the run game.
Ryan Pope OL
During the Aztec Spring Game this past April, one offensive lineman stood out amongst the rest, and it wasn’t just because of his 6’7″ 325 lb stature either. Junior RT Ryan Pope moves tremendously well for his size and is very light on his feet, making him a reliable pass protector and a big body to follow in the Aztecs’ run game.
After transferring from Long Beach City College in 2014, redshirting in 2015, and playing a reserve roll in 2016, Pope is ready to showcase his ability as a starter. Offensive line coach Mike Schmidt will look to Pope and RG Antonio Rosales to provide consistency and leadership on the Aztec OL. Lining up on the other end of the line, Nick Gerhard, Keith Ismael, and Tyler Roemer are large, talented offensive linemen that are still very young and inexperienced. Expect the Aztec offense to lean on Pope and the right side of the offensive line early this season while the younger linemen gel and mature.